“Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
Detour is perhaps director Edgar Ulmer’s most highly acclaimed film. It was filmed on Ulmer’s usual 6-day schedule for PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), one of the Hollywood “poverty row” studios, in 1945. As the film noir style became recognized and began to be defined by European film analysts in the late 1940s and 1950s, Detour was soon identified as one of film noir’s most notable examples.
For years, Detour has been widely available due to its having fallen into the public domain. Of course, this has been a mixed blessing, for the versions available on video have generally been pretty tawdry. Now, Image Entertainment (under license from Corinth Films) has made the film available on DVD by in a version that is, to quote Image’s packaging, “beautifully restored from the original 35mm nitrate masters.”
Al Roberts plays the piano at a New York nightclub where his girl friend Sue is a featured singer. Sue decides to go to California in hopes of breaking into the movies. Al, left behind, becomes morose and seems to take his unhappiness out on the piano. Then one night a $10 tip from a nightclub patron inspires him to call Sue and to decide to join her in California. Having little money, Al is forced to try hitchhiking his way across the country. After a number of short rides, Al appears to get lucky when he is picked up in Arizona by Charles Haskell who is driving to Los Angeles. Haskell and Al become friendly, but that evening when Al has taken over the driving from Haskell, it starts to rain and Al has to stop to put up the car’s top. Haskell, who has been sleeping in the front passenger’s seat, cannot be roused and seems to be dead or at least unconscious. When Al opens the passenger side door, Haskell falls out, hits his head on a rock and is now dead for sure. Al panics and feeling that he would not be believed if he called the police and told them what actually happened, drags Haskell’s body into the bushes beside the road, takes Haskell’s money and drives off. Later, while filling his car radiator with water at a service station, he offers a lift to a young woman who is also trying to thumb a ride west. The woman, Vera, soon proves to be much different from first appearances. Her connection to Haskell and the relationship that develops between her and Al lead to a conclusion that is far from what Al ever expected.
“Detour with Tom Neal, Ann Savage and Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Esther Howard, Pat Gleason” say the opening credits. Hardly a cast of heavyweights for a film that would become so well-known for its place in film noir and for being the best embodiment of Edgar Ulmer’s craft. Tom Neal who plays Al Roberts actually had a career of over 6 dozen films, but all were second features, many for PRC and mostly forgotten now with the exception of Detour. A short biography of Neal reveals his life to be almost as sad-sackish as the character he plays in Detour. He was a law school graduate who made his movie debut in 1938’s Out West with the Hardys (MGM). After the 1940s, his film career faded badly and he gained notoriety for a dust-up with actor Franchot Tone in 1951 over their mutual interest in actress Barbara Payton. Then in 1965, he was charged with the murder of his wife Gale, but convicted only of involuntary manslaughter. After 6 years in prison, he was paroled but died of heart failure only 8 months later at age 58. Ann Savage (Vera), after her uncredited debut in Columbia’s The More the Merrier (1943), has little else of consequence on her résumé other than Detour. She too was a mainstay in second features until the early 1950s.
Some things can bug you about Detour, like the sometimes ridiculous turns in the plot, or the dialogue between Al and Vera which, though often sharp and snappy, occasionally just doesn’t ring true. And then there’s Al, who’s such a wimp at times or just plain dumb at others, that you’d like to give him a good shake to put some backbone into him. But these are minor issues. The value of Detour as a film lies in its attitude and style.
This is a film that almost revels in its low-budget origins as though only such a production standard could really convey the low ebb of Al Roberts’ life and the seeming helplessness of his situation. Al appears to be on the road for a good part of the film, but of course the production never gets out of the studio, with back projection used extensively. The production also seems to flaunt the fact that during the early parts of Al’s cross-country hitch-hiking, sometimes cars seem to drive on the opposite side of the road and the driver’s and passenger’s seats are reversed. Obviating the necessity for polished set design is the use of extensive shadows and specific lighting. The latter was characteristic of Ulmer’s work, but never more effectively so than in Detour. The most obvious example is the way Ulmer deals with the flashbacks that are used to tell Al’s story. Each time Al starts to remember another part of the journey that brought him to the diner in Reno, Ulmer draws in on Tom Neal’s face and fades almost to black, then he focuses a spotlight on Neal’s haunted-looking eyes. Neal is particularly effective in conveying Al’s anguish and feelings of hopelessness about what he is remembering.
The detour of the title is the figurative fork in the road that occurs when Al gets the ride from Charles Haskell. That fork takes a “normal, healthy guy” into a situation that for Al is completely abnormal and certainly unhealthy — and unhealthy perhaps in the ultimate sense. It’s as though by taking that fork, Al makes a pact with fate: get me to L.A. quickly and without further ado and I’ll owe you. Except fate comes early to collect — in the form of Vera, the femme fatale from hell. From that point, everything is out of Al’s hands. It is a theme (namely, that of a character out of his or her own control, but rather subject to what fate holds in store) that characterizes many of Ulmer’s best films.
Without being specific, I’ll also mention the film’s conclusion. The ending is ambiguous and it has been suggested that it was added as a response to the censors of the day who required that a crime not go unpunished. According to Edgar Ulmer’s daughter, the ending was as intended by Ulmer all along. As such, it is for the audience to decide whether a crime was being formally punished or whether fate was just stepping in one final time.
Well, is Detour beautifully restored as Image trumpets? I’d love to be able to report that, yes, this is one of those labours of restoring love that one can usually talk about when someone like Criterion is involved, but that is far from the case here. Compared to previous fuzzy VHS and LD incarnations, there’s no denying that the new DVD looks fairly good much of the time. There really are some nice crisp-looking sequences. The image, however, is frequently visited by vertical scratching and speckles, and there are annoying distractions where splices result in some frame loss. Most bothersome are distortions in the image during the sequence in the hotel room that Al and Vera share during their first evening together. These are distortions that are not present on an old battered VHS copy I have, so I can see no excuse for them here. Given the DVD’s back-cover references to a “pristine” transfer and “beautifully restored,” we have a situation close to false advertising in my opinion. Audio is fairly typical mono for a film of this vintage with some hiss when amplified and at least one loss of dialogue at an abrupt splice.
I also have to report that the Detour DVD is another example of a bare-bones presentation. There’s nothing accompanying the feature — no trailer, no insert with production notes — simply a listing of 12 chapter stops for the 68-minute film. The SRP is $19.98 which means you can get this for about $14.00.
I also have a bone to pick with a company that uses an image on the DVD cover that potentially gives away part of the film’s plot.
Here we have another of those annoying situations where you have a very worthy film let down by its DVD transfer. Now, I imagine Detour‘s negative is in pretty rough shape and barring a restoration, no DVD made from it is going to look first-rate. Digital clean-up programs can do a lot, however, to address some of the imperfections as some companies have demonstrated. Such clean-up has apparently not been employed on the Detour DVD; further, unacceptable image distortion occurs during one sequence. I’m happy to have Detour in my collection because of the film’s value to me, but it’s not a disc I’ll be using with any pride to show off either DVD’s capabilities or integrity in packaging.