“As I drove off, it was still raining and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears.”
I can’t think of another line that perfectly sums up the poetry of film noir: it says everything you need to know about the existential angst you are about to experience in the one hour and eight minutes of Detour. Edgar G. Ulmer came over to the US from Germany along with Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak, but unlike those two he never quite made it into major studio films (even if they were “B” movies in the case of Siodmak.) Ulmer would work in low-budget films for the majority of his career after a rare studio outing making The Black Cat in 1934. He would find his niche making thrifty noirs for the “Poverty Row” Producers Releasing Corporation.
Detour remains Ulmer’s most widely known film (The Man from Planet X probably comes in second), most likely due to the fact that it languished in Public Domain hell for decades. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a drifter somewhere around Reno who is trying to hitchhike to L.A. Soon he falls into a series of mishaps, ends up at the wheel of a car, and picks up Vera (Ann Savage), who is perhaps the fiercest femme fatale ever to shine on screen. Al’s descent into hell is glorious in its depravity: there is a scene involving a phone cord where you will not believe they just did that, especially for a film made in 1945!
Ulmer was obsessed with telling a great story instead of showing off his filming prowess, and didn’t really care too much about continuity problems and technical errors. However, there are moments of sublime, dreamlike noir imagery, including Tom Neal’s Al with a deliberately oversized coffee cup in front of his face to invoke his confused state of mind. IN this scene, it’s almost like he has stepped through the looking glass. It’s set in an almost science-fictionesque universe, where coincidence doesn’t exist and you are only doomed to fall deeper into a nightmare of your own creation. Tom Neal himself would be arrested and convicted of involuntary manslaughter after his wife Gale Bennett was found dead from a gunshot—he clearly had killed his wife. Neal spent six years in prison, and within six months almost to the day of his release he would be dead.
Over the years, Detour has been imitated by many. The influence on David Lynch, for example, is profound, and it would make a great double bill with Lost Highway. Ulmer made perhaps the purest film noir of them all and in the most economical fashion. Details of the budget and shooting days vary, as Ulmer claimed it took six days and Savage claimed it was four weeks of six days. The shooting script number was 14, and the budget reports vary from $20,000 to $100,000. But the details don’t matter, in the end it was cheap and quick! Ann Savage and Tom Neal give performances for the ages, and Savage’s work in particular seems decades ahead of her time.
The Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation, in collaboration with the Cinémathèque Française (along with some money from the George Lucas Family Foundation), have restored the film in an extremely costly and complicated fashion. This new restoration is a complete revelation. The painstaking restoration process can be in seen in a featurette on the disc. The excellent feature-length documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen is the main draw (it’s just slightly longer then the feature itself!) and has interviews with Psychotronic Cinema favourites like Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich and Wim Wenders, Ulmer’s Noah Isenberg also supplies an interview on the disc, and the Janus re-release trailer rounds off the list of extras. Robert Polito supplies an essay on the film in the booklet.