[box cover]

Detour (1945)

Want to start a fight between two snooty film buffs? Ask them what was the first film noir. If you're lucky, one will insist that it's Billy Wilder's 1944 Double Indemnity, while the other will claim it's in fact John Huston's 1941 The Maltese Falcon, and the fur will fly. But if your simple query doesn't liven up the party, ask what is the best of all films noir, and hopefully somebody will bring up Edgar G. Ulmer's seminal Detour, a 1945 film that ranks among the absolute finest in the genre. Ulmer's low-budget potboiler, adapted by Martin Goldsmith from his own novel, tells the story of piano-playing Al Roberts (Tom Neal), who hitchhikes from New York City to Los Angeles to meet up with his girlfriend, aspiring singer Sue (Claudia Drake). But along the way he gets a lift from friendly Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a down-on-his-luck bookie who's looking to put together some cash in L.A. before returning to Florida. But right before the duo reach the Pacific Ocean, Haskell dies in a freak accident and Al decides to abscond with his car and bankroll, figuring the cops would never believe his innocence and any jury in the land would fit him for a noose. The only problem is that Al picks up hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage), who recently traveled with Haskell and knows Al's guilty as sin, landing him in her fiendish, greedy clutches. In addition to the fatalistic noir dialogue ("That's life," Al says, "whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you") and a moody score by Erdody, one of the reasons why Detour has become such a cult classic is that it's a miracle of B-movie production. Shot in only five days on a substandard budget for Producers Releasing Corporation (one of Hollywood's "Poverty Row" studios), Ulmer works within his many financial restrictions to come up with a 68-minute gem. While production flaws sometimes are obvious (especially in the opening credits with a shaky, truck-mounted camera), at many moments Ulmer gets a lot of juice from small settings, such as a diner, a hotel room, or the many moving-car sequences, and he couldn't have asked for two better leading performers. Neal is the perfect noir chump, well-meaning perhaps, but not too bright and easily bullied, while Savage's femme fatale is a venom-spewing vixen willing to play any man to her own advantage. It's little wonder that Detour was admitted to the Library of Congress's film archive in 1993, one of the few films from Hollywood's "B-Hive" to earn such a distinction. Regrettably, while better source materials may exist for Detour, Image has not come up with a definitive disc here. The back of the box insists it's "Beautifully restored from the original 35mm nitrate masters," but if that's true then the restoration team should be shipped off to Siberia. The source print is in shaky condition, and even though it has strong low-contrast details, there are enormous amounts of scratches and other collateral damage throughout the film. What's worse, there are actually moments of film flutter and accompanying audio drop-outs, indicating a second-rate telecine transfer. And as for supplements, there are none — the chapter-selection screen does double-duty as the main menu. Everybody should look to rent this, and serious noir collectors may want to fork out the $18 or so that online retailers are asking, but Corinth Films, who licensed the title to Image for DVD, should see if better material is available for a subsequent release down the road.
—Robert Wederquist

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