March 18, 2019
Street Date 3/19/19;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake.
It took maybe a day for the much talked-about new restoration of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour to hit me with full force, and I just can’t chalk this up to the fresh novelty of seeing substantially more detail on male lead Tom Neal’s sweaty beard follicles. Like those eye blinks some people took when that old lady driving the station wagon on 2006 screens turned out to be Helen Mirren in The Queen, it can be enough of a full order for a normal brain simply to come down from the ambush of seeing somebody familiar in a completely different context. Just think of what it must have been like, say, for the cashier at the Florida spa to look up and see Patriots owner Robert Kraft (allegedly).
Here, the specific subject at hand is one of the grimiest of all ‘B’ film noirs — only now, we’re miraculously talking about a regular-looking movie no longer rendered via those scratchy, dupey prints which for most still living film folk have been an undeniable component of the Detour viewing experience. Now having said this, it’s also inevitable that we can expect a small band of purists/cultists to claim a preference for Ulmer’s 69-minute ode to fatalism in one of its familiar dilapidated presentations. After all. I once had a friend who maintained that the only way to listen to those early Rolling Stones albums for London Records was on a beat-to-hell old vinyl with about 3,000 plays under its belt and with all the requisite nicks and divots to prove it.
Yet when you see this PRC quickie finally looking like other well-preserved 1945 Hollywood features, you’re hit with an essential truth: Detour was initially, albeit briefly, a real 35mm movie that played real theaters in the immediate postwar era and for real impressionable people. With this particular story. And it’s a near-uniquely sordid example from a movie year when, OK, The Lost Weekend and its liquor bottle empties did win the Oscar — but also one where Betty Grable and June Haver were doing isn’t-that-cute? Technicolor blackface in The Dolly Sisters for so-called mass escapism. Meanwhile, Detour (which would have always played the bottom half of a double bill) deals with the trouble that keeps following around a bum-luck piano player (Neal) — though there are also indications that he wills his problems onto himself. Whatever the explanation, he’s just trying to hitch a ride from New York to L.A. in pursuit of a honey (Claudia Drake) who has fled their nightclub to pursue a movie career (good luck on that one).
This is a movie where one can mess up a synopsis by indulging in spoilers, so let’s just give a single example of what cruel fate has in store for Neal. Out in the desert where the Gila monsters probably have orgies, there’s one driver who finally stops to give him a ride. The former then ups-and-dies on the road under mysterious and compromising circumstances — though we have seen this guy popping a lot of pills, which is good for a viewer screech-halt right there. When’s the last time you saw a 1945 movie where someone in a speeding desert convertible was popping pills in the first place?
As anyone who’s seen Detour knows, a fairly absorbing movie becomes a terrific one once Neal assumes the other driver’s identity, gets behind the wheel and eventually picks up a hitchhiker himself. Only this one (Ann Savage), and from a time when hitching wasn’t something women did, turns out to be Cruella de Vil with a few extra boils up you-know-where. In the entire annals of female screen adversaries, Savage rates, and indeed, has, a full chapter to herself — taking the male fantasy of picking up, say, Joi Lansing on the road and twisting it beyond recognition. The character is devoid of almost any redeeming quality, yet there’s something about Savage’s great performance (and today, it’s generally recognized as such) that subtly suggests that something dreadful must have happened in her upbringing to make her the relentlessly shrieking shrew she is. Unfortunately, she knows too much about Neal, so he has to stick with her. Atop all this, a warehouse of real-life subtext — Neal went to prison in 1965 for killing his third wife, though on a charge of involuntarily manslaughter — doesn’t exactly hurt the film. Nor does knowledge of his preceding involvement in one of Hollywood’s messiest scandals: When Neal put Franchot Tone in the hospital by brutally beating him amid a love triangle with party girl/actress Barbara Payton, who then wed Tone for 53 days.
Meanwhile, poor Ulmer was just trying to scrape out a living supporting a wife and daughter he loved — a talented filmmaker who could make something out of nothing but one who got blindly and permanently typed by an unforgiving industry as a director of B’s (and sometimes Z’s). A major part of this Criterion package is the 2004 documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, which now (I previously saw it many years ago) welcomely utilizes the restored Detour in its selection of film clips. In what sounds something like the massive time-and-financial labors Edie Adams undertook to rescue Ernie Kovacs’ own archival history, daughter Arianne Ulmer also worked for years to track down prints and preservation elements in an attempt to salvage the career legacy that a dispirited Edgar thought lost forever at the end of his life.
From the documentary — as well as an enjoyably accessible interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg plus a long essay by critic Robert Polito that goes a lot into Detour’s far more complicated source novel — you get a sense of how his compromised industry standing affected Ulmer. He said he didn’t want a life of big-studio glory, but made up whoppers (half-truths or outright fabrications) about accomplishments or lofty personal associations during the great heyday of German cinema (though, yes, he did co-direct the 1930 landmark People on Sunday). He was perpetually frustrated at lack of funds and shooting time when he was making Hollywood B’s, Yiddish films and even Moon Over Harlem on an alleged $8,000 budget, but he also seemed to relish being the “Capra of PRC” — which was Producers Releasing Corporation, lowest of the low when it came to Hollywood Poverty Row studios.
One super feature of the documentary is a tour of L.A.s low-rent district (or one of them) where these long-evaporated studios were located. The tour guides are Joe Dante (casually dressed) and John Landis (coat and tie), and they play off each other as amusingly as one might predict. Also here, and a couple of these participants are now gone, are daughter Arianne, actress Savage, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, Wim Wenders, William Schallert, James Lydon, John Saxon and (well, you never know) Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall, who starred with Saxon in Ulmer’s last film.
A standout bonus feature of this essential release is a primer on how the restoration was done with the cooperation of sundry institutions and materials, starting with a nitrate 35 from the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique. It was beautiful but had extensive subtitles, which thanks to recent technology can now be removed; only a very short while ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. Seeing Detour now is an entirely fresh experience, though “fresh” is not necessarily how you feel after spending a blistering hour-and-a-quarter with its cast of mostly misfits.
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