BOOTLEG FILES 358: “Detour” (1945 B-movie classic directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.)
LAST SEEN: Available on several online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: As a public domain staple.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Once your copyright is lapsed, you’re in public domain hell for eternity.
If logic prevailed, the 1945 “Detour” should never have been worthwhile. The film was rooted at Producers Releasing Corp. (PRC), a bargain basement enterprise that was part of Hollywood’s notorious “Poverty Row” of no-budget operations. The source material was an obscure novel that had little commercial value as a feature film. Its director, Edgar G. Ulmer, was a prolific yet erratic artist whose career derailed into an endless skein of quickie programmers. The stars, Tom Neal and Ann Savage, were among the lower tier B-grade actors.
And yet, for a miraculous lightning-in-a-bottle moment, “Detour” emerged as a work of uncommon personality. While the film is far from perfect, it nonetheless presented an audacious vision of the darker side of American society. Or as Roger Ebert wrote, “[It] should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.”
Indeed, “Detour” is difficult to forget at numerous levels. It is a deeply cynical yet darkly humorous dissection of human frailty and emotional manipulation. Its central male character finds his life controlled by women from the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: a stardom-obsessed nightclub singer of great beauty but minimal talents and a vituperative lady hitchhiker that he picks up along the road. Both women are ruled by impossible get-rich-quick dreams: the singer believes that she can achieve success just by showing up in Hollywood while the hitchhiker thinks that she can extort her way to instant riches.
The circumstances that tie these three people together is the basis of one the most convoluted plots ever put on film – as for those who never saw “Detour,” I would hate to spoil the fun. (Yes, I know it is a classic – but too many people are unfamiliar with classics and I hope they can discover this film for the first time.)
What can be said, however, is why “Detour” retains its appeal. Quite simply, the circumstances that should have doomed it to obscurity actually contributed to its unique popularity.
There has been a great deal of legendary talk that “Detour” was shot in either four or six days on a budget around $20,000. While PRC was notorious for its inexpensive output, it was never that reckless. Different sources have put the shooting schedule between 14 and 28 days, while the budget was probably closer to $100,000 – still cheap, but not as crazy cheap some people wanted to insist.
But the lack of cash actually enhanced the production’s film noir personality. “Detour” is a movie about people on the fringes of society, and the film’s lack of glamour magnifies the seedy and desperate elements of the drama. Charles Pappas, author of the wonderful 2005 book “It’s a Bitter Little World: The Smartest, Toughest, Nastiest Quotes from Film Noir,” points out that this decidedly anti-Hollywood visual style helps to set it apart from its genre.
“’Detour’ still exerts a tractor-beam pull for the same reason punk appealed back when disco was king,” says Pappas. “The look may have been two-bit but the emotion was true. ‘Detour’ is the perfect win-win of form and function. The people in it are as cheap as the film looks.”
But then there’s film’s astonishing dialogue via Martin Goldsmith (adapting his obscure novel) and an uncredited Martin Mooney. Pappas notes the “gut-punch dialogue” where sarcasm and cruelty turn words into weapons. Notable lines such as “Not only don’t you have any scruples, you don’t have any brains” and “Shut up, you’re making noises like a husband” can create laughs and chills simultaneously.
Pappas adds that “Detour” also offers “the single best explanation of money, the world has ever seen, with apologies to Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes: ‘Money. You know what that is – it’s the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.’”
Director Edgar G. Ulmer, whose 1940s career had detoured away from Hollywood to barely-seen work in grimy programmers and ethnic movies, clearly connected with the material. The film’s shadowy visual style and tight editing creates a staccato experience, and his ability to bring fully textured performances out of the normally stolid Tom Neal and Ann Savage was a minor miracle. (Claudia Drake, who played the singer, displayed a degree of charm in a somewhat underwritten role.)
Admittedly, Ulmer got careless here and there – continuity problems in props and hairstyles and reversed shots with people seemingly driving on the wrong side of the road – yet these mistakes add to the strangeness of the endeavor.
At the time of its release, “Detour” made little impact with audiences – most people saw it as just another B-movie to fill the lower berth of a double feature. PRC would be out of business within two years, while Ulmer would press ahead with a career that was mostly undistinguished. Neal and Savage would soon leave acting – she cited poor career opportunities, while his violent personal life made him persona non grata in Hollywood and would eventually take him to prison on an involuntary manslaughter rap.
So how did “Detour” escape from obscurity to become a classic? Simple: its copyright expired and was never renewed. As a public domain work, it was the subject of endless (and, mostly, crummy) dupes. In the pre-cable television years, “Detour” was a staple of late night programming by local stations seeking to fill airtime with old movies. In this case, familiarity did not breed contempt – it bred a cult following that helped to revive interest in Ulmer and his stars. (A remake in 1992 with Tom Neal Jr. taking over his dad’s role only enhanced the original work’s aura.)
There is a classic line from the film that often gets quoted: “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” In this case, fate turned out to be very kind to “Detour” – and movie lovers everywhere continue to prosper from fate’s benevolence.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!