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Bout de Souffle
Out of Breath
Marriage Anxiety in Detour
045
Sue Harvey explains to her would-be fiancé that “We’ve got all the time in the world to settle down.” Al Roberts, however, responds with nothing but silence because his goal of achieving his American dream is crushed by the one he loves. The pressure to “settle down” into the social norm of marriage is made obvious by Al’s reaction to the postponement of his vows with Sue. He ultimately walks into the foggy night, newly uncertain of his course in life. Only later, in the throes of a disturbing, fatal ordeal, does Al come face to face with an alternate to the envisioned perfection of a life with Sue: Al meets Vera, a despotic anti-bride who provides a marriage situation Al could only have nightmares about. Detour explores the desire to follow an average American life and settle down with an average woman, in contrast to the uncertainty of living life alone or with a bride who is anything but “ordinary.”

The scene that best illustrates the disruption of Al’s planned path in life takes place during the walk home from the Break O’ Dawn Club where Al and Sue work as musicians. The time is about 4am, judging by Al’s narration that work usually ends at that time, and so the break of dawn should not be literally far off. However, the backlit club sign is put out as the two lovers begin their walk into the night, foreshadowing a dark turn in tone. The music starts off airy and generally emotionless until Sue snaps “It doesn’t matter what drunk” in response to Al’s question, at which point the music takes a sour turn and becomes progressively bitter as the dialogue in the scene continues. Al, with a rare smile on his face, reminds Sue that they will be married the following week. However, his smile quickly fades as Sue reveals her discontent with their current plan. “Funny way to talk, darling,” Al says with a nervous voice. After an insert shot of a street sign to orientate the viewer of their location, the return to Sue and Al is swamped with fog, making it, at times, difficult to see much more than the outlines of their bodies. Sue proceeds to inform Al of her plan to move to Hollywood as he becomes more and more distraught and angry. “What about me?” he asks. “You’re busting up all our plans … I thought you loved me.” Al takes her change of plan very personally and is clearly upset that his plans have been disrupted. The music here is more sad and somber. After this, he is mostly silent and concise, and he bestows on Sue an emotionless goodnight kiss before walking home dejected.

The visual aspect of this scene is remarkable. The low-key lighting, with no diagetic light sources other than the occasional streetlamp, sets the sullen tone of the scene from the very start. As soon as Al asks “Don’t you want to marry me?” the image responds with an extremely dense fog that has enveloped the characters. For the first few seconds of this shot, Sue and Al are nothing more than shapes in the very-low contrast image, gradually becoming more noticeable as two people simply wandering in a gray abyss. There seems to be nothing to notice in the background besides a few vague figures in the shape of light posts and a policeman standing still. There are also several wipes between shots of Al and Sue walking. Finally, at the scene’s end, Al walks off back into the thick fog by himself.

The night-time fog coincides with the onset of confusion and anxiety in Al’s mind. Previous to this scene, Al thought he was going to marry Sue and get that requirement of his life out of the way, having not to worry about it any longer. However, with Sue’s revelation of aspirations in Hollywood, Al’s path in life becomes a much less clear. If his attitude and upset dialogue was not enough proof of how nervous the situation made him, the fog and obscured image of the scene provides solid backing that he feels pretty lost without Sue and the prospect of marriage in the near future. The basic action of the scene is to walk from the club to Sue’s apartment: to get from point A to point B. The fog presents a challenge in navigating this walk, which is an example of how a setback can throw a wrench into a man’s plans. The fog also foreshadows on a small scale that the trek to the west coast later in the film may not be completed without some unexpected detours. The wipes between the shots, not seen anywhere else in the film, seem to function to wipe something clean from the narrative. After this scene, Sue and the life she represents with Al become distant objects that Al can never hope to reach due to the tragic circumstances he encounters. After this scene and the wipes included in it, Al is on his own. He walks off into the foggy night, lonely as the sole policeman they passed earlier. He also never achieves the same love he shares with Sue in the beginning of the film, although his vision of a perfect marriage eventually surfaces in a more distorted way.

When Al and Vera become uneasy partners in crime, a bond is created between the man and woman duo. They enter into their “relationship” on dark terms. Both Al and Vera have had bad experiences with Charles Haskell Jr., who is now deceased. They meet in his very car, and Al appears shaken from the very first instant that he discovers Vera is the woman Haskell referred to earlier: “[Haskell] was sitting right there in the car laughing like mad while he haunted me!” The means of Vera’s introduction to Al is hardly the way a legitimate couple meets. However, Vera, sneering and abusive as she is, eventually grows used to Al although she never ceases to berate him. She constantly belts out orders at him, and tells him what he can and cannot do. For example, when Al tries to open a window in the room they rent, she immediately marches over, slams the window, and growls “Keep the window shut!” to which Al can only respond with a docile “Okay.” Furthering the nightmare of marriage that is created by their relationship, Vera becomes “Mrs. Charles Haskell,” a fake wife to the imposter Al has become. Their pseudo-married-couple discourse constantly degrades into little more than arguments and threats. Al himself draws the connection to marriage with Vera in his narration:

If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her, and make a respectable woman out of her, or else she’d make some supreme class-A sacrifice for me and die. Sue and I would bawl a little over her grave and make some crack about there’s good in all of us. But Vera, unfortunately, was just as rotten in the morning as she’d been the night before.

Al considered the possibility of marrying Vera if only she wasn’t a vicious femme fatale, an inverse of the way Sue is portrayed. Whereas Sue was generally submissive to Al, Vera constantly asserts her dominance. When Al and Vera take Haskell’s car to the dealership, Al tells her not to say a word. When they get there, she does almost all of the talking, while Al proves useless in dealing with the insurance problem. Vera then proposes the plan to inherit Haskell’s fortune, once again showing that she is in control of the relationship. This is a stark contrast to the male dominance in married couples, especially in the 1940s before feminist philosophies truly came to fruition.

Even when Vera makes subtle advances at Al, he never gives in. In the back of his mind, he is still not over Sue and their lost relationship. It is assumed that Sue said she would marry Al when he got to Hollywood, but Haskell’s death on the trip over erased any chance of an easy marriage to Sue. Al does not want to settle with Vera in any way, because he realizes that his relationship with her is nothing more than a vile, distorted picture of a marriage that he can never live. It came nowhere close to the normality he envisioned with Sue:

I was an ordinary, healthy guy, and she was an ordinary, healthy girl, and when you add those two together you get an ordinary, healthy romance, which is the old story, sure, but somehow the most wonderful thing in the world.

Al’s dream of partaking in this “old story” never manifests; he and Sue never achieve this normal life with a normal marriage. Whereas Sue is a dream wife in Al’s mind, Vera is nothing more than a nightmare: an agent of an evil duplicate reality that he was forced into. The twisted pseudo-marriage that Al was trapped in with Vera was so binding that the only way he could break free was to ultimately kill her, as accidental as it was.

The film is ultimately about a trip from the east coast to the west and the unfortunate detour that upset Al’s journey. But it was not simply Al’s means of literally reuniting with Sue that were dashed; a more figurative detour was imposed on his life and his plans to begin a socially-acceptable marriage between an “ordinary, healthy” guy and gal. Al’s biggest detour was the diversion from the societal norm he faced, which began not with Haskell’s death, but with Sue’s relocation to Hollywood. It just so happened that this detour led to a bumpy alternate route: a perverted and distorted anti-marriage to Vera. Vera was, in several ways, the opposite of Sue and presented Al with the type of marital fears a man could only hope to avoid: nagging, disparagement, and animosity. Al was headed down a road too offset from the societal norm he envisioned, being guilty of identity theft. His journey and mental stress could only be resolved by an inevitable encounter with the police, however arbitrarily it was portrayed.



Based on the film Detour, 1945, written by Martin Goldsmith; Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

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