Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith
Based on a Story by: Martin Goldsmith
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Running Time: 69 min
BBFC Certificate: TBA
Edgar G. Ulmer was among the wunderkinder who produced the groundbreaking German film People on Sunday. His associates on that included Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder. Soon after, they all moved to Hollywood and the latter two in particular (and Siodmak to a lesser extent) found great success in the US, enjoying illustrious careers for many years. Ulmer however, fared less well. His first studio film, Black Cat for Universal, did great business, but he found himself out of favour with the company following its release. The reason is presumed to be the fact that Ulmer fell in love with Shirley Beatrice Kassler, who was then married to producer Max Alexander, nephew of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. This saw the director forced into working for independent companies producing B-movies and he stayed there for the rest of his career.
However, critics over the years, beginning with the French Cahiers du Cinéma circle, have reappraised the director’s work and he’s been affectionately referred to as the ‘king of the Bs’ by many. His work often had a distinctive style (fuelling the French and their auteur theory) and he was known to be adept at making decent films for very little money and in very little time. His work is far from perfect, with plenty of duds in his filmography, but considering the circumstances under which they were made he was one of the best in his field and one or two of his films have since been considered classics, not the least of which is his 1945 film noir Detour, which the Criterion Collection are releasing on Blu-Ray in the UK this April.
Detour sees Tom Neal play Al Roberts, a nightclub pianist who decides to hitch-hike his way across America to Hollywood, where his girlfriend is trying to make her name as an actress. After a long while he gets into the car of the gambler Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald) who offers to take him the rest of the way. However, Haskell falls dead one night, possibly due to a bump on the head accidentally caused by Al opening the car door when he was asleep. Whatever the real cause, to an outsider the death would look like Al did it in cold blood due to the circumstances and his current down-and-out status. So Al hides the body and assumes Haskell’s identity for the rest of the journey to Hollywood. The plot thickens however when he picks up another hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), who got into an altercation with the real Haskell earlier, so knows Al is a phoney.
It’s a wonderfully gripping, albeit pulpy story, with some genuinely surprising twists and turns along the way. There’s a harsh, nihilistic quality to it to, giving it an edge over a lot of films from the era. It’s noted in the special features that the film could also be seen as an allegory for Ulmer’s own views of his luck and lot in life. I can see this, as the film’s protagonist is a talented man (he’s an excellent pianist who deserves to be playing more than just seedy bars and clubs) but never-ending bad luck sets him back to becoming an unwitting criminal. This adds an extra layer to the film, even if it may have been unintentional.
As ever, you can see Ulmer’s skill at making something out of nothing. Cast and locations are kept to a minimum, with a great deal of the film taking place in a car shot against rear projection. One city scene is shrouded in fog and we regularly cut to changing street signs to hide the fact the actors are repeatedly walking across the same small set. It does the trick though and his use of fog and rain only add to the atmosphere. Surprisingly for a noir though, much of the film is set in bright daylight, but the hardboiled vibe is maintained through the dialogue and performances.
Speaking of which, the film is admirably tough, with some great lines, such as Al’s description of ten dollar bill as being “a piece of paper with germs”. The characters are enjoyably acerbic too, particularly Savage’s Vera. She’s one of film noir’s (if not cinema’s) most aggressive female characters. She’s not your typical slinky femme fatale who seduces our hero, although there’s an animal sexuality present. She knows what she wants and damn well takes it. She crushes Al under her thumb with her constant venomous bickering pretty much as soon as it’s revealed she knows the truth behind his identity. Savage similarly demands the audience’s attention and her performance deserves much more recognition than it has received over the years.
All in all then, it’s a short, tough, no-frills film noir that grips through its story and characters. Ulmer makes a lot from a little in this prime example of what a B-movie can be given the right direction.
Detour is out on 1st April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The audio and visual transfer is excellent, as is to be expected from the label.
There’s a decent collection of special features included too:
– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a 2004 documentary featuring interviews with filmmakers Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and Wim Wenders and actor Ann Savage
– New interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins
– New programme about the restoration of Detour
– PLUS: An essay by critic and poet Robert Polito
On paper it looks a bit low on features for a Criterion release, but the ‘Man Off-Screen’ documentary is feature-length, offering a fascinating look into Ulmer’s life and work. It features several well known contributors too. Isenberg’s interview is also illuminating and focuses a little more specifically on Detour. I enjoyed the restoration featurette too. It helps you appreciate the hard work and dedication which went into getting the film to look as good as it does now.