Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Special: REVISION letter 10/12/00 from David Kalat.
Film culture really broke out into the open in the early 70s. The auteur theory may have been a critical dead end, but it stimulated film discussion, not only of directors but genres and movements. Trends and styles were rediscovered and re-evaluated, from Busby Berkeley musicals to Boetticher Westerns to Arnold science fiction. But the biggest 'style'
was one that the French had already been touting for a couple of decades, film noir. At the stylistic extreme of film noir were a few legendary titles. One of them was Edgar G. Ulmer's 'masterpiece', the film maudit Detour. (Note: See also Savant's career article on Edgar G. Ulmer.)
At the time film noir was unbroken ground, strictly the province of film cognoscenti, most of which hadn't seen the films the first time around. This is what made a critic like Andrew Sarris indispensable - he actually knew the territory first-hand. Savant has spoken to many people old enough to have had seen the noir classics of the 40s and 50s. They were familiar with Laura
and The Big Sleep, of course. But I never found an average person who could recall ever hearing of titles like
Kiss Me Deadly or Detour. Even
television airings were infrequent. If Detour screened in the woods but nobody watched it, would it really exist?
It wasn't until 1980 that Savant saw Detour, in the worst, most mangled 16mm print imaginable. Along with the rest of the Producer's Releasing Corporation's (PRC) catalog, in the late 40s Detour was an orphan passed along a string of new banners -- first to Eagle Lion and finally to United Artists. UA most likely lost physical contact with these films when the company reformed in 1951. The PRC titles were licensed or sold outright to television syndication as third-rate filler programming for the late show. These companies probably made a few 16mm reduction negatives of each title and considered their commitment satisfied. The original elements to Detour, along with the likes of Bluebeard and Strange Illusion, are believed to have gone out with the trash shortly thereafter.
What makes Detour so special in the first place? Andrew Sarris, and Myron Meisel in his great chapter in The Kings of the Bs1 capture well the flavor of this 'damned' film about a pessimistic loser's road trip to an almost cosmic personal Hell. Just the kind of entertainment thataudiences love.
Non-spoiler synopsis, short and ugly. And no lip, chisler!
Al Roberts (an unshaven Tom Neal) is a New York pianist who thinks life is hopeless, even when he earns a big tip for his hot piano playing in the Break 'O Dawn club. "Money - what is it? Just a piece of paper with germs on it." His girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) splits for the Coast, and the lonesome Roberts decides to hitch his way to Hollywood so they can at least be together while she hopes for a break into the big time. A generous but mysterious high-roller (Edmund McDonald) offers Al a lift all the way to Tinseltown, and all looks rosy, until ...
A growing web of circumstance, accident, bad luck, worse judgment and most particularly bad companionship combine to screw Roberts' hopes into the ground like a two-bit tent peg. Okay, so hardboiled, Savant is not. Al picks up Vera (Ann Savage), a wild eyed, suspicious and scheming harpy you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Before she's been with Roberts three minutes she's already made a play for him, accused him of a crime he can't defend himself against and
threatened him with exposure if he doesn't play along with her psychotic game.
The critics either wax enthusiastic about Ulmer's fatalistic treatment of Roberts' self-willed exile from the human race, 2 or review the extreme low budget production and its luckless participants as part of a miraculously
seedy tale of Hollywood woe. Actor Tom Neal's subsequent career toppled into an eerily Detour-ish end involving (possible) murder and prison. Ann Savage got exactly nowhere in a 30-movie career and reportedly had been doing office work for years before her belated and thankless 'rediscovery' as one of film noir's most ferocious femme fatales. Edgar G. Ulmer's curious destiny at least had a spark of self-determination.
Detour was not filmed solely in front of a rear-projection screen, and is not the cheapest film ever made, as is often repeated in reviews. It's no studio showcase but the level of production is more than adequate for the material. Yes, Ulmer does play most of the cross-country journey on a process stage and Hollywood is represented by one back-plate of Highland Avenue. But the cheap sets for the diners and motel rooms are perfect in their grimy way. The used car lot is probably the PRC offices. The inclusion of a well-known pop song, I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me is atypical for a Z-budget film. Ulmer's clever use of montages and expressionist lighting (the slot of light on Roberts' face as he agonizes) stylistically put Detour way ahead of the average programmer. And don't forget the special effect: One giant coffee cup.
Besides, Detour has got what a lot of expensive movies don't -- a terrific, focused script that grabs our attention from the outset and doesn't let go. Neal and Savage are a great pair and obviously have rehearsed their scenes to perfection. Even the purple prose -- Shakespearean references, no less -- is sold with conviction. Roberts' sullen resignation to every indignity that comes along, and his unerring talent for expecting the worst from life, is perfectly
conveyed by Neal. Savage is as shrill as a raw nerve and as jarring as fingernails on a chalkboard, and her Vera is a disheveled, unredeemed tramp. This at a time when the movies were selling us refined 'lost women' who dressed like
movie stars. Vera intimidates the way real people do, with wheedling half-threats. Savant likes to fantasize extreme characters getting together. I wish we could see a scene with Vera and James Cagney's Cody Jarrott having an argument. It's hard to predict who would win:
"Made it Ma, top of the -"
"Shut up, Jarrott, or I'll tell them who really killed your mother!"
Voiceover narration is often employed as a cheap way to tell a story without having to show one, and certainly Detour takes advantage of Roberts' voiceover to ellipse its way to a minimum running time. But never has a hardboiled, after the fact, flashback-bridging narration seemed so despairingly appropriate. Detour is like a litmus test for human personalities. Healthy people with good self-esteem can shake their heads at Roberts' whining soliloquies and conclude, like Travis Bickle, that it's not a good idea to absorb one's self in morbid self-attention. For film addicts (and Savant has felt this personally) Roberts' face looms like a giant mirror of failure:
"And then you're licked again!"
Not all films noir pay off with a truly noir ending, but the no-budget, no-hope-for-attention Detour can afford to end itself any way it pleases. 3 The final, famous words of Detour are already spoiled in many resource books, so Savant will allow you the possibility of a virgin response by not quoting them here.
Image's DVD of Detour is not the perfect vision of this film Savant hoped to see. The packaging boasts that it is "beautifully remastered from the original 35mm nitrate masters" and "features a pristine new film-to-video transfer from original source materials." There's more than a little prevarication to this text, which incidentally originates from Wade Williams, and not Image. The copywriter has diluted the meaning of "original source materials." The transfer master looks like a 35mm nitrate print to Savant, not a negative or a duping positive. By this definition, an 'unoriginal' source would have to be a copy of a different movie. And what does "a pristine transfer" mean? That the Rank transfer machine was clean? The video on view here is far from pristine and in places has serious problems.
Savant had memorized the jumps and splices in the ravaged 16mm of the older Image laser. The overall quality of this DVD is a great improvement, sharper and far more detailed. But Wade Williams' print has its share of problems. It starts off extremely clean, with only a few flaws. The small scratches and tiny lines do not substantially interfere with the impact of the drama. But later on, there are patches where the film warps and jumps erratically - telecine woes
that Savant associates with shrunken film and/or damaged sprocket holes. There are also a mounting number of splices in the second half, that affect at least one priceless line of dialogue: "Shut up, Roberts! You're starting to act like a husband!" Chapter 8 has the worst patch, during Roberts' and Vera's motel siege.
On a positive note, Savant was happy to see the haunting ending play almost perfectly. It had been mangled
and truncated on all the earlier prints.
The mono sound shows the greatest improvement over earlier tapes, sounding clear and bright for the first time. There are almost no breaks, even when the picture is spliced. Critics praise Ulmer's ear for audio and this soundtrack is a model of artistry, blending the pop tune and Leo Erdody's relentlessly grim 'traveling' theme with Roberts' hangdog voiceover.
There are no extras on the disc. Did PRC even make trailers? One last odd observation: The film is billed as 'Martin Goldsmith's DETOUR' on the packaging. Yep, that Goldsmith always got his name above the title. He's a regular Frank Capra.
Verdict: Well, it's the best-looking Detour, just not as good as one would hope, and misleadingly billed as mint in the advertising copy. It is a sad state of affairs when movies appear to be unrestorable; one wonders if some archive here or overseas has another original print in better condition, or one with damage occurring in different places. Some
judicious reel-swapping and resynching might produce a perfect transfer. But who would cooperate with Corinth or Wade Williams, small outfits that have little to trade with for favors? 4
Detour is sufficiently presold to its fans to make trumpeting it here unnecessary. If a generally good but occasionally seriously blemished DVD is acceptable, this disc will suffice. The likelihood of anything better emerging in the foreseeable future is dim, and the film is remarkable enough to be appreciated no matter what its quality, anyway. Those old abysmal 16mm prints didn't keep Savant from enjoying Detour twenty or thirty times!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Good -, with some very Poor patches
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: September 24, 2000
1. Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, editors, Kings of the Bs 1975, E.P. Dutton, NY.
This is essential reading, informative and hilarious.
2. Alain Silver's coverage in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the Film Style, (still in print from The Overlook Press) is one of the best and most authoritative analyses of Detour.
Alongside their unconventional interpretations of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Cary Grant in Notorious, Alain and co. were the first to peg Detour perfectly: Al Roberts is a pathetic loser because he wants it that way, and no amount of distraction can keep him from engineering his personal path to doom. The perfect object lesson for what's wrong with a bad attitude.
3. Savant always felt The Seventh Victim was able to sneak by with its convention-numbing, doom-laden ending only because Val Lewton knew his movie was too insignificant to be noticed by its studio, the critics, the Academy or even the censors. Lewton was aware that he labored in only a slightly more gilded purgatory than did Edgar G. Oscars? Fuhgeddaboudit.
4. Big companies quietly make courtesy deals like this all the time. 1997: We discover Kiss Me Deadly is missing the end of its final reel. Alain Silver finds the director's personal print deposited with the Director's Guild in the UCLA archives. He's a member of the Director's Guild and knows the Robert Aldrich family. United Artists owns Kiss Me Deadly outright so it is logical and proper for the company to get back the missing part of their movie. Three phone calls later, everyone cooperates with everyone. That's one miraculous story. I don't think it would be easy for the owners of one print of the public domain Detour to convince anyone else to hand over the use of their prints so they can make a profit. This kind of situation is what keeps potentially sensational copies of P.D. films like Metropolis from emerging. However, I won't feel sorry for Wade Williams until he does everything he can to properly restore Invaders from Mars!
- A LETTER FROM DAVID KALAT, OF
ALL DAY ENTERTAINMENT, 10/12/00
Glenn, I just read your review of Image/Wade Williams' Detour DVD and laughed out loud--you really hit the nail on the head! But get this: Yes, PRC did make trailers and the Detour trailer still exists. Wade Williams owns it. He chose simply not to bother including it on his DVD.
You see, Wade Williams is an ardent foe of public domain, and he believes that because he bought the
materials from a legitimate chain linking back to the original makers, that that grants him some special copyright. I approached him in 1997 to do a Detour DVD and he was reluctant ever to release the film on DVD out of
piracy fears. He overcame that fear, clearly, but his reluctance to include the trailer stems from a fear that it would be pirated off the DVD to appear on other, in his view illegitimate, releases too.
There have been efforts to properly restore Detour from various sources. Kino recently mastered a nice 35mm nitrate restored by the UCLA Film Archives but abandoned their project when Image's DVD came out. It is NOT a case where Williams' ability to fix Detour is hampered by other PD companies unwilling to part with prints. It is the other way around. Other film preservationists interested in restoring Detour to the best it can now look are hampered by Williams' unwillingness to cooperate. Without access to his print, the flaws in the Kino/UCLA master cannot be fixed. Williams is himself the obstruction.
Didn't you find it funny that he started the DVD with a huge anti-piracy warning about how it was only licensed for home viewing? It's a public domain movie, for godssake! He can put whatever warning page he wants there but it won't change the fact that he doesn't have any legal right to "license" it for limited home use! -- David Kalat, All Day Entertainment
Other Edgar G. Ulmer related Savant articles:
Savant Review: The Man from Planet X
Savant Review: The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll
Savant Essay: The Daughter of Director Ulmer
Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson