When Ann Savage’s Vera shoots you a look, it leaves exit wounds.
Her fourth-wall-shattering stare into the camera—which seems to represent Al Roberts’s point-of-view—flies at the audience like an accusation, a castrating return of the male gaze. Or like a handful of rusty nails. Take your pick.
After she’s sat there so still against the blur of the landscape through Roberts’s voice-over monologue, that slow turn of her head is almost uncanny.
She knows you’re judging her, audience. And she is pissed.
I won’t print exactly what I think Vera’s saying with that look. Suffice to say, Vera can cuss with a glance. With a full-on glare, she hurls a fine and fragrant assortment of expletives.
From the moment Vera gets into Roberts’s (stolen) car, we know she means trouble—yet there’s something engaging and, dare I say, appealing in her attitude, her gritty, run-down antagonism. Her incandescent rage imbues her with a proto-punk allure.
Roberts opens the dialogue in neutral mode: “How far you goin’?” Vera spits the question back at him—the exact same words, now a dare. “How far you goin’?” She growls.
Ulmer presents this key exchange simply; the camera on the hood of the car shows the faces of both actors. However, whereas Roberts glances over at Vera when he delivers his line, she stares fixedly forward, a greasy strand of hair flapping over her face (like a Veronica Lake hairdo saturated in lard). Only after she’s spoken does Vera give Roberts a blast of her blowtorch-like side eye.
From there Vera’s rage hijacks the movie, twisting it from a tale of destiny and lost love into a weirdly cathartic hostage situation. After we’ve spent half the movie with mopey loser Roberts, Vera’s rabid eyes and hardboiled ultimatums deliver giddy and surprising delights.
Her sulfuric personality hits the audience like an injection of something they don’t carry at your local drugstore. She energizes the viewer, stinging him into caring more than he thought he could about a little PRC cheapie. Or maybe I should say the female viewer? Because I’d argue that Vera is a derailed vengeance fantasy for the put-upon broads of the world.
Now, I realize that Edgar Ulmer personally loved the weak, self-defeating, Chopin-playing, Fate-blaming Roberts character and wanted us to sympathize with him. But who says spectators have to cooperate?
And, furthermore, who says that a movie can’t be more complex and unstable in meaning than its director intended? Not me, that’s for sure. I never trust an auteur anyway.
We don’t find out what private hell Vera’s running away from or why she’s so damn angry. However, the smarmy shyster who picks up Rogers gives us a strong hint when he implies that giving Vera a lift entitled him to certain… rights. Rights which Vera challenged by taking a claw-ful of flesh out of the slimy driver’s hand.
This assault and defense has a creepy parallel in Ann Savage’s life. Once, when frequent co-star Tom Neal was trying to impress some friends of his who visited him on the set of an earlier film, Neal leaned in towards Savage, as if to say something, and stuck his tongue in her ear. Being the tough gal she was, Savage hauled off and slapped him. Quite hard, bless her. One can imagine that the incident added to the glee with which Savage persecutes Neal onscreen in Detour.
It’s as though all the anger and outrage that women have allowed to fester for millennia had condensed into a tiny nuclear core inside Vera, ready to explode Big Bang-like and bring the curtain down on the universe as we know it.
You get the feeling that Vera’s bottled up so much rage in her life that she could probably sell it as perfume—Eau So Pissed.
Ann Savage plays Vera as a grunge fury, a filthy, greedy, feral, voracious, violent dame. She’s every man’s nightmare—a bad girl who behaves like a bad guy, who seems to have appropriated all the vices of the men she’s encountered.
Consider her tipsy, freshly-bathed come-ons to Roberts, echoing the kind of sleazy talk she’s probably been on the receiving end of many times. Vera wants power in every sense. Heck, even her hair hogs the screen space, blocking Roberts as they quarrel in the diner parking lot. As Savage explained about the character, “She is mean. She wants to be boss. She’s a real B-I-T-C-H.”
During an era that fetishized both domesticity and radiant glamour, Vera doesn’t cleanly fit into either of the patterns set out for her (then again, one could debate whether she does anything cleanly). She’s certainly not wife/mother material, nor is she a desirable bombshell in the femme fatale mold. Through Vera, Detour satirizes both roles for women and the social norms that go with them. It’s not hard to recognize Vera’s suffocating, guilty bond with Roberts as a parody of marriage.
And, even when Vera’s all dolled up, nearly everything about her, from her blatant barking of orders to the way she daubs powder all over her face, clashes with the cool passive aggression of noir sirens like Kathie Moffats and Kitty Collins. Angry though they may be, some improbable code of ladylike behavior (or perhaps tragic apathy) constrains them from rebelling outright.
Because she fails to conform to either of society’s options for her, Vera lives on the margins of society. Our first glimpses of Vera reinforce her position as an outsider—she’s a speck through a windshield, then a hooker-like figure on the side of the frame as Roberts pumps gas.
Her status as a hitchhiker, not particularly odd these days, would have shocked audiences in the 1940s. As Ann Savage remembered, “Women never hitchhiked rides. It was unheard of. Only the hobos did that, the men.” In other words, lowly though her existence is, Vera dwells in an undeniably male-dominated world and a largely untamed space.
I consider Vera to be noir’s most subversive femme fatale, a repellent yet magnetic calamity of a woman whose unfettered ferocity makes us realize just how conventional so many other bad girls really were.