By Wade Sheeler
For film noir fanatics and fans, Detour is well known, well discussed and well argued. It’s considered one of the great film noirs of all time, embracing the doomed characters, existential plot line and visual expressionism borne from the German silent cinema. But with all the critical hoopla and reverence, is it a film that stands the test of time? Or more importantly, can it entertain a casual filmgoer as much as the ardent cinema enthusiast?
Filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer was an under-appreciated workhorse, directing ultra-low budget films outside of the studio system throughout most of his American career. Born in the Czech Republic, of Austrian-Jewish heritage, he labored in the art department for the greatest German films– although his credits are still, to this day, under suspicion. Either way, there’s no denying he came to the States with F.W. Murnau in 1926 to assist in the production of what some consider the greatest silent film of all time, Sunrise.
As a director, he took any and all work that would come his way, whether it was educational two-reelers about the horrors of venereal disease, or Ukrainian “ethnic films.” He was known for shooting fast and dirty, and yet still found ways to offer up visually stunning, subversive “cheapies” better than anyone cranking them out on Poverty Row– the B-movie studios that came and went from the late 1920s through the 1950s. His first major studio film, 1934’s The Black Cat was the biggest money maker that year for Universal, but his affair with one of Universal President Carl Laemmle’s in-laws blackballed him from the big studio lots for the rest of his career.
But Ulmer wanted to work, and his output was quite extraordinary, although a good percentage of his films have been lost over time, due to the small regard they had with the general public. In 1945, Ulmer was charged with directing the adaptation of a little known 1939 novel. PRC (Producer’s Releasing Corporation), one of the most destitute of the Poverty Row studios, never spent more than $100,000 on any film, including advertising and distribution. Their films often showed up as bargain-basement level second features in theaters across the country. PRC specialized in genre films, cranking out westerns, horror and noirs weekly.
Detour was, supposedly, produced for around $20,000 and made in six days, but research has revealed it could have been closer to $100,000 and shot over two weeks. Still– that’s a remarkable feat for 1945. Filmed almost entirely using shabby sets on after-hours sound stages, with only a handful of exteriors, this claustrophobic story of a doomed hitchhiker has a dingy, sweaty feel that only serves its fatalistic theme all the better. Al Roberts, a bitter piano player, has to part with his nightclub singing girlfriend when she strikes out to make it in Hollywood. Desperate and lonely, he cobbles enough money together to thumb rides across the country in order to rejoin her. Told in voice over and flashbacks, we already know he’s doomed from the down-on-his luck point of view that sets the film’s tone from the start. A chance ride with a seemingly affable salesman ends up in tragedy when the driver dies.
Roberts, sure that he’ll be pinned for the death, hides the body in the desert during a torrential downpour, and continues on with the dead man’s car and articles; assuming his identity. He picks up a woman hitchhiker, Vera, a hard-edged drinker who soon reveals she knows Robets is not who he says; she had been traveling with the dead man before Roberts even came along. Holding the crime over his head, she blackmails him into staying and doing her bidding in a perversely personal and twisted nightmare. Their arrival in Hollywood is no longer the anticipated reuniting with Robert’s love that he had hoped, but instead, a doomed cycle of dysfunction that plays out as one might expect. Detour is produced on such a shoe-string budget, with little or no retakes, that the film is riddled with gaffes and continuity mistakes, including several “flipped” shots that attempt to establish Roberts facing left, forcing an east to west perspective.
This really plays havoc with the hitchhiking scenes, where Roberts gets in on the left side of the car, with the driver and steering wheel on the right. Ulmer pushes to extreme closeups and forces dramatic lighting changes to communicate flashbacks or time changes; these effects are more akin to the trappings of live “early” television shows than 1940s film production. The lead actor, Tom Neal, was a Poverty Row staple, appearing in such immortal classics as Jungle Girl and The Brute Man. His performance style is “distracted” to say the least. Vera, though, portrayed by B-Movie staple Ann Savage, is the embodiment of her name. A true femme fatale, she is rotten to the core, and plays it with ravenous abandon.
Detour was one of the first films selected for preservation through the US National Film Registry, and its strange history continues to reflect contradictions as it is in the public domain, with most prints in desperate need of a true restoration. Even though it can be streamed for free on YouTube, Detour has been recently released through Film Chest Media Group in a purported “digitally restored” version. There’s no question this print is an upgrade from the previous versions seen on television and easily downloaded online, but, it is still in a denigrated state. As much as the print quality plays well into its dark and dreary tone, Detour is really a film for the ardent enthusiast. The subtleties of its intended subversion and the anachronisms of its period will most probably be lost on the casual viewer.
A truly deep dive into Edgar Ulmer’s filmography, and an unearthing of his films, is greatly needed. Cinephiles deserve it, as film historians have successfully argued that sometimes the greatest testament to Hollywood’s bygone era is not measured by its big studio releases, but its small, independent artists who had the freedom and flexibility to shine a more revealing and accurate spotlight on the failings and foibles of modern society.