Day 9 of Noirvember: Al Roberts in Detour (1945)

Today’s Noirvember post shines the spotlight on one unlucky dude – Al Roberts in Detour (1945).


Luckless, loser Al.

New York piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hitch-hikes his way across the country to reunite with his singer-girlfriend, who made the trek to the Golden State to try her hand at the big time. Unfortunately, Al’s trip isn’t exactly smooth sailing, and he runs into more trouble than a cross-eyed jack rabbit during hunting season. (Or something like that. You get the idea.) As Al himself observes, “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” And he oughta know. Whether it’s because of the driver he hitches a ride with, or because of the hitch-hiker he picks up along the way, Al encounters sinister situations and makes dopey decisions, one after another.


When we first see Al, he’s hitching a ride into Reno, Nevada, where he stops to grab a cup of coffee and a bite at a local diner. Unkempt, unshaven, and sporting a funky attitude, he snarls at the waitress, barks at a fellow customer (“My mother told me to never speak to strangers!”), and then launches into a flashback that gives us an idea of why he looks and acts the way he does.


He’s a walking, talking bad luck charm. Loser with a capital ‘L.’ But you can’t help feeling sorry for him. And you certainly can’t forget him. This story is presented entirely from Al’s point of view, and the tale he shares with us is one of a luckless dude who can’t catch a break. But there’s another possibility – that Al is actually selling us a bill of goods and that he’s not quite as innocent as he appears to be – that maybe what he tells us is an accident is really on purpose, if you get my drift. Anyway, it’s this duplicitous potential that makes Al even more fascinating, and even more riveting to see in action.


“Did you ever want to forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory, or blot it out? You can’t, you know – no matter how hard you try. You can change the scenery. But sooner or later you’ll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe hum something. Then you’re licked again!”


Thomas Carroll Neal, Jr., was born on January 18, 1914, in Evanston, Illinois, the first of two children born to Mary Martin Neal and her wealthy banker husband. Tom attended Northwestern University and earned a law degree from Harvard; his parents wanted him to become a lawyer, but Tom had other plans. After his graduation, he did summer theater in the Catskills and appeared in a number of short-lived productions, including Spring Dance, starring Jose Ferrer. He got his big break while playing a featured role in Love Is Not Simple, attracting the attention of an MGM talent scout. Before you could say “Bob’s your uncle,” Tom sailed through a screen test and signed a studio contact. He made his screen debut in Out West with the Hardys (1938), the fourth in the long-running Andy Hardy series, and stepped into the shadows of noir seven years later with his starring role in Detour. Sadly, Neal’s life off screen was more like a movie than the films in which he appeared; for more on his story, click here.

And join me in the shadows tomorrow for Day 10 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 9, 2021.

10 Responses to “Day 9 of Noirvember: Al Roberts in Detour (1945)”

  1. Nice choice. Al Roberts is Noir’s ultimate loser protagonist. A defeatist schlub who ponders his miserable luck in the ultimate “why me?” voice-over and who decides again and again to do something that could easily have been avoided. His woe-is-me fatalism is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I’ve never been the biggest Ann Savage fan and here to me she’s one femme fatale I find almost off-putting. When she gets strangled I thought, lady, you had that coming a long long time.

    For those two reasons Detour is far from my favorite Noir. (I can see the eggs fly at me now).

    • Thank you, Margot! I loved your comments (and I had to laugh at your reaction to Vera getting strangled)! I actually have never seen Ann Savage in anything else (that I know of), and I love her in this. She’s just so over-the-top, bat-poop crazy that I can’t keep my eyes off of her!

  2. There is a certain noir dynamic where the more passive the male protagonist is, the more aggressive the femme fatale becomes. ‘Detour’ took that dynamic to a nightmarish extreme. The aptly named Ann Savage’s femme fatale is so weirdly vicious she isn’t a real person. Tom Neal’s character denies all responsibility, and that leads to a form of self-destruction by inertia. Is the world out to get Al Roberts, or does consistently denying responsibility catch up with him?

    • You make a lot of good points.
      “Self-destruction by inertia” describes it very well. Al Roberts refuses to take any responsibility for any of his actions. In his opinion, it’s of course much easier to blame fate for his bad luck, instead of himself for making the same mistake over and over again.

  3. I would say, Poor Tom Neal, but I’m sure Franchot Tone would disagree!

  4. The link to his bio doesn’t work for me; could you repost it somewhere again?

  5. Indeed. When do poor choices become Fate?

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