Criterion Prediction #151: Detour, by Alexander Miller
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Synopsis: Al, a lovelorn piano player, hitchhikes across the country to meet his fiancee in California only to end up in a case of mistaken identity, murder, and blackmail after he picks up Vera, a brutal femme fatale.
Critique: Toward the end of my Intro to Cinema class in community college, we were shown Double Indemnity and Blade Runner as examples of film noir. Already a fan of Ridley Scott’s rain-soaked revisionist take on the genre, Double Indemnity made a considerable impression. Shortly afterward I went to the local record/movie store and told my friend Josh who was my movie guru “film noir, I need all the noir you can get me!” So he explained that there are the classics – Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Mildred Pierce – but then there are the scrappy, gritty noirs that existed as an even darker, more misanthropic contrast to the bevy of genre pictures that represented the classic noir period. This led to a crash course with movies like The Big Combo, The Hitchhiker, Born to Kill, Gun Crazy, Kansas City Confidential, and of course Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour.
The prints sucked, the sound was terrible, but the movies were there and the short-and-mean 67 minutes of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour had a slightly different ring to it.
Gone were the private eyes, g-men, cops, and gun-toting cronies on both sides of the law. There isn’t so much as a gun in the entirety of the film. The lessons and morality plays present in other movies don’t really factor in Detour. This isn’t a film about the perfect murder, or whether or not crime pays; it’s about hopeless people making bad decisions, striving to be worse. Tom Neal is a hangdog schlub, and Ann Savage has the most fitting moniker for the character on screen because her portrayal of Vera is pure savagery. The bulk of the film is the two cruising around, fighting, jabbing one another, and playing cards, but Ulmer’s sense of fatalism and taut grainy atmosphere proved to be quintessential noir cinema. Despite the film’s genesis as a program filler, Detour became infamous for its tenacity. It’s a snappy, mean-spirited, cynical, and tightly-wound affair that improves with repeated viewings. Ulmer’s feature might not have the furnishings afforded to the likes of Wilder, Siodmak, Wise, or Anthony Mann, and it’s the relative shortcomings that are the diegesis of Detour.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: As Criterion had done with most recently with Night of the Living Dead, and over the years with movies like Carnival of Souls, Charade, My Man Godfrey, and The Gold Rush, Detour is a celebrated public domain selection, and would be an easy pickup for The Criterion Collection. One could make the argument, “well if it’s in the public domain, why pay for a Criterion DVD/Blu-ray?” Same reason why we have Criterion editions of Charade, and Night of the Living Dead, because of the restored picture, sound, and the obligatory bonus features. Given Detour’s status as a classic that’s been in the shadow of second-rate prints over the years, there must be a demand for Edgar G. Ulmer’s title to have a definitive Blu-ray release, and given the amount of movies Criterion has given light to, it only makes sense that Detour should join the ranks.