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Blu-ray Review: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on the Criterion Collection

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

5

Detour

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective.

In this context, Detour’s tricky narrative resembles an auto-critical study of how to put a scheme over with no money. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is an aspiring musician hitchhiking from New York City to Los Angeles to see Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him to try to break into movies. In the sort of observational flourish that’s typical of Ulmer’s films, we see Al playing a piano in an empty bar, with stacked chairs in front of him in the foreground that lend compositional dynamism to the image while casually illustrating his sense of rejection. To put it bluntly, Al may always be relegated to playing after hours rather than primetime, and Sue wants to enter the center ring. Both characters are stunted artists hamstrung by a lack of resources. In the tradition of disenfranchised men in film noir, Al gets into trouble.

Detour opens on Al at a diner, tellingly arguing with a customer over a selection on the jukebox after the film’s main events have already occurred. A shadow creeps over Al, enclosing his face in darkness as he begins to narrate for us, describing how he wound up as a drifter. Ulmer and screenwriter Martin Goldsmith never allow the audience to forget that Al’s telling the story, as he’s almost certainly an unreliable narrator. Al recalls being picked up off the side of the road by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who throws his money around before dying in circumstances so absurd as to lead us to suspect that Al is either hiding something or outright lying. After Haskell dies, Al, in a masterpiece of convenient rationalization, decides that robbing Haskell makes sense, as no one will believe that he didn’t kill the man anyway.

Driving Haskell’s car, wearing the man’s clothes and spending his money, Al gives a ride to Vera (Ann Savage), who’s hitchhiking near a gas station. In another twist so ludicrous that we doubt the veracity of Al’s story, Vera immediately discerns that Al isn’t Haskell, claiming to have recently ridden and fought with him—a development that’s foreshadowed earlier by the scratches on Haskell’s hand. Vera and Al are soon trying to sell Haskell’s car, becoming bound by desperation and sexual tension, as Vera reveals herself to be a formidable, bitter, and merciless opponent. Savage gives the film a jolt of hothouse energy, her curt, pragmatic ferocity serving as a counterpoint for Neal’s commanding recessive-ness.

Detour’s lean 69-minute running time also suggests simplification wrought by economics. Ulmer never resolves the mystery of Al’s trustworthiness, and another death, even less likely than Haskell’s, exacerbates the impression that Al’s attempting to kill his way out of a thicket of escalating crises. The audience is watching either the story of a delusional or unrepentant killer or of a man so profoundly unlucky he might earn words of sympathy from Job. This ambiguity amplifies the tension that’s been created and sustained by Ulmer’s raw yet beautiful style, while complicating the self-pity that often drives crime films.

Detour also pointedly lacks a third act, leaving Al drifting in the narrative ether. Vera tries to blackmail Al into helping her with the sort of conspiracy that drives many noirs, but this development is brutally curtailed, as is Al’s quest to find Sue. The film eats itself alive before the viewer’s eyes, post-modernly reflecting its hero’s doom, which functions as a heightened symbol for the ordinary disappointments of real life. Detour’s struggle to exist mirrors our efforts to do the same, and the film has an aversion to bullshit that’s livelier and more suggestive than anything in most contemporary cinema.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration, the result of over a decade of research, is awesomely pristine, rich, and detailed. To those who first came to Detour through subpar VHS editions and online streams and have come to associate it with a lurid crumminess that suggests the film equivalent of a beat-up E.C. comic, the transfer will likely look and sound too beautiful. But one quickly adjusts, as this Criterion edition honors Ulmer’s artistry, emphasizing the beauty he conjured even with a few thousand dollars and a week-long shooting schedule. Close-ups are vivid, revealing people’s wrinkles and creases, and clothing textures are shown to be pivotal illustrations of character. Above all, there’s a silkiness to the image, a velvety sheen that honors its aesthetic virtuosity. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gracefully oscillates between the various sounds of the road and diners and hotels, offering a subtle aural portrait of down-and-out life that contrasts with the dynamic mythmaking of the score. The hisses and pops of prior editions are gone, and so the film sounds as great as it looks.

Extras

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a feature-length 2004 documentary, and a new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, cover overlapping ground but are each worthwhile. Both supplements discuss Ulmer’s background as an immigrant from the Czech Republic—though he, like many directors in America who hailed from that part of Europe, claimed to be from the more cosmopolitan Vienna—as well as Ulmer’s early working relationships with legends like F.W. Murnau and legends in the making like Billy Wilder. And both pieces attempt to explain how Ulmer, an intelligent, talented, and cultivated man, failed to achieve the recognition that was enjoyed by, say, Wilder. (Ulmer’s stunning The Black Cat figures into each account.)

The Man Off-Screen offers an appealingly wandering account of Ulmer’s life, with guests like Joe Dante, John Landis, and collaborator Ann Savage celebrating the filmmaker’s inventiveness. Meanwhile, Isenberg offers a concise examination of Ulmer’s aesthetic, suggesting that the filmmaker’s unsatisfied quest for mainstream success benefitted his art. Robert Polito’s essay, included with this disc’s accompanying booklet, examines the creation of Detour with exhilarating precision, while contextualizing the film within the crime genre at large, on the screen as well as on the page. The theatrical trailer and a supplement detailing the origin of Criterion’s extraordinary restoration round out a slim but nourishing package.

Overall

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a triumph of preservation as well as a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Pat Gleason Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenwriter: Martin Goldsmith Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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