Studio: The Criterion Collection

Mar 18, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Film noir had its roots in the low-budget crime films of the 1930s, but by the end of the second World War, the genre had grown in prestige, commanding A-list stars, bigger budgets and an artful sheen of shadows and cigarette smoke. But as much as cost can indicate quality, it’s worth remembering the laser-like focus that can result from scarce resources. If The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity and The Killers are artisanal craft cocktails, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is a shot of rail whiskey; quick, nasty and cheap, but it gets the job done.

Produced by the Producers Releasing Corporation (a Poverty Row studio name if there ever was one), Detour was shot for $100k over the course of two weeks and released in the fall of 1945. Running a scant sixty-eight minutes, it tells the story of Al Roberts, a piano player hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles who, due to some staggeringly bad luck and subsequent poor decision-making, finds himself up to his neck in blackmail and murder. The film follows the typical noir formula of “average schmuck gets in way over his head,” but Ulmer and his cast and crew achieve a sort of elemental purity in their attempts to convey a familiar story with virtually no budget or sets. Thick fog obscures what was clearly not a Manhattan street - or even a reasonable facsimile of one - while strange wipes create the transitions between scenes and dramatic lighting zeroes in on actor Tom Neal’s eyes during his anxious voice-over narration. The narration - a staple of the genre - is a far cry from the world-weary tough guy speeches that play over most noirs. Neal’s voice is panicky and nervous, sounding like Henry Fonda if he’d been drained of all his strength. Al Roberts isn’t a canny private eye or a hardened ex-con. He’s just an ordinary, unremarkable man that the universe has decided to crush.

As effective as Neal’s performance is, it’s not the one for which Detour is best remembered. His foil is Ann Savage as Vera, living up to her surname as one of the most vicious, despicable femme fatales in noir history. One year earlier, audiences had been introduced to the Platonic ideal of the femme fatale in the form of Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Widler’s Double Indemnity, as she descends a staircase in a palatial mansion wearing nothing but a towel and an ankle bracelet, all sly smiles and witty banter. Ann Savage takes that archetype and drags it through the mud. We’re introduced to Vera as she attempts to hitch a ride on the side of a dusty desert highway, her hair blown out by the wind, clothes unwashed, her pretty face twisted into a sneer. Her looks are wholly incidental as she never attempts to seduce or romance the hapless protagonist, have recognized that she can simply bully and blackmail him into doing her bidding. Spitting her lines through her clenched teeth like venom, constantly cutting Roberts off with a torrent of verbal abuse, Savage’s performance feels like a clear descendant of Bette Davis’s snarling prostitute in Of Human Bondage. And yet, despite her endless vitriol, Vera is just as much a doomed loser as the protagonist, her furious desperation a mirror to his slumped resignation.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of Detour includes a feature length documentary about director Edgar G. Ulmer, as well as a fascinating feature detailing the painstaking lengths taken by the Academy Film Archive and the Film Foundation to restore the film from numerous, scattered, poor-quality prints.



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