Posted by David Kalat on March 10, 2012
Once upon a time there was a motion picture called Detour (1945). It was a small, wiry thing, gristle and bone. It would have been the runt of any litter, except for the sad fact that it came from a litter of runts, movies made for pocket change and thrust out into the world without support, left to fend for themselves in a harsh and competitive environment.
What Detour lacked in polish and graces it made up for with a steely constitution. It was made of stern stuff, this angry little poem written in the language of failure and defeat. Its flickering frames contain a story of an aspiring artist whose talent would seem to merit one kind of fate, glorious and celebratory, but whose life is shuttled down a cruel detour to a very different destination. He begins his adventure dreaming of a new life in a sunnier world, and finishes up lost and lonely, an exile.
The grubby little picture flailed its way across movie screens in 1945 with no greater or lesser prominence than any of its impoverished brethren. It was a B-movie, and such things have no shelf life. Detour, however, did. More than a half-century later, film critics and fans were still falling over themselves to shower it with accolades. In movie parlance, Detour had “legs.”
It was fashioned by a man named Edgar G. Ulmer, who like some Jewish mystic of myth had a habit of pulling clay from the ground and giving it his special imprint such that it could come to eternal life, a Golem. Detour was not Ulmer’s only bid to cinema immortality, but it was his most distinctive and memorable. His own life had been touched by such detours: an artist of no small ability whose destiny was redirected, stunted, misfired. For the pointy-heads who took up Detour as their cause-celebre, the film and its maker were a recursive Moebius strip, art and artist endlessly reflected in one another.
Ulmer has been called many things—King of the B’s is a common title. But the nickname says more about his circumstances than his role within them. Look past the fact that he made low-budget programmers, look only at the films themselves, and we can see he was heir to the grand traditions of German Expressionism, and a direct precursor and inspiration to the avatars of the French New Wave. That he worked in American genre pictures, mercenary as mercenary gets, makes his legacy that much more important: here was living proof that the world of European high-art cinema and American commercial moviemaking were not mutually exclusive.
Or so film historical conventional wisdom would have you believe. Real life is never so tidy.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is the story of a frustrated artist, kicked around by fate. Al Roberts and his girl Sue are smalltime musicians eking out an existence in a Greenwich Village nightspot. Sue harbors dreams of being discovered, and sets out West to seek fame and fortune. Al decides to follow her, and hitch-hikes across country to catch up with his lost love. Along the way he is picked up by a driver, Charlie Haskell, with a wad of cash and some ugly scars on his wrist. Before Al finds out much about his mysterious benefactor, Haskell dies suddenly in a freak accident. Al realizes to his horror that he is trapped—no one will believe he did not kill the man, and so his only course of action is to act as if he did: hide the body, rob it blind, assume the dead man’s identity, and run.
As the groaning noise of guilt and fear crowd his panicky brain, Al tries to seek comfort by finding someone even less fortunate. He picks up a grizzled wretch of a girl at a gas stop, Vera, but is puzzled by her cold reaction to him. Too late, he discovers that Vera is the one who put the scars on Haskell’s wrist. She recognizes the car but not its new owner, and concludes Al must have murdered Haskell for his money. Using this as blackmail leverage, Vera makes Al her slave.
Throughout this grim tale, Al’s voice narrates the cruel twists of his life with a tone of perpetual complaint. Film noir has a rich tradition of voice-over narration, but Ulmer’s use of it here has a peculiar and interesting effect: there is a dissonance between what Al says and what we see, a disconnection between the events he describes and how he interprets them.
The first note of discord is struck early in the narrative, when Al proposes marriage to his girl. Fans of Ulmer’s frugal expressionism may be spending most of their attention on the fact that the director has rendered the streets of New York without even bothering to build a set, just a couple of street signs and enough fog machines to blanket Texas. Within the swirling tendrils of fog, however, a tender romantic moment is going quietly awry. Every sweet nothing Al purrs gets thrown back in his face, and Sue’s unsentimental response to his proposal is to announce coolly that she is pulling up stakes and heading to Hollywood. “Maybe you’ll decide to come out, too, later on,” is the best she can come up with to soothe his damaged ego, and it doesn’t help much.
For the love of Al’s life, the reason he will uproot his own life and go hunting for her across the nation, Sue is no great shakes. We see her in just three scenes of the film, and in none of them does she make much of an impression—aside from coming across a little callous in response to Al’s profession of love. In the end, we do not really know much about her—and that is the point. Neither, really, does Al. He is not actually in love with her. He is fixated on his image of her, an idealized abstraction that has little to do with the real Sue and everything to do with Al’s needs.
Every time Al opens his mouth, misanthropic poison spews out. Handed a tip by a customer, he eyes the ten dollar bill in his hand and pronounces it “a piece of paper crawling with germs.” Al, being a glass-all-empty kind of person, could see that the road to Hollywood was littered with the bones of the talented and the ambitious, and he decided to simply hunker down where he was and make a life out of grudging resentment. He doesn’t believe in the future, and is consumed by so much self-loathing he honestly cannot imagine any better tomorrow. For all her flaws, Sue is the one solid anchor in his self-pitying world. Once she departs, he is likely to be sucked into his own personal black hole of despair. He either has to chase after her or surrender to nihilism.
The second glimpse into Al’s fractured psychology comes when Haskell picks him up and offers to drive him all the way from Arizona to Los Angeles. It is a lucky break, the only one to come Al’s way in the entire sad story, but he never reckons it as such. The first thing he does is set to examining the dental work on his gift horse. Through the narration we can see that there is no trace of humility or gratefulness in Al, just jealousy and contempt.
When Haskell dies, it as is if the story skips a groove. The audience scratches its collective head in mutual befuddlement: “Huh? What just happened?” It is never clear if Haskell perished from a heart attack, cracking his skull on the rocky ground, or maybe some other detail denied us in the blankly abstracted sequence. What should be—is—the key scene of the film, the threads binding cause to effect become tangled and torn.
It is here, when the film makes the least sense, that Ulmer’s careful hand reveals itself most clearly. The entire storyline hangs on the premise that Al believes no one would ever accept his innocence. If there was even the remotest possibility that Al could persuade someone that Haskell’s demise was accidental, then Vera’s blackmail attempts might not work. So, Ulmer makes sure that not even we in the audience are convinced. Al, the narrator of his own story, cannot quite believe his own version of events either. For a crucial moment, the narration and the events on screen have slipped out of synch, and Al’s fate has tumbled into the gap between.
For all his railings against how unfair all this is, Al never owns up to the possibility that he made this bed himself. He clicks his tongue in discontent about Vera’s ungracious response to his offer of a lift, never appreciating the irony that he was just as diffident towards Haskell. He protests vigorously against Vera’s labeling him a murderer, never pausing to reflect that his theft of Haskell’s identity and belongings is every bit as illegal. Above all hangs the question of why he went after Sue in the first place, whether she was ever worth the trouble he visited upon himself in her name. She vanishes from the story even before she vanishes from Al’s life, as if she was never more than a blond cypher.
There is a sleight of hand at work here, a sly juggling of what is shown to the audience, so adroit as to be all but undetectable. Ulmer’s magic lies in the absences, the empty spaces. Detour clocks in at scarcely more than an hour, has only four principal characters (two of whom are dispensed with before the halfway point), and the set designers took the week off, leaving the fog machines and back projection screens to take up the slack. Ulmer once boasted, quite implausibly, of having been contracted by Murnau to build completely new sets for each and every change of camera angle. Ulmer treats Detour like the reverse idea: if I can’t have unique sets for every shot, how’s about no sets at all!
In anything minimalist, what is present takes on added potency. With so much excised, the choices of what to leave in seem touched by some special significance. Consider Al’s rejection by Sue. It is superfluous to the plot, in so much as there are countless ways in which the story could have motivated Al to go trekking to L.A. As far as the plot is concerned, it matters little if Al is seeking a girl he will never find, or running from the mob, or on his way to start a new job. From a narrative point of view, Sue is a classic Macguffin, a mere excuse to motivate the hero into action. Of all the myriad ways in which to accomplish this, Ulmer chose this one: a boy wants a girl, who does not much seem to want him back. It is a fragment of some untold tale, an unanswered question, a dangling participle.
What was removed that left a hole this shape?
Martin M. Goldsmith was a drifter, thumbing his way across the Depression-ravaged remains of a once-great nation, secretly nursing the dream to write for the movies. In 1938, the vagabond author was skulking around studio lots in Hollywood taking menial jobs on soundstages in the hopes of rubbing shoulders with the icons of the screen. Every night, he bundled up his day’s worth of vain hopes, frustrations, loneliness, and caustic bile and disgorged it into his typewriter.
Come 1939 and he got this mess of venom and spite published by The Macaulay Company as Detour: An Extraordinary Tale. It was his second novel, written in a spartan language of clinical disgust.
Half of the book tells the story of Al, and his fateful misadventures with Haskell and Vera. Shuffled in between the chapters of Al’s unhappy chronicles is a second story, Sue’s. When she drops out of Al’s life, her own story continued its own tragic and wayward path. Sue went West to seek her own fate, and was just as abused by the results.
Sue was an undistinguished dancer in an unremarkable nightclub in an uninspiring town. She was neither more talented nor more lovely than any of the other dancers packed onto the stage alongside her, not to mention the countless others like her cluttering the numberless stages and clubs across the entire nation. Sue, like all the others, dreamed of being a star. One day she would be discovered, and take her rightful place in the gossip columns and fan rags. That her unlikely dream was shared by gaggles of starstruck girls never once impinged on her plans. Mistaking wishful thinking for manifest destiny, she quit her job and bought a ticket to Hollywood.
The girl named Sue finds herself in such an inglorious dead-end, slinging hash at a greasy spoon. She has by now forgotten Al completely, and set herself to hooking up with various men chosen for their potential to provide her with a comfortable future. By drips and drabs she acclimates herself to the idea that she can benefit by leasing her body out to the highest bidder. Unlike Al, she never blames fate for her calumny; these are her choices, and she embraces them.
Although Al is never reunited with Sue, in a way he sort of is. Vera and Sue are kindred souls, separated only be a few degrees of ruination. Al, who never really knew the woman he professed to love, cannot recognize Sue in Vera, nor does he recognize in Vera the same coruscating cynicism that rules his own outlook. Vera—tubercular whore and professional blackmailer—is no more than a funhouse mirror reflection of Al and Sue’s worst, most defining, qualities. As much as Al tries to position himself as an innocent victim of circumstance, this is the fate he chose. For him to loathe Vera and love Sue in the same breath is to draw absurd distinctions, to split infinitesimal hairs.
Martin M. Goldsmith sold Detour to PRC in 1944 with the proviso that he pen the screenplay adaptation. It was his big break, his entree into the world of movies. In the years to come, Goldsmith would write a number of clever thrillers, earn his keep, and win an Academy Award nomination. Sometimes the right combination of talent and good fortune does produce happy endings after all. He worked with Ulmer and PRC producer Martin Mooney to summarize the story as a screenplay treatment in October of that year. The extent of Mooney’s role in the process is opaque; neither Ulmer nor Goldsmith showed much inclination to share the limelight with a mere pencil-pusher, yet it was Mooney’s name on the sixteen-page treatment submitted to the Production Code of America’s office for approval.
Joseph Breen, the chief censor for the motion picture business, replied that PRC had to be out of its ever-lovin’ mind if they thought the PCA would give its stamp to a dirty-minded story about prostitutes and murderers. Changes would need to be made: Sue could not be seen to sleep around, and the movie could not “reflect discredit on the motion picture industry.”
Ulmer and Goldsmith decided that the simplest solution to that dilemma was just to drop the Sue subplot altogether and leave the story focused on Al and Vera. Breen was nervous that Al not be seen to get away with anything illegal and insisted that the “criminal antihero is absolutely in the hands of the police with a guilty regretful narration” at the end. Years down the road, critics enamored of Detour would praise its oblique, ambiguous ending. On screen, Breen’s “crime never pays” finale gets a twist, as it is unclear whether Al is actually arrested or merely haunted by the fear of imminent arrest. The literal reading of the scene, the one favored by the cramped imaginations of censors, pales next to the horror of perpetual paranoia, a man hunted by his own shadow. Either way, Al is punished something fierce.
“Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all,” Al says as the film grinds to its grim conclusion. This is also, ahem, the last line of the novel—which grinds to the same grim, ambiguous, conclusion. Every detail credited to Ulmer’s genius—every quotable line of dialog, every plot twist, every cynical jab in the ribs—comes intact from Goldsmith’s book. Ulmer’s “genius,” such as it is, seemingly lies in faithfully translating the novel into celluloid.
If this is true, then Edgar Ulmer was merely a conduit, not a creator.
In 1992, the Earth shook: Detour was selected for the National Film Registry.
If you did not just gasp in astonishment, then you must need some additional information. The National Film Registry selects twenty-five motion pictures each year based on their cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance. These films are then preserved by the Library of Congress as examples of enduring American culture. In other words, it is a measure by which the United States says, “This movie rocks!”
Although the only stipulated criteria for selection is that the motion picture must be at least ten years old, the fact is that the Registry is not in the habit of honoring low-budget thrillers, B-pictures, Poverty Row quickies, or any other category under which Detour might likely be filed. It was the film historical equivalent of Michelin handing out a five star rating to a lone McDonalds franchise off the turnpike.
To a viewer in 1992 interested in seeing what all the fuss was about, all that entailed was taking a five dollar bill into a K-Mart or a corner drug store and rifling through the bargain video bin, lousy with copies of Detour, each one sporting a different cover and different company’s logo on the box.
This was the ignominious fate of this legendary film, abandoned and orphaned. PRC had long since gone out of business, and the B-movie market had vanished altogether. Preserving and maintaining motion pictures is no easy or inexpensive task—that is why the National Registry only bothers with a couple dozen a year. Major media companies with a stake in the continued exploitation of a film may keep its elements in some vault, but in the absence of such economic incentives there is no reason to expect a film will have been kept around in any particularly good form. Detour had lapsed into the public domain, depriving any media company from holding an exclusive right to its distribution. And so, no one had a solid incentive to keep it around.
In the intervening years, Detour‘s exhibition on television and secondary theatrical markets had ensured a healthy supply of 16mm prints. Murky, dupey, contrasty things, these amateur-gauge reels of film made the inexpensive production look even crappier. Unimpressive though they were, these 16mm reels were plentiful, and in the age of public domain video, they would guarantee a proliferation of poor quality video copies.
Meanwhile, an individual collector had been spending his time and money amassing a private archive of old movies. Wade Williams III is an oversize sort of personality, the kind of man who unironically prints up his letterhead with a threatening WWIII logo. He takes his hobby seriously, and woe betide the fool who does not take Williams equally seriously. Where possible, he had been buying up original negatives and copyrights. Detour‘s copyright had escaped his grasp, but he had acquired an original 35mm camera negative, and rights to the book underlying the film. One was more valuable than the other, but which one was which depended on your point of view.
In an environment of rampant video piracy, Williams was reluctant to use the Detour negative to strike a high-quality video edition. Once out in the world, he would have little protection from those who would try to burn off copies of his work and sell it as their own; the lack of copyright status discouraged him from allowing the negative to be used. It was a white elephant, an object of value that could not be exploited or enjoyed, merely hoarded.
The book, however…
It occurred to Williams’ devious, scheming mind that he had a back door to claiming ownership of Detour. He could undertake a remake, and copyright that. He would shoot in black and white (at least partially), using the same minimalist techniques as Ulmer, and maintain the 1940s setting instead of updating the film to modern times. That the book contained an entire second storyline not used in the 1945 film helped justify the remake as artistically valid.
(Williams once told me that he used the same car that had been used in the original film. I didn’t at the time clarify with him whether he meant the same model of car, or the exact same vehicle, although I got the impression he meant the latter. I have never found any evidence to support this claim.)
Instead of shooting in widescreen, Williams reverted to the 1940s full-frame standard—partially to mimic the original cinematography, but also as an acknowledgment that his film was destined for a life on video and cable TV. To top it off, Williams tracked down the son of actor Tom Neal, who had played Al in the original, and cast him in his father’s role. Tom Neal Jr. looks strikingly like his father, which gives the remake a strange deja vu vibe.
Filmed in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams’ Detour is a clumsy half-formed wreck. Shot on video and given a chintzy synthesizer score, it gives off the acrid air of an amateur production. The actors are awkward on camera, giving theatrical performances better suited to the stage. Tom Neal Jr.’s voice over narration is badly spoken, as if a rehearsal read-through were recorded and used as-is.
The new and unimproved Detour had its premiere and one-week run at the Fine Arts Theater in Kansas City in February 1992 before moving onto home video through VCI and cablecasts on HBO. The 1945 film on whose blueprint it was modeled was winning accolades still, forty some years after its birth, winning the highest honor Congress would bestow on a movie, while Williams’ Detour followed its inevitable slide into obscurity.
Williams’ mistake is not obvious. He did what seemed logical. He had a time-tested story and a cinematic approach that had proven itself. He stayed close enough to Ulmer’s vision to take few artistic risks, yet he added new material and ideas into the mix to keep it from being a pointless exercise in hero-worship. If he had limited financial resources or actors of questionable talent, well these limitations had been Ulmer’s too. All Ulmer had to do was usher Goldsmith’s prose onto the screen; certainly anyone could do the same.
Evidently, this is not the case.
Looking coldly at the transition from Goldsmith’s Detour to Ulmer’s Detour one could draw the conclusion that Ulmer played little role in making the film what it was. But a movie is so much more than just a filmed story, and while it is true that many of the more obvious merits of Detour can be credited to Goldsmith, that does not mean that Ulmer was not, in the shadows and margins and subtle details, contributing less obvious values.
In examining the differences and discrepancies between the three versions of Detour, then, it is easy to see that there are successful choices and misfired mistakes, and that history has adjudged Ulmer’s rendition to be the best balance between these extremes. There are substantial plot details, characters, and lines of dialog common to all three versions and therefore these variables can be canceled out of the equation. Of what remains, some of Ulmer’s choices were proscribed for him: the seamier aspects of the novel were forbidden by the censors from inclusion in the 1945 film, for example. Even Ulmer’s famous parsimonious use of back-projection and abstracted sets were as much forced on him by circumstance as by choice: the film was shot in June of 1945 when wartime restrictions on location shooting would have forbidden much else.
The legend goes that Ulmer cranked the picture out in six days. I dare you to find a reference to Detour that does not repeat the six-day myth (and ha ha, I just included it here myself!). Years later, his daughter Arianne Ulmer Cipes pulled out PRC documentation for a film on Ulmer’s career that clearly states a generous 14 day schedule—essentially the same production block that Universal had given him for The Black Cat! Pretending he had made it faster and cheaper gave Ulmer a handy excuse for any of Detour‘s rougher edges. In fact, he had little to apologize for—Detour‘s rough edges, visible though they certainly are, simply correspond to the lean prose style of the novel, written in the literary equivalent of a low-budget quickie.
In his cast selection, Ulmer made inspired choices. Since the film eventually devolves into a two-hander, the casting of the two leads was critical. As Vera, Ann Savage gives the performance of her life. Neé Bernice Lyon, she was an army brat whose attempt to break into Hollywood initially resulted in a frustration not unlike that experienced by Vera herself—a failed actress left to sell her body when nothing else was available. The early 1940s found Savage working just unbilled walk-on parts. Her primary line of business at that time was as a pinup girl, quite popular with the troops—a gig that rewarded her most rudimentary physical assets but said nothing about her talent. Detour represented a major break for the struggling actress.
In stark contrast to what had gone before, Ulmer sought to conceal her glamor, hiding her beauty behind dirty make-up and greasy hair. He encouraged her to scream and sneer, to disregard what was ladylike. “I often tell young actresses,” Savage later said, “if you can play Vera, you can play anything.” The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences agreed, and in 2005 praised her as an “icon and legend.” Following Detour, her career took off, with Savage often cast in femme fatale roles, five times co-starred with Tom Neal.
Like Savage, Neal was given a role that connected to his own personality and life. He was educated as a lawyer and a boxer—two professions in opposite spheres, perhaps, but also just different ways in which to fight. There was a simmering, seething anger in Neal, a latent violence that he held in check, sometimes more than others. In Detour he plays a man driven to self-destruction—afterwards he followed that maleficent detour to his own doom. Neal’s first wife was an actress whose attention he did not fully command. They broke up, got back together, broke up again—and along the way Neal flew into a jealous rage at a rival, beating the other man to a bloody pulp. For this sin he was blacklisted in Hollywood. Having lost his career, he then lost her, too. Neal’s second wife was claimed by cancer. By his third marriage, Neal’s commitment to undying love was no longer seaworthy: he shot this woman in the head, and was sentenced to prison.
Detour skirts around the biographies of its makers. Forged in the fire of a writer’s frustration, it started off as a way for Goldsmith to vent. Goldsmith’s most personal novel would come to be seen as Edgar Ulmer’s most personal film, starring actors whose lives flitted through a similar orbit. The magic of Detour is in the curious circumstance by which Goldsmith’s angry screed turned out to be fully transferable—what was “personal” was also universal. Wade Williams III’s mistake was in thinking that this unique alignment of artists and opportunities could be reduced down to a simple formula, to be repeated decades later to anything resembling the same result.
“I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money’s sake,” Ulmer told Peter Bogdanovich. It is a statement that could just as easily have been uttered by anyone else involved in this classic film. In Detour, they found it.
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