Most critics of “Detour” have taken Al’s story at face value: He was unlucky in love, he lost the good girl and was savaged by the bad girl, he was an innocent bystander who looked guilty even to himself. But the critic Andrew Britton argues a more intriguing theory in Ian Cameron’s Book of Film Noir. He emphasizes that the narration is addressed directly to us: We’re not hearing what happened, but what Al Roberts wants us to believe happened. It’s a “spurious but flattering account,” he writes, pointing out that Sue the singer hardly fits Al’s description of her, that Al is less in love than in need of her paycheck, and that his cover-up of Haskell’s death is a rationalization for an easy theft. For Britton, Al’s version illustrates Freud’s theory that traumatic experiences can be reworked into fantasies that are easier to live with.
Maybe that’s why “Detour” insinuates itself so well–why audiences respond so strongly. The jumps and inconsistencies of the narrative are nightmare psychology; Al’s not telling a story, but scurrying through the raw materials, assembling an alibi. Consider the sequence where Al buries Haskell’s body and takes his identity. Immediately after, Al checks into a motel, goes to sleep, and dreams of the very same events: It’s a flashback side-by-side with the events it flashes back to, as if his dream mind is doing a quick rewrite.