The book vs. the movie. Always interesting to compare the relative merits of a film to the written text its story is based upon. For me as for many, the book usually wins this battle. I can think of some examples of the opposite being true in my opinion, though. One striking example is The Last Detail; nothing at all wrong with Darryl Poniscan’s 1969 novel, but to my mind it’s merely a decent book while Hal Ashby’s 1973 movie of the same title, starring Jack Nicholson who is simply perfect in his role, is a stone classic.
Then there’s Detour. Despite the opening paragraph here, I’m not going to spend much time comparing Martin M. Goldsmith’s 1939 novel with the film version from ’45 that was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. The comparison would be unfair to the book. For one thing, I just now got around to reading the novel (what took me so long?) whereas I first watched the movie (which I’ve now seen maybe six or seven time) years (decades?) ago. For another, the big screen version is possibly my single favorite example of my favorite type of movie (film noir, duh). Also, because I’d seen the movie before reading the book, I didn’t get all of the suspense aspect I could have from the read, and tension is a big part of what drives the tale. The book never had a chance.
Still, taken unto itself and compared to other literary works of its kind, Detour is a hell of a novel. And it’s an unheralded classic of noir fiction. It’s as tough as the film. In fact it’s rawer, with one female character talking about using a douche after a roll in the hay with a guy, and another character smoking dope while he drives down the highway. It’s moving in its grimness, just like the film, and has the same kind of bleak outlook that is a hallmark of top shelf noir. I’ll back that last claim up with some passages from the book in a second here, but first a little context for those who don’t know the story:
One main player is Al Roth: a musician (pianist in the movie, violinist in the book) who falls in love with a cute chorus girl at a New York club where they both work. Al wants the girl (Sue) to marry him, Sue’s willing, but before she weds Al or anyone else Sue wants to go to Hollywood and take a crack at making a name for herself there. The idea is that Al will eventually join her in Tinseltown and they’ll walk off into the California sunset together. But Al (full name Alexander, and he goes by Alex in the book and Al in the film) has some trouble when he finally gets around to making his way out to L.A.
Hitch-hiking, he gets picked up in Arizona by a well-heeled bookie who is going to L.A. himself and doesn’t mind taking Al and even treating him to a nice steak dinner on the way. All’s going well except for the worrisome fact that Al notices all these scratch marks on the guy (Charlie Haskell). But that’s nothing compared to the full-scale trouble Al finds himself in when Haskell dies during the trip. The cause of Haskell’s death is something I’ll let people who haven’t seen the movie or read the book discover on their own, but suffice to say that due to Haskell’s abrupt passing Al is left in a dire predicament: it would look to anybody like he killed Haskell for his loot, so he feels he has no choice but to leave the guy’s body in a ditch, change into his clothes, stuff his wallet into his own pocket and assume Haskell’s identity as he continues to make his way to his beloved.
Ok, so here are some of Al’s decidedly noir-ish thoughts as all this is going down, from the book:
Start your sermon. I’ll listen to it. But I know what you’re going to hand me even before you open your mouths. You’re going to tell me that I’m nothing but a common tramp, a thief and a no-good grave-robber. You’re going to say you don’t believe my story of how Haskell met his death, and give me that don’t-make-me-laugh expression on your smug faces. You’re going to say, “Roth, for God’s sake, why not make a clean breast of it? You’re not kidding anyone.” You’re going to harp on that old gag about confession being good for the soul.
Or maybe you’re going to break open the hymnal and tell me I should have waited for the police and had faith in the Lord? I’m not sacrilegious, but even if the Lord is my shield and my buckler, who the hell is going to be my attorney?
Now don’t try to tell me that man is master of his own destiny. What happened to Haskell proves that you never can tell what’s in the cards for you, and the road you aim to take nine times out of 10 turns out to be a blind alley; either that, or it leads someplace quite different. If you think I’m all wet in this theory, you’ll have to show me where.
One huge difference between the book and the movie is that the former offers direct perspective from a second character. Whereas the film is squarely and singularly directed on Al’s troubles and Sue is a side character who only pops up on the screen a few times, parts of the novel are narrated by Sue (the others by Al). So in the book you get to see all that goes down with her as she tries to find her way in Hollywood. Her character is much more developed in the novel than it is in the film (okay, one point for the book in the comparison I said I wasn’t going to make). In Goldsmith’s novel, Sue is just as streetwise as Al, maybe more so. Just listen to her hardboiled chatter as she reflects on her surroundings in Hollywood:
It seemed scarcely believable, but only a few months before I too had thought Hollywood a glamorous place. I had arrived so thoroughly read-up on the misinformation of the fan magazines that it took me a full week before I realized that the “Mecca” was no more than a jerkwater suburb which publicity had sliced from Los Angeles – a suburb peopled chiefly by out and out hicks (the kind of dumbbells who think they are being wild and sophisticated if they stay up all night) or by Minnesota farmers and Brooklyn smart alecks who think they know it all. I soon saw that there were two classes of society: the suckers, like myself, who had come to take the town; and the slickers who had come to take the suckers. Both groups were plotters and schemers and both on the verge of starvation.
Of course, anyone who’s seen the film version of Detour knows that it’s another character who’s mostly responsible for the movie being such a gem of noir.
Vera, a hitch-hiker Al picks up when he’s on his own and pretending to be Haskell, is one of the more memorable femmes fatales to ever sneer on the big screen. Ann Savage is positively on fire portraying the hard-talking, tough-as-nails young woman whom the perpetually unfortunate Al is unlucky enough to encounter on the road. Score a big one for the movie there (ok, clearly I can’t help myself but make some comparisons). While Vera is just as mean in the book as she is in the film, and although some of her best lines from the latter come straight out of the former, you just really don’t get the full experience of this hardass broad until you see and hear Savage spitting out her bitter lines and making her contorted facial expressions on the screen. Still, if you hadn’t seen the movie and you read the book, you would call Vera a standout example of a literary hard-nosed dame.
Martin M. Goldsmith is not a name that gets thrown around enough when people talk and write about some of the better purveyors of classic noir fiction. Goldsmith not only wrote this superb novel that served as the basis of one of the better cinematic examples of the genre (and he had a big role in the writing of the screenplay). He also co-penned the story that was the foundation of the classic 1952 film noir The Narrow Margin (he got an Oscar nomination for that). For good measure, the enigmatic Goldsmith contributed scripts to The Twilight Zone. Not much is known about the author, and this only makes him more interesting to me. But this much I can tell you: his 1939 novel Detour is an ace work of noir fiction.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.