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With: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund McDonald
Written by: Martin Goldsmith
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 65
Date: 11/07/1945

Detour (1945)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ulmer's B-Movie Masterpiece

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some new light has been shed on the majesty of Detour, thanks to the great magazine Scenario, which published Martin Goldsmith's original screenplay in 1997. Goldsmith had been a short story writer who was hired to adapt his first novel, Detour, into a screenplay. Goldsmith wrote Detour as a very detailed, 130 page screenplay, even though he knew full well that it was going to be produced by PRC, one of the poorest of the skid row B-movie companies.

Scenario argues that Goldsmith is the true "auteur" of Detour and not director Edgar G. Ulmer, who has been canonized by cultists over the past few decades. Most of the little touches that Ulmer has been credited with are written into the screenplay, which Ulmer followed closely. The magazine further argues that Goldsmith was a New York crime novelist, while Ulmer was a German-Jew who made musicals. The resulting style of Detour should be Goldsmith's.

I want to add, however, that Ulmer considerably shortened Goldsmith's script. Detour runs only 65 minutes, and Goldsmith's script would have called for a movie more than two hours long. Ulmer was also adept at shooting quickly and interestingly, hence the ragged feel of the movie. Ulmer also invented the idea during the climax of moving the camera in and out of focus over the objects in the hotel room after the murder. On top of that, by 1945, Ulmer had shot all kinds of movies -- not just musicals -- including the crime classic Bluebeard, and the expressionist horror film The Black Cat.

Detour, for those who have not seen it, may be the greatest achievement in B-movie making in history. In it, a second-rate piano player named Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is in love with a second-rate singer named Sue (Claudia Drake). They both work in a sleazy third-rate club in New York City, until Sue decides to try her luck in Hollywood. She leaves Roberts behind. Roberts decides to follow her, and sets out hitchhiking. He's picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund McDonald), who has some nasty scratches on his hand, and keeps popping pills. It turns out he has a heart condition, and dies right there in the passenger seat. Roberts panics and assumes his identity so as not to be blamed for the "murder". He starts to relax, and on a sunny morning, he gives a ride to another hitcher, a nasty-looking dame named Vera (Ann Savage). Vera is the one who scratched Haskell, and now has the goods on Roberts. She blackmails him into everything he's got.

The movie then cooks up a subplot in which Vera reads in the paper that Haskell's rich father is dying. Vera decides to masquerade Roberts as Haskell and collect the dough. In a lesser movie, that would have been the whole plot, but Goldsmith and Ulmer are more interested in the dynamic between the two characters, and that plot never comes to pass.

Goldsmith's script had more in store for Roberts. After assuming Haskell's identity, Roberts is reported dead, so Sue marries another man. And she does it in a chapel that's right next door to the little diner that Roberts sits in and narrates the story from. As if poor Roberts hadn't gone through enough!

So who is the true "auteur" of Detour? Perhaps the answer is that Detour is one of those movies that pokes a hole in the whole "auteur" theory, and that two artists were responsible for such a great movie. Picture how dull and routine Detour would have turned out if directed by someone like William Wyler. His glossy polish would have ruined the core of Detour. So, we'll call it a tie.

The final count for Detour is said to have been: a $20,000 budget and four day shooting schedule. Actor Tom Neal's career came to and end after he beat up another actor. He was later jailed for shooting his third wife. He died just after his release. Martin Goldsmith went on to write more scripts, including The Narrow Margin, but gave up on Hollywood later in his life to become a political activist. A remake of Detour was released in 1992, with Tom Neal's son, but it was said to be awful. Ulmer went on to make dozens more great B-movies.

Edgar G. Ulmer became known for his ability to shoot fast and cheap, and so he never "advanced" to making A-pictures. (He made one, 1946's The Strange Woman with Hedy Lamarr.) He began his career designing sets for German directors like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. He soon developed a simplistic style that allowed him to make cramped movies seem larger and fluid. The motion in Ulmer movies is always naturalistic and never forced. Few of Ulmer's movies are on video, and only in 1998 was a retrospective of his work shown in New York City (but not in San Francisco).

When I first saw Detour in film class, my instructor made the mistake of calling it "the greatest B-movie ever made" before we watched it. This set up an expectation in my head that the movie failed to deliver upon. I had expected a B-movie that looked like an A-movie. I didn't understand the charms that limitations could bring. I expected to see Citizen Kane on a dime-novel budget. Not to mention that other movies qualify for that title: Jacques Tourneur's Cat People and Out of the Past, Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy, or even Ulmer's The Black Cat or The Naked Dawn. I've now seen Detour half-a-dozen times more since, including once at San Francisco's Castro theater, and I've grown to love it. It's one of the darkest movies ever made, which perhaps comes from Ulmer's association with Lang. It's a desperate movie, as grim as it is charming. It easily belongs on a list of the 100 greatest movies ever made.

Detour is in the public domain and is available for free streaming as well as on a number of cheap DVDs. Image Entertainment's 2000 DVD release is probably still the most definitive version. The Film Chest has attempted to release a new "high definition" version on DVD for 2014, but I'm afraid the quality is below standard. Picture quality is fuzzy and not well-defined. It's a disappointment for one of the greatest films of all time.

In 2019, the Criterion Collection released what will surely be one of the Blu-rays of the year, a new 4K restoration of Detour. The film was in such poor shape that there's a disclaimer at the start of the film, as well as an entire featurette, devoted to the efforts it took to save it. The result will strike viewers as perhaps not as lustrous as some other black-and-white films of the period, but given the film's low budget and the state it was in, what we have here is miraculous. The audio track is monaural and uncompressed on the disc. Bonuses include the 2004 documentary Edgar G Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (presented in SD), a new interview with Ulmer scholar Noah Isenberg, and a new trailer. Writer Robert Polito provides the excellent liner notes booklet.

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