September is the month when summer fades—and the night begins again to take hold. So what better time to screen some classic—and less than classic—examples of film noir?
Until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself.—Al Roberts, Detour
If anything defines a noir sensibility, it’s the notion that at some point, you lose control over your fate—if indeed you ever had it. And typically, it’s an outside force—a woman, a bad deal, an unlucky break, a stranger, that sends the protagonist spinning down to his doom.
Out of the Past and Detour are two very different films, one an A-list picture by an esteemed director, Jacques Tournier, and with a star like Robert Mitchum, with extensive location filming and a top-shelf script. Detour was done on the cheap, with laughingly poor production values and a cast headed by two no-names. But both are about the slow, inexorable destruction of a man and a life.
The key difference is that Out of the Past’s Jeff Bailey, as played (or wonderfully underplayed) by Mitchum, is self-aware enough to know that his choices are leading down a long road with no turn and this hope of salvation with girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) is a pipe dream, a bedtime story. Early in the film, soon after meeting Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat, Baily quickly declares his surrender. “Baby, I don’t care,” he tells her. He’s made his pact. That’s the heart of noir: Making a choice you know is wrong but making it anyway.
Detour’s Al Roberts (Tom Neal), on the other hand, is a sap, a fall guy from beginning to end, continually saved by his own haplessness and inertia. Wherein Bailey (eventually) knows what Kathie is up to and works to subvert her, Roberts is openly manipulated and practically held captive by the scheming Vera (Ann Savage). In this couple, Vera is the self-aware one, Roberts the victim.  “You look just like a Phoenix girl,” Roberts tells her after he picks her up on the highway. “Are all the girls that bad?” she replies.
Kathie lacks that self-awareness; she’s simply a survivor, someone who constantly justifies her betrayals in that context. She’s a user—and that gives her a power that the more desperate Vera lacks. In that film, it’s Bailey who sees her for who she is. “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” Ann tells him. “She comes the closest,” Bailey responds, more with resignation than poison. It may be why Bailey’s fate, ultimately is worse. He’s a willing engineer in his downfall, not a bystander like Roberts.
Out of the Past—now out on Blu Ray–is the more celebrated film–and with good reason. While Detour can’t rise above its status as a late-nite cult film, Tournier’s movie is increasingly viewed as a classic on the level of some of Hollywood’s best. It was one of the first movies I wrote about on this blog, some six years ago, along with its flawed cousin, Against All Odds.
That 1980s-era remake gets some of the small stuff right (Jeff Bridges, James Woods), but, in retrospect, misses the point entirely. That film is severed from its noir roots by its unwillingness to embrace the existential darkness while also stripping its characters of any agency. We feel for Mitchum’s Bailey because we understand the sense of being swept away by the undertow of our own desires. The remake never gets that, never takes risks with its leads. Because of that, Jeff Bridges’ character feels every bit the sap that Neal’s Al Roberts is–a man entirely at the mercy of events–but at least Detour stays true to its noir soul with an ending that is as abrupt as it is unsparing. Or put another way, no Phil Collins song plays over the end credits.
 Some readings of Detour argue that Roberts is an unreliable narrator, that he’s telling a more sympathetic version of a tale than what actually occurred. And that lines up with Roberts’ sense of victimization.
 And also, Alex Karras. I mean, come on.