****/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
screenplay by Martin Goldsmith, based on his novel
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
by Bryant Frazer Among legitimate Hollywood classics, Detour is about as threadbare as they come: a small film, shot on a shoestring over a handful of days (between six and 14, depending on whose accounting you believe) at a Poverty Row film studio. And yet, the finished product is uniquely compelling. As a crime thriller, it's notable for the absence of gunfights, chase scenes, double-crosses, and back-stabbings. What it's lacking in film noir's usual narrative detail or expressionistic flourishes is compensated for by its overarching preoccupation with determinism and a healthy contempt for fate. Amplifying and accompanying the slow-building sense of despair and helplessness is an internal-monologue-in-voiceover that's unrelentingly dreary and self-pitying, even for noir. Detour isn't remotely sexy or exciting, though it is amply dour and uncomfortably personal--disturbing, even, in its spare vision.
Clearly scripted for shooting on the cheap, Detour is concerned with Al Roberts (Neal), a soul-sick piano player in Manhattan who quits his thankless nightclub gig to follow his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake, then most recently seen as Joseph Goebbels's girlfriend in Monogram Pictures' Enemy of Women), across the country, catching rides through the desert before arriving, eventually, in Los Angeles. But fate takes a hard swing at him along the way. Al gets a ride with a scarred tough guy named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) that goes nightmarishly wrong, implicating him in an apparent murder; later, stern, sharp-eyed hitch-hiker Vera (Savage) sees through Al's deliberately cavalier façade and starts poking at the now fearful, raw emotions underneath. "She looked like she'd been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world," Al says, but what he really means is that Savage looks like she could kick his ass. Her eyebrows, diving sharply towards the centre of her face, are drawn at such a severe angle that she seems perpetually alert and angry, her expression pinched into a grimace. She reminded me of the ukiyo-e artist Tōshūsai Sharaku's portraits of intensely expressive kabuki actors. In the car seat next to her, an increasingly depressed-looking Neal is all narrow eyes and paranoid, sideways-shifting glances, a man on the run from a crime he didn't commit. Vera twigs to his secret early on, but she's not so quick to offer him the benefit of the doubt. That's no help to Al, who is increasingly consumed by his conscience. Vera threatens to report Al to the police as a killer, and that's all the leverage she needs: a real killer wouldn't be nearly as easy to control and exploit as the floundering Al.
Every film noir needs a femme fatale, and Vera is Detour's. She's no object of desire--despite her occasional flirty advances, Al can't stand her. Unfortunately, they need each other. Vera's evolving plan to cash in on Al's misfortune requires his cooperation; Al imagines that his ability to elude prosecution requires Vera's street smarts. ("There's a cute little gas chamber waiting for you," she reminds him when he tries to wriggle out of her scheme.) All the while, Al still thinks of himself as Sue's guy, mainly because the erstwhile girlfriend he imagines waiting to take his phone call is the only ticket he can afford out of existential despair. About that girlfriend: Though Al's hard luck and Vera's grasping instincts are noir staples, the film's narrative is oddly structured. The romance between Al and Sue that's carefully established, at length, in the first act simply disintegrates as soon as she leaves New York. Even when he reaches Los Angeles, Al can't bear to contact Sue until he's extricated himself from the Vera situation. In the meantime, his adversarial relationship with Vera is characterized by constant banter that pointedly parodies marital bickering. For all the room it makes for Al's po-faced whining about his circumstances ("Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you," he mewls at the film's conclusion), there is an undercurrent of self-reflexive humour that's a big part of Detour's enduring appeal. The most widely cited example comes as a restless but unremarkable semi-romantic score, complete with saxophone solo, plays under a scene where Vera tries to cheer Al up. Peering out the window, he complains, "I wish that guy with the sax would give up. It gets on my nerves."
But there's really not a lot of story here. The novel included a second narrative that followed Sue's new life in L.A. alongside the details of Al's odyssey to meet her there. It's unclear whether Ulmer shot those scenes and edited them out or if he had the foresight to remove them from the shooting script before they were filmed in order to save money. Just how cheap the production was is open to dispute--Ulmer's claim that it was shot in six days may be another case of myth-building, as studio records apparently reflect an 18-day shoot. Yet Ulmer's ingenuity and imagination are as much in evidence as his thrift. The economy of the film's visual execution is an inspired necessity--Manhattan is little more than a street sign in the fog; Los Angeles is just a car lot, the interior of a dingy apartment, and some rear projection. Those spare settings come across almost as stark details in a dream, however, their sparseness indicating a world gone fuzzy around the edges. And sometimes Ulmer really does seem to have art on his mind. In that car lot, a price negotiation with the dealer is depicted, without dialogue, from a camera angle where the back of the salesman's arm, clad in a houndstooth jacket, blocks most of Neal's face, save one eyeball. It's an eccentric decision for a film that has to make every shot count. Ulmer was clearly aided in all this by Benjamin Kline, a fast-moving DP specializing in westerns and Three Stooges shorts. (How fast-moving? His IMDb credits include no fewer than seven films released in 1945, three of which were directed by Ulmer.)
As an example of the kind of detail Ulmer and Kline paid attention to, look at the shot where Neal wakes up from a nightmare. The camera pulls back far enough from the bed to reveal not just the motel room where he was sleeping, but also the ceiling overhead, with the shadows cast there by the window blinds--a film noir cliché before film noir had clichés. Or consider (SPOILER!) Vera's death pose. The cause of death--accidental strangulation by telephone cord--may test willing suspension of disbelief, but its aftermath is classical. As Ulmer renders the scene, Savage is posed classically in her repose, like one of those marble-cut dames frozen in old graveyard statuary, having thrown herself across a lover's tomb. Al's vision goes fuzzy. Light and shadow stab across the frame on diagonals, insinuating Heaven and Hell as he shuffles across the apartment, his face falling under darkness.
Flash forward in the next shot to a simple roadside diner that suggests purgatory, and the darkness at the edge of town that feels like the death of hope. "Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed," Al muses, passive to the last, imagining the cops finally coming for him. The scene has a much-remarked-upon ambiguity, as we're not sure whether we're seeing a real event in the film's world, or if Al's just envisioning how it will all end. It plays as a relief. If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, one theory runs that he's an unreliable narrator from start to finish, making up excuses for his run of hard luck and conjuring a backstory that exaggerates his innocence as well as, maybe, the degree of Sue's romantic investment in him. Although Detour runs a slender 68 minutes, you can get lost in it. It's just hard to shake, and Al, surely among the saddest of Hollywood sad sacks, is a whole mood by himself.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
After Detour fell into the public domain, audiences grew accustomed to seeing it under less-than-ideal circumstances--usually sourced from dupey, high-contrast 16mm prints with missing frames and film damage aplenty. The idea of a proper restoration had been elusive but tantalizing, given the difficulty of finding high-quality 35mm elements. The breakthrough came with the discovery of a first-generation nitrate print held in a Belgian film archive; that print was scanned at 4K, and digital restoration techniques were used to replace and/or paint out the parts of each frame marred by subtitles. The audio, meanwhile, was remastered from the optical tracks on four different film prints (one 16mm and three 35mm). Criterion's release thus represents the best possible version of Detour, albeit presented at 1080p resolution rather than 4K. The results are, as you might expect, revelatory. Detour absolutely holds its own against other, more generously-budgeted films noirs from the era. Film grain is apparent but well-encoded (with an average video bitrate of 35.7 Mbps), and dynamic range is healthy from start to finish. Black levels are solid and deep, without apparent crushing (especially in nighttime shots), and highlights are extended in the daylight exteriors without coming anywhere near clipping. In other words, contrast is healthy though not artificially pumped.
Sound quality is every bit as impressive, with just the right degree of aural alchemy applied to the uncompressed LPCM audio. High frequencies may have been rolled off a touch to reduce harshness, sibilance, and/or distortion, but the results are exceptionally smooth and ear-pleasing through the rest of the spectrum. Moreover, the noise floor is kept strictly under control--hiss is never a distraction and crackle and other aberrations are basically inaudible. This would qualify as an exceptional version of any film from 1945; that it's an exceptional version of Detour, a movie synonymous with cinematic grunge, makes it that much more satisfying to have it available for viewing in a nearly pristine version.
Special features are led by 2004's standard-def doc Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, one of those extras that has a longer running time (76 minutes) than the movie it accompanies. It's a helpful, if somewhat eccentric, overview of Ulmer's life and times, featuring interviews with his daughter Arianné Ulmer Cipes, biographer Noah Isenberg, and actors Ann Savage, John Saxon, Peter Marshall, James Lydon, and William Schallert. Also weighing in are Austrian Film Museum director Alexander Horwath, film historians Christian Cargnelli, Tom Weaver, and Gregory Mank, and filmmakers such as Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, and Wim Wenders. Wenders calls Vera "a revolutionary female character" and notes, dryly, "That's where half of Tarantino's casting ideas came from." Savage gets right to the point, calling Vera "a real b-i-t-c-h." The piece spends some time trying to unearth documentation to prove exactly how much time and money was actually spent on Detour, but Cipes is skeptical that studio records can be trusted, noting that studios would often transfer costs from other productions into a shoot that came in under budget. Peter Bogdanovich, meanwhile, defends his own myth-making, resumé-padding 1970 interview with Ulmer: "I interviewed the people, they said what they said," he shrugs. "If it doesn't always jibe [with reality], that's not my department." Print the legend.
A 2018 Detour-focused interview with Noah Isenberg (21 mins.), author of the book Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, proffers a more academic overview of Ulmer's career, starting with his work as a set designer for Max Reinhardt in Germany and with William Wyler at Universal in Hollywood. Isenberg feels that Ulmer's tireless efforts on those low-budget ethnic films in the 1930s and early 1940s primed him to become an incredibly effective B-movie director at PRC. "He was at his best when he was on the margins," Isenberg says. The latter portion of the interview includes some scene-specific commentary on Detour; Isenberg would have been a great candidate for a full-length track, but audio commentaries seem to have become decidedly déclassé over the years, even at Criterion.
In a shorter segment (11 mins.), Academy Film Archive director Mike Pogorzelski and film preservationist Heather Linville discuss the work put into "Restoring Detour", which began when Arianné Ulmer Cipes started bringing in video and film elements from her father's body of work and asking about proper preservation opportunities. At first, the Detour project was simply too expensive an endeavour, given that the results promised to be mediocre at best. The original camera negative was lost, and none of the known surviving elements were of sufficient quality to justify the undertaking. Samples of the film in its smeary unrestored version are presented, followed by details of how higher-quality elements--not to mention funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation--eventually allowed the creation of this remastered version, first screened for the public on September 29, 2017. It's a brief but informative look at the process. A latter-day trailer for the restored version's theatrical release (1:32) is also on board. Finally, the 32-page booklet tucked into the disc case features the intriguing "Some Detours to Detour", in which essayist Robert Polito delves into the film's production records looking to draw conclusions from documents detailing the production's schedule and budget, enumerates the shooting script's departures from the original novel, and even reproduces passages from correspondence between PRC and the "Mean" Joe Breen Production Code office. It's dense with behind-the-scenes data--maybe too dense for a mere booklet essay, though it makes a welcome contribution to Detour scholarship.
68 minutes; Not Rated; 1.37:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English subtitles; Region A; Criterion