Thursday, November 14, 2013


DETOUR (1945)  Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage

Is Edgar Ulmer's "Detour" a great film? I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that. 

I saw "Detour" for the first time as part of a film noir festival at Film Forum in New York City when I was 17. I knew nothing about it going in and on first viewing took as nothing more than ridiculous. This festival was really important for me as a film fan. I'd seen may classic films on VHS in high school but that summer Film Forum gave me my first sustained exposure to noir. I went to every double feature. Most of those other movies seemed far superior to a poverty row cheapie like Detour with it's chintzy production values, stilted acting and unintentionally hilarious voiceover. This was no Double Indemnity!

But "Detour" stayed with me in a way that many slicker films have not. I've seen it many times over the years and have decided that all it's apparent flaws add up to genius. Somehow this movie can be both unintentionally absurd and a perfect encapsulation of the noir ethos. 

Al Roberts: "That's life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you."

Director Edgar G. Ulmer was a German emigre like Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmack. In fact this group co-directed the German film "People on Sunday" and each went on to make defining films of the classic noir era. In the US, Ulmer directed the supremely stylish Universal Horror "The Black Cat" but apparently he wasn't so good at playing the Hollywood game. He learned the hard way that it's not wise to have an affair with the producer's wife, especially if that producer is the nephew of the head of the studio. Ulmer was from then on banished to the lowest rung of the motion picture business: Poverty Row. But occasionally Ulmer was able to employ what he learned from working in the German theater and with F.W. Murnau to supply a style that took advantage of his limited resources. Detour is easily the best example of that. Who needs expensive opticals when you can just pan around the room throwing the shot in and out of focus? 

Lead actor Tom Neal can best be described as wooden though he does bring a schlubby charm to Al Roberts. Okay, charm isn't the right word. Off screen Neal who started as an amateur boxer lead a troubled life on the bottom rung of Hollywood. He was allegedly blackballed from the industry after beating the shit out of actor Franchot Tone. He later went to prison for manslaughter...manslaughtering his wife, that is. He died of a heart attack soon after he was released in 1972.

AL Roberts: "Man, she looked like she'd been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world." 

Yes, this is how the movie actually describes Vera, it's female lead played by Ann Savage. You need to see this film for her performance alone. There is nothing else like it in movies. Savage had a brief acting career in the mid forties. I saw her at a revival screening of Detour in the early 2000's and she was charming with great stories to tell. She was hired late in life by brilliant Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin to play his mother in "My Winnipeg" which makes an excellent bookend to Detour. 

I've read Martin Goldsmith's screenplay for Detour and was surprised to find that Ulmer wasn't elevating substandard material the way he worked magic with his budgetary restrictions. The script is excellent and far more nuanced than the final film would leave you to believe. It struck me that one could have made a much higher class "A" noir out of Goldsmith's original draft. But would that really have been a better film? If it wasn't the crazy, grungy, sometimes unintentionally funny film we have, it's certainly possible that we wouldn't be talking about it today. 

Is Detour a great film? I'm going to go with yes. The world needed to see Ann Savage's Vera. 

Al Roberts: "Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."

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