Ulmer may have been bitter about his change of fortune, but his extreme productivity from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s speaks of an artistic temperament engaged with even the most improbable projects. Most of these projects were made for tiny PRC, one of Hollywood’s least luxurious studios. There was never enough money from studio head Leon Fromkess to produce the kinds of first-rate effects Ulmer would have liked. (Ulmer was a visual artist and music aficionado as well as a filmmaker.) But at least he had creative freedom and the talent to implement whatever ideas he could afford. (For a good example of what he could do with peanuts, check out the gorgeous forced-perspective sets of Paris he devised for Bluebeard.) In the case of his unquestioned masterpiece, Detour, the lack of resources Ulmer suffered at PRC is reflected in the lives of his shabby, desperate characters.
Detour has one of the more convoluted plots in noir, packing a flashback structure, an extended voiceover, a cross-country trek, several murders and changes of identity, an unforgettable femme fatale, and one of the most wretched, masochistic antiheroes ever into its 67-minute running time. The film opens in the present, with Al Roberts (Tom Neal) an unhinged hitchhiker trying to score a ride "east." At a diner, he starts a fight with a customer who plays a jukebox tune that gives him the jitters. The song, the standard "I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me," was once his favorite, but its reappearance triggers a flood of memories that explain how the once respectable Roberts has become a pathetic bum and psychological wreck wandering along the dark highways of postwar America.
Roberts, it seems, was once a classically trained pianist working in a dive, New York’s "Break o’ Dawn" club, where his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) was a singer. Evidence that Roberts is not exactly a regular guy is hinted at by the song’s title (maybe they aren’t in love with each other), but also by his grim, self-pitying manner. When he receives a ten-dollar tip from a customer, he’s far from pleased: "What was it? A piece of paper, crawling with germs." Sue’s plan to seek her fortune in Hollywood further unbalances him, and when she leaves, he decides to follow her by the only method available to a guy with no money -- hitchhiking.
Ulmer closes in on his hero from the beginning; even a romantic twilight stroll is played as a low-key nightmare, with Sue saying the two have "struck out" while a thick, threatening fog swirls around them. Critic John Belton wrote in his profile of the director in The Hollywood Professionals that Ulmer’s world "has no fixity and is incomprehensible," and this supposedly romantic sequence shows that is indeed the case. The comforting details of mise-en-scene are missing entirely from much of the film, with Roberts wandering through a desolate, fog-drenched world that he seems incapable of understanding or feeling safe in.
Typical of Roberts’ increasing bad luck, Haskell dies mysteriously during the ride. Roberts has stopped to put up the convertible top when the supposedly sleeping Haskell falls out of the car, bumping his head. Was he dead before he fell, or did Roberts "accidentally" kill him by opening the door? The film leaves the viewer with several possible scenarios, including that Roberts may in fact be lying about what happened. Things spiral heavily downward from here as Roberts foolishly decides that no one will believe what happened. He decides to exchange identities with Haskell, putting his own identification on Haskell’s body before rolling him into the bushes.
In a spectacular miscalculation, Roberts then picks up a hitchchiker who happens to be the "dame with claws" who attacked Haskell. Roberts’ attraction to the netherworld represented by Vera is evident quickly in his voiceover, as he recalls that she had "a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real." Whatever his other failings, Roberts is no slouch with words; screenwriter Martin Goldsmith (who wrote the book upon which the movie is based) gives him some of the film’s most vivid lines. For example, Roberts says Vera looked like she was "thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world." Vera too turns out to be a noir wordsmith. Quickly assuming the role of hectoring conscience, she instantly divines both Robert's situation and his weakness, making blatant threats ("If you act wise, well, mister, you’ll pop into jail so fast it’ll give you the bends!") and offering mock sympathy ("I’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!")
What happens in Detour is rendered entirely through Roberts’ eyes, the action of the flashback consistently interrupted by creepy close-ups of him giving his version of the events. Like many a noir narrator, his reliability is constantly questioned by the film. He’s undercut by both his suspicious behavior in the death of Haskell (if he was really innocent, why did he take Haskell’s money?) and his constant self-pity and blaming of "fate, or some other force" for what happens. And his attraction to the darkness and nihilism of Vera -- why would he pick her up after his own experience hitchchiking? -- undermines his cries of victimhood.
Detour was shot in a mere six days, a typical schedule for many of Ulmer’s low-budget films, but it bears his distinctive stamp throughout. For the famous penultimate scene of Vera’s "accidental" murder, the camera seems to crawl inside Roberts’ head as he surveys the room where she dies, with the lens alternately focusing and defocusing on various objects. Even a simple scene such as Sue singing in a bar is rendered with poverty-row panache: a low dutch angle shows us Sue backed by three musicians seen only in shadow. Forced perspectives and expressionist motifs appear throughout, reinforcing the script’s vision of an unpredictable, ultimately terrifying world.
For years Detour was available only in battered 16mm prints and grainy or overexposed public-domain videos. The 35mm negative was long believed lost, along with any 35mm prints. Happily, this was not the case. Englewood Entertainment’s DVD was transferred from Wade Williams’ 35mm negative. While the DVD unfortunately lacks any extras, the transfer is refreshingly sharp and detailed, with the best sound of any video version heard by this reviewer. It is not, however, a perfect print, and pickier viewers may find some aspects of the transfer disappointing. There are several splicy sequences where the dialogue is truncated or (in one case) missing. In one scene, the image appears to wobble for several seconds. One of the reel changes is riddled with artifacts, and a vertical line occasionally appears. All that said, this is still the best version around, and probably the closest we’ll get to experiencing this classic (outside a rep house revival) the way Ulmer meant it to be in 1945 in its first release.
Detour is now available on DVD from Englewood Entertainment (distribution by Image Entertainment). The DVD contains no special features. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For additional information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site. Detour is also available on VHS from Englewood Entertainment for $19.95. Check out the Englewood Entertainment Web site for details.