This is a big one, the restoration we long thought would never come. CineSavant tries to explain what makes Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece uniquely memorable, how it works its Loser Noir magic, and why this particular restoration bodes well for a certain class of picture mired in murky rights issues. Meet Al Roberts, a hard luck case happy to bend your ear for an hour, explaining how Fate has Done Him Wrong. This PRC gem transcends Noir pessimism, because a sensible read forces us to conclude that Al is his own worst enemy, a self-made misery man. This hitch-hiking epic carries an extra added jolt: Ann Savage delivers what has to be the boldest, most caustic hell-to-pay performance of ‘forties Hollywood.
The Criterion Collection 966
1945 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 69 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 19, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Esther Howard, Pat Gleason.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Film Editor: George McGuire
Original Music: (Leo) Erdody
Written by Martin Goldsmith
Produced by Leon Fromkess
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Almost from the beginning, the true story of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour was buried below various myths, some begun by Ulmer himself. When Andrew Sarris acknowledged the director as a critics’ ‘private joke’ in his 1968 auteurist roundup, Ulmer had all but faded from the Hollywood memory. If Peter Bogdanovich hadn’t sought him out for the one and only interview he seems ever to have given, we’d know nothing about the amazing screen artist. Ulmer ignited some myths on his own via some steep tall-tale telling in that interview, exaggerating his associations with great silent-era filmmakers. If so, stretching the truth was unnecessary — his documented credits are more than impressive.
Many cult classics worshipped today were once completely off the radar; don’t forget that even Humphrey Bogart was a recipient of a ‘rediscovery’ in the 1960s. At the UCLA film school Detour was near-invisible until a core group of graduate critical studies students assembled the first Film Noir Encyclopedia. That book’s description of Detour made us hungry to see it; I think I had to wait two or three years. As the Detour legend spread, so did the inaccurate rumors: that it was filmed in five days for $30,000, that it took place on just one set and in front of an endlessly cycling desert road scene projected in a process stage.
Arianné Ulmer Cipes, the daughter of director Ulmer invited me for a talk around 2003. Her Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation has worked for about 25 years to locate and conserve her father’s films, many of which were scattered around the world and in danger of being lost forever. In 2017 I interviewed Arianné about her childhood family life making films in Europe, Hollywood and Mexico; the interview is encoded as a commentary on a Blu-ray of one of Ulmer’s science fiction movies. Ms. Cipes showed me the official PRC files stating that the filming of Detour took a couple of weeks (13 days?), and that the budget was actually on the high side for a picture from Producers Releasing Corporation.
Sure, the film has few actors and only a couple of sets, but several items in the budget can’t have come cheap. Much of the film uses rear-projected backgrounds, process photography that can’t be rushed, even if one sources generic background plates. Detour makes use of low-budget dodges, but it also employs a great many optical transitions and split screens, that even Roger Corman avoided when possible. And Detour’s musical numbers had to be arranged, recorded and played back on the set — not a typical feature of no-budget filmmaking. The song “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” was a well-known 1926 pop tune by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill — it had to be licensed. The idea that Detour is some kind of haunted ‘Z’ film that came out of nowhere or was made for nothing is just false. If you want to see a truly ‘maudit’ PRC Ulmer, take a look at the insubstantial “Isle of Forgotten Sins” sometime. It’s … an education.
Adding to the tawdry aura of Detour has been the difficulty in seeing it in a decent presentation. Until this new disc, I’ve only seen ratty, splicy 16mm TV prints, and a solitary DVD release from 2000 that was only a partial improvement. More on that subject below.
Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.
Ulmer’s main asset is its dynamite screenplay, with sharp, impactful dialogue. The main character’s fancy patter is the forced hep-talk of a sourpuss who wants to impress us with his pessimism. The narration is a non-stop parade of choice Loser Noir quotes, which I can’t resist quoting.
Detour is the ultimate Loser Noir epic, Edgar G. Ulmer’s relentlessly downbeat ode to chronic negativity. Fellow Austrian Fritz Lang fashioned half a career from the theme of determinism, or the rule of Fate; the notion that free will is an illusion and that we all struggle within the limits of a personal destiny. Detour’s seedy musician Al Roberts (Tom Neal) loves to describe his existential predicament. He defines his failures with excuses that cite bad luck, a rigged system, and a ‘mysterious force,’ an unyielding power that has reduced him to a lowly pawn on a chessboard. Al’s running commentary is a compendium of loser excuses, blind accusations and self-pitying remorse. Roberts is the poster boy for counterproductive misery. He’s the patron saint of undeserving nobodies that hadn’t the courage to stick up for themselves, of underachievers that can only blame themselves.
Of course, Al never blames his troubles on his own character. He has talent as a pianist, and he’s not above showing off his classical talent for the patrons of the nightclub where he works into the early hours. But when he gets a fat tip, he’s two-faced about it — offering a weak smile while acting as if a ‘filthy’ $10 bill is an insult to his pride.
So when this drunk handed me a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it?, I asked myself. A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted.
But there’s a price to be paid for passively courting disaster. Al also has a girl that loves him. Yet he spends the entire picture repelling friendly folk and looking for ways to get into trouble. Yes, Al does seem to be the victim of ‘insane tricks of Fate’ that make him look culpable for crimes he did not commit. Nobody embraces the quicksand of his dilemmas more thoroughly than Good Old Al. Is Al a witness to an accidental death? Why, of course he should swipe the deceased’s ID and effectively steal his car. Then, when traveling in this highly vulnerable manner, why not pick up a hitchhiker? Roberts could have minimized his troubles, but no, he has to compound them so his crimes snowball by the power of ten.
If we squirm for Al, it’s because we can imagine ourselves in his shoes: there but for the grace of God. Most of us learned at an early age what happens when we cheat, or steal, or take shortcuts — even a toddler finds himself in A Dark Corner when amazing coincidences converge to reveal who raided the cookie jar. Adults are no different; our guilt gives us away. We find that people suddenly acquire X-ray vision, and can read our crimes as if they were written on our face. Al Roberts’ behavior shows all the symptoms. In psychological terms, its as if he were trying to get caught all along.
What kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday School teachers?
Al Roberts’ choice of an ill-advised hitchhiker is a lulu, turning the show into a female-driven The Devil Thumbs a Ride. Vera (Ann Savage) attacks like a demon sent by the gods. The first thing out of Vera’s mouth is a blurted accusation, and her attacks renew every time she sees an opening, hurling more threats at the dumbstruck Al. His pleas for reason are shot down by hateful, venomous words. Worse still, Vera immediately sets to convincing Al to pull off more impostures and crimes for their benefit.
The torture continues all the way to Los Angeles. It doesn’t abate, even when Vera lets her hair down and tries to get amorous. An evening in a motel is like a marriage in Hell. The only possible relief is cold-blooded murder, but Al doesn’t have it in him. As he collapses into his Sad Sack ‘woe is me’ mode, his narration is dominated by even more self-pity, begging the listener to agree that He Had No Choice.
Shut-up, you’re makin’ noises like a husband!
Edgar Ulmer takes a radical visual approach to the jarringly sordid Detour, turning on the moody expressionism right from the start. The title background might be one of the highway projection plates for the process setup, signalling that his is an early ‘road’ picture. Life is conceived as an open highway on a featureless plain: one’s only choice is to keep moving forward. Our first scene with Al Roberts isolates him in choker close-ups that express his interior state with a radical lighting change. The famed Giant Coffee Cup is the soul companion for a lonely guy on the move. Godard and Scorsese will take the existential coffee imagery one step further, using macro-photography to zoom into clouds of cream in coffee cups. That massive coffee cup is a Prime Alienation effect: 2 a.m., downtown L.A., been there.
The Break ‘O Dawn Club is the film’s one scene that displays the standard PRC look. The club patrons look like office staff borrowed for a five-minute mastershot, and some of them sit patiently, as if unaware that the camera is rolling. But Al’s long Manhattan walk with his girl Sue (Claudia Drake), marked only with street signs in the fog, puts us right back in Cosmic Loser territory. His talent for self-betrayal is already doing double-duty — while preparing himself ready to fail, he promises Sue that everything’s gonna be okay.
Listen Mister, I been around and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d ya do, kiss him with a wrench?
Al’s musical daydreams of Sue splash across the screen in expressionist shorthand — as dreams of harmony accompanied by distorted, minatory shadows. The images are exciting, but not comforting. The long sequences on the rear-projected highway never become tiring, because the dialogue and narration remain consistently interesting. But the spatial dislocation of the highway scenes evokes the ‘B’ picture mystique once described in the great book Kings of the Bs, and experienced by watchers of late night movies. They take on a dreamlike, hypnotic quality: nothing is real, life is an illusion. Time doesn’t exist.
Of course, the cosmic downer of Detour’s finale places it at the forefront of pessimist classics. Other noir sagas conclude with their protagonists shot full of holes, left staring into the camera stone cold dead, and even tossed into a river like garbage. But the earlier Detour takes a more subtle tack, echoing the jaw-dropping anti-life sentiment of a 1943 Val Lewton movie that celebrates suicide. Some say that Al Roberts’ fate was mandated by the Production Code, but if the, the ruling did the movie a favor. Al Roberts comes out of ‘flashback narration’ mode, only to progress right into ‘future prediction’ mode, to assure us that…
… Yes, Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.
Ulmer’s picture made no waves in its release in the Fall of 1945, and reportedly dropped off the face of the Earth, to resurface only sporadically for incredulous late night TV insomniacs. Although dedicated critics like Andrew Sarris were aware of it, I’m convinced that Detour’s ‘maudit’ label only came with its rediscovery in the ’70s noir Renaissance. On seeing it for the first time in 1981, my initial reaction was, ‘Jeez, how could anything this grim ever get made, or be shown?’ followed by, ‘This movie might be dangerous to someone suffering from depression.’
But back in ’45, the Hollywood trade papers were complimentary, and generous with praise. The Motion Picture Herald called it “adroit, unpretentious,” and added that, “making no compromise with the ‘happy ending’ formula, the film has a number of ironic and suspenseful moments.” The Hollywood Reporter described it as not a sleeper, but simply excellent, lauding its “combination of talent and craftsmanship” and ending with the statement, “Unquestionably the best film PRC has ever produced.”
Open the Boxoffice capsule review for Detour in a new window to read →
I don’t think the impact of Detour will ever diminish. Like Walt Disney’s discovery that a new audience of kids for his animated classics arrives every seven years, Detour will be there to disillusion and dismay new generations of noir fans eager to abandon their positive outlook on life. If that isn’t a legacy to cherish, I don’t know what is.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Detour is a new 4K digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Remember that this show never looked good; when presented in screenings it was often accompanied by apologies. It now looks and sounds like a new movie, backing Edgar Ulmer’s smooth direction with a clean and crisp image. Benjamin Kline’s cinematography is … attractive, something I wasn’t convinced I’d ever see. It’s as big a shock as was enjoying pristine restorations of The King of Jazz, Chimes at Midnight, and The Old Dark House, pictures that for years were diminished by eyesore presentations. The restored sound does full justice to the mournful Erdody soundtrack. Al Roberts’ fool’s progress, plodding down a midnight road, is accompanied by grim woodwinds.
A fascinating featurette about the restoration is our first extras stop. The compositing of film elements from different archive sources was made possible by the best of modern digital tools. The best film element had occasional gaps here and there, and the only acceptable-quality alternate element bore foreign subtitles. Demo samples show how a third film element was spotted in, replacing certain areas of the frame and erasing the unwanted supers.
Criterion strives to source research-quality extras, but no sit-down interviews, picture or audio, appear to exist of Edgar G. Ulmer. Disc producer Jason Altman gives us a good 2004 feature docu on Ulmer, which has an Ann Savage interview, as well as input from Roger Corman, Wim Wenders and Joe Dante. Noah Isenberg provides an inspiring visual analysis essay, that explains some of the weird details in Detour while placing Ulmer’s career in the context of commercial filmmaking. A reissue trailer is provided but sadly, no original; it would have been fun to see how PRC promoted its movies.
A 30-page illustrated insert booklet carries a longform essay by Robert Polito that answers a bundle of questions about Detour, nailing who is responsible for what and how the production money was spent. Polito also fully covers the genesis of the story, detailing differences between author Martin Goldsmith’s source book Detour: An Extraordinary Tale and the final show. Sue is a marginal character in the movie, but in the book her story is given almost equal emphasis. Polito reveals that PRC documents indicate that director Lew Landers was involved, to an unknown degree, in the development of the script.
Although Criterion’s extras don’t delve into the subject, this marvelous restoration highlights a problem that crops up when film collectors buy films outright, or assume ownership of movies abandoned to the wilds of the Public Domain. Collectors can find themselves in a position where they have no way to publish or license a show for disc, cable or streaming, without losing control over their property: whatever they release may soon be pirated. The result is that certain titles remain completely out of circulation, or seen only in poor, dupey copies, unavailable for proper restoration and withheld from public view — effectively suppressed.
We’re told that in 1992 Detour became the first film noir to be added to the National Film Registry, an honor possibly awarded specifically to encourage its preservation as a title at risk. I am given to understand that Detour’s restoration waited a full twenty-six years partly because some privately owned film elements were held out of reach. The filmic rescue required the backing of The Film Foundation and a generous endowment by George Lucas. A lot of money and effort had to be expended without the certainty that a decent restoration was even possible, which makes us even more grateful.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a 2004 documentary; New interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg; Featurette about the restoration, Janus Films rerelease trailer; illustrated insert booklet with an essay by Robert Polito.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 10, 2019
Sidebar: I still believe that the main lesson of Detour is one of Life Philosophy. Viewing one’s problems through noir-colored glasses blinds one to positive possibilities. Even Travis Bickle declared, ” I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention.” In the early seventies it was possible to be a starving film student and yet squeak by with a part-time job. Stuck as a movie usher in Westwood, earning $1.65 an hour, I must have sometimes complained about this to Larry Mirisch, a cheerful friend and fellow usher who happened to be the son of a famous producer. One night at work I was standing outside the theater on Lindbrook Avenue in my silly usher suit. Larry came out to the curb too and tried to cheer me up, but I remained in grim mode. Then he said, “Hey look at this!,” stooped down and picked up a $20 bill out of the gutter, right where I was standing. “Twenty bucks! Cool!” Larry put the money in his pocket and walked away, and I learned a big lesson about nurturing a positive attitude: one can luxuriate in pessimism.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson