“The world is full of skeptics,” Detour’s Al Roberts struggles to explain, in voice-over, while on-screen we’re pondering Vera’s dead body. “I know. I’m one myself . . .”
Even now, closing in on seventy-five years after the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) introduced the film to that world of skeptics in 1945, and nearly three decades after its admission in 1992 to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress; after all the inspired critical validation—notably by John Belton, James Naremore, Andrew Britton, Dana Polan, and Greil Marcus—and all the scrupulous cinematic homages, by the likes of David Lynch, the Coen brothers, Guy Maddin, and Christopher Smith; and even after the theatrical premiere of this overdue 4K restoration in 2018, Detour is still, as Winston Churchill wisecracked of Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
From the moment I first saw Detour in Boston during the early eighties on, I swear, a ten-inch student TV, I’ve believed Edgar G. Ulmer’s mix of squalor and artistry to be the smartest, subtlest, and most slinkily disorienting B movie ever made, a touchstone of film noir, and a rare instance of the sideline or underhand cultural astonishments that Manny Farber tagged “termite art,” which, as he proposed in “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” (1962), “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” I also remember thinking that, as pianist/hitchhiker Roberts (Tom Neal) tries to alibi his way past the deaths of Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), the showy gambler who gives him a ride in Arizona, and the sour, corrosive Vera (Ann Savage), Detour looked like the canniest adaptation imaginable of the kinds of novels Jim Thompson would start to write a few years down the line—The Killer Inside Me (1952), Savage Night (1953), A Hell of a Woman (1954), and Pop. 1280 (1964): those fever dreams of edgy, disturbed white males who unravel into murder, their voices alternately swaggering and shrinking, evasive and self-deceiving, their reeling denials tantamount to confessions.
Such a film shouldn’t—almost couldn’t—exist, despite Ulmer’s surprising triumphs across divergent movie genres, nations, languages, and studios. Born in 1904, in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer was raised in Vienna, and his career eventually carried him from Berlin to New York to Hollywood and back and forth again. Ulmer’s dizzying farrago of a filmography could almost be described as encompassing in miniature the range of possibilities and predicaments for a Western director in the European and American twentieth century. People on Sunday, a brilliant 1930 silent reconnaissance of Berlin life, which Ulmer made in collaboration with Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schüfftan, and The Black Cat, a stylish, atmospheric 1934 thriller he made for Universal, ultimately led to “ethnic” features—Ukrainian, Yiddish, African American—and the Poverty Row of PRC. Ulmer died in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, in 1972. His other cinematic detours, directorial and otherwise, lurched from The Border Sheriff (1926), Natalka Poltavka (1937), Green Fields (1937), and Moon over Harlem (1939) through Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion (1945), Carnegie Hall (1947), and Ruthless (1948), on to The Man from Planet X (1951), Murder Is My Beat (1955), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), to summon only a few conspicuous Ulmer wonders, at least some of these sophisticated, personal pictures accomplished on preposterously tight budgets and schedules.
“Not only shouldn’t Detour exist, it almost didn’t.”
His parallel weakness for dubiously self-aggrandizing credits—The Golem, which premiered in 1920, when he was just sixteen; precocious, high-level collaborations with Max Reinhardt and F. W. Murnau—only made the circumstances around Detour sound even more absurd, or a miracle. Back in the 1980s, depending on which fan was tallying the estimations, the movie was earnestly reputed to have cost $60,000, $30,000, or $20,000, over six, five, or three days. And I heard speculation that maybe Edgar G. Ulmer didn’t really create his masterwork—as cineastes like Pierre Rissient intoned ominously, “You know, of course, Ulmer didn’t direct Detour.”
So when, in the late nineties, obsessed with the film, I eventually flew to Madison, Wisconsin, to research the PRC budget, the oddest wrinkle waiting for me wasn’t so much evidence of the actual fourteen camera days on set, or the $117,226.80 final sum, as it was the disclosure casually reposited inside the ledgers that two directors had pocketed paychecks for Detour. Under the subhead “Director and Co-Director,” one L. Landers received $3,000, while E. Ulmer earned only $750. When soon after I met Ann Savage, she showed me her original shooting script over dinner at Musso & Frank Grill, in Hollywood. There on the title page, after the date of May 24, 1945, just one man appears as the director of Detour: Lew Landers. That the notoriously unreliable Ulmer might not have directed Detour, his signature unreliable-narrator film noir classic, seemed so ridiculously apt and resonant you almost yearned for it to be true.
Yet, as Andrew Sarris once quipped, “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer.” And as I came to know Ann, and she recounted her experiences with the director on set, and then as I shadowed a train of documents—the 1939 Martin M. Goldsmith source novel, Detour: An Extraordinary Tale, and a lost 1944 Goldsmith film treatment; some letters, some synopses, and a cast list from the Production Code Administration files; the PRC budget; Savage’s script—I discovered that not only shouldn’t Detour exist, it almost didn’t. The materials of the film found a distinctive shape—the slippery, beguiling, disturbing shape we now take for granted—only late in the creative process, and the inescapable inference was that Ulmer had devised the film we celebrate as Detour during the shooting and editing. If Ulmer had merely adapted the novel, or stuck to Goldsmith’s screenplay, Detour would likely have disappeared into the hodgepodge of his filmography.
Among the most indelible aspects of Detour—which include Savage’s sinuous, menacing portrayal of Vera, and Tom Neal’s furtive, peevish performance as Al Roberts—none is slyer than the film’s mastery of the nuances of subjective narration. Apart from a terse frame—a brief scene at the start in which Roberts thumbs a ride into Reno and his imaginary arrest in a future “someday” at the end—Detour proceeds as a progression of increasingly awful and improbable flashbacks while Roberts sits in the Nevada Diner.
Everything in Detour radiates from Roberts’s troubled psyche—from his early scenes with his fiancée, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), at the Break o’ Dawn Club in New York, where he plays the piano and she sings, and their tense walk through the fog uptown when Sue informs him that she is postponing the wedding and will try her luck in Hollywood; through his hitchhiking west, his ride with the apparently ill, pill-popping Charlie Haskell, and Haskell’s death under puzzling circumstances; to Roberts’s sudden, maniacally commonsensical assumption of Haskell’s identity, his pickup of Vera, Vera’s threats and plans, and finally her still more mysterious death. This intensive subjectivity includes episodes Roberts could not have glimpsed, except in reverie or retrospective pretext, particularly two identical scenes of Sue demurely sitting by her Hollywood telephone and a later image of Vera wrapping a phone cord around her neck.
Many of the flashbacks inside the Nevada Diner emanate from a tune playing on the jukebox, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” that Al and Sue performed together at the Break o’ Dawn Club. As Roberts drifts further from his ostensible goal of joining Sue in Los Angeles, the lyrics rise not as those of a playful torch song but as a literal declaration of his self-doubt, and his destructive apprehensions of certain failure, isolation, doom. “I have always placed you far above me / I just can’t imagine that you love me . . . I can’t believe that you’re in love with me.” Roberts’s recounting amounts to a serpentine of denials, rationalizations, whining, and self-serving delirium. These exculpatory evasions culminate in the now famous last line, as Roberts imagines himself—and we inevitably follow him—climbing into the police car: “Fate or some mysterious force,” he says, “can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”
“The vision of the film remained inchoate right until the last possible transactions of the filmmaking operation.”
This cinematic staging of Al Roberts’s steadily more suspect story is, I submit, the signal achievement of Detour. In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, his book of interviews with the great sound and film editor, Michael Ondaatje focuses on two styles of filmmaking—the first, associated with Alfred Hitchcock, where “a film is already complete in the creator’s head”; the second, associated with Francis Ford Coppola, “that thrives on process, where one choreographs and invents and gathers during the process of filmmaking.” The surviving documentation suggests that Detour is a dazzling instance of the process type. The vision of the film remained inchoate right until the last possible transactions of the filmmaking operation. The ambiguous design was finally accomplished by stripping away characters and alternate viewpoints that had survived into the final shooting script, and beyond. The determination to lock the film fully inside Roberts’s disturbed consciousness emerged late, on set or during editing.
Here is the history of the project, at least as we are able to trace it: On October 30, 1944, PRC producer Martin Mooney sent a treatment for Detour written by Martin M. Goldsmith from his novel to the Production Code Administration (a.k.a. the Breen Office) for review. During a series of interviews conducted by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich in 1970, Ulmer dismissed Goldsmith’s novel as “a very bad book,” and contended that he ultimately rewrote the script himself. In 1938, Goldsmith had published a crime novel, Double Jeopardy, that even more than his Detour shows the sway of James M. Cain. He later wrote two other novels, Shadows at Noon (1943) and The Miraculous Fish of Domingo Gonzales (1950), and he and his cowriter would be nominated for an Academy Award for their story for 1952’s The Narrow Margin. His other screenplays include Dangerous Intruder for PRC (also 1945), Blind Spot (1947), Mission over Korea (1953), and The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959), as well as two 1964 episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Goldsmith’s fiction furnished the essential arc of Ulmer’s film—Sue to Haskell to Vera to oblivion. The Al Roberts figure in the novel is named Alexander Roth, and Goldsmith injected such a consistent Jewish ambience into the novel that it’s tempting to read the Alex-Sue saga as an ethnic allegory about Jews and Gentiles in America. Roth regularly cites the Old Testament—he hazards that his meal with Haskell “tasted like the manna must have tasted to the starving Jews wandering around in the wilderness for God knows how long.” When he rehearses what he might say to surprise Sue in Hollywood, he comically styles himself “Herr Professor-Doctor Heinrich von Lousenhitler.” Sue Harvey’s politics are strictly isolationist: “My pet theory is that if only other people would think more about their occupations and less about what the Japanese are doing or the Germans, there would be little unrest in the country,” she sighs over a newspaper.
Instead of playing the piano, Roth is a jazz violinist at a little club on Fifty-Seventh Street, but he had trained for the classical concert hall. Where Roberts will present himself as passive, Goldsmith accents Roth’s violence—he is fired from the club band for poking a patron in the jaw—and stresses his tough experience. Roth manifests Roberts’s hesitations, insecurities, prevarications, and blindness, yet in broad, cartoonish strokes. Goldsmith furnishes Roth with expedient motives, rather than complex, equivocal actions. While driving with Haskell, Roth dwells on his fascination with money; and whereas Roberts will sullenly turn away from Sue after she announces her California plans, Roth directly accuses her of gold-digging: “That got me to thinking: maybe that was how she agreed to marry me. I had an apartment and forty a week coming in and . . .” Roberts will gradually reveal his core dubiousness, but Roth early on acknowledges that he is a liar (“Maybe I was so accustomed to lying it had become a habit, I don’t know”) and shrugs, “For the life of me, I can’t figure myself out.” Roth coughs up the same disclaimers about fate that Roberts will voice in the film, but we hear them differently, as cruder and more aggressive. Roberts’s contradictions, his guilt or innocence, his destiny or his character, devise a crafty Möbius strip of indeterminacy.
In the biggest distinction, Roth is only half of Goldsmith’s novel, unlike the film’s relentless focus on Roberts. Goldsmith’s Detour proceeds by alternating first-person chapters—from Alexander Roth, then Sue Harvey. For the film, Sue disappears after she leaves New York, except for the phone tableaux mentioned earlier, and any speculation about her actual qualities vaporizes into Roberts’s interior images of her. Although Roberts won’t conceal his hurt and anger when Sue departs for Hollywood, he romanticizes her. Roth is hard-boiled, often caustic. But for Goldsmith, Roth also is a character—albeit a distant one, since they never reconnect—inside Sue’s recollections.
Sue’s chapters mainly spit bitter Hollywood satire. We first catch up with her after she has drunkenly slept with, perhaps been raped by, Raoul Kildare, a vain actor with a sham British accent. She works as a waitress at a drive-in stand on Melrose while waiting for elusive screen tests and resisting as long as she can the invitations of Manny Fleishmeyer, a casting-couch agent who may also be a pimp. Goldsmith’s Detour insistently echoes Cain’s plot in The Postman Always Rings Twice—if Roth revives drifter Frank Chambers, Sue is Cora Papadakis, another would-be actress who turned to fast food. She initially seems to love Alex, but Goldsmith underscores her vacuous self-absorption. When Raoul attempts suicide after she cruelly belittles his lovemaking, Sue decides she wants the actor after all, only to realize he is still married to another waitress at the drive-in. Her Hollywood tale concludes with a call to Manny Fleishmeyer.
Although Ulmer’s Detour loses the Sue Harvey voice, the film manages an artful double narration—there are Roberts’s words and then our own reading, as it were, between the frames. Goldsmith’s Detour really amounts only to an ironic double plot, as a matched pair of phonies, Alex Roth and Sue Harvey, meet their mismatched comeuppances.
The Goldsmith treatment Mooney messengered over to the Breen Office no longer exists, but all documents around the adaptation establish that, right into the editing and shooting phases of Detour, the production concentrated not on devising a double narration but on refining the Alex-Sue double plot. As we work backward from a November 1, 1944, letter that the Breen Office wrote Mooney about the treatment, it’s clear Goldsmith held on to the parallel Sue-in-Hollywood story from his novel. As Breen, for instance, cautioned PRC, “The interest of Raoul in Sue should be merely that of a suitor, and there must be, of course, no suggestion that Raoul is ‘on the make’ for her.” Similarly, “there must, of course, be no suggestion that Agent Fish has sexual designs upon Sue, and that she is debating at any time whether or not she should give herself to him.” Agent Fish presumably is the de-ethnicized rechristening of Fleishmeyer. Breen also wished PRC to clarify that Vera “is a crook and not a prostitute,” and felt it was “essential that Alex and Vera do not register as man and wife, and that they be shown living in different apartments. There should be, of course, no suggestion of a sex affair between them.” Summarizing their caveats, the Breen Office wrote Mooney, “If you decide to lay this story in Hollywood, it is important that Agent Fish and Actor Raoul be so characterized as not to reflect discredit on the Motion Picture industry.”
Fascinatingly, this November 1 report also mandated a scene that, after significant reimagining, eventually would furnish the final shots of the film. “It is absolutely essential,” Breen argued, “that at the end of this story Alex be in the hands of the police, possibly having been picked up by a highway police-car as he was hitchhiking. The concluding narration by Alex’s voice should be along the lines that he wonders if all the true facts concerning his troubles will come to light, and what the law will do to him.”
The next document chronologically in the Production Code Administration files, a “synopsis” (likely of an early draft script) dated December 29, 1944, incorporates this demand for the ending. There is as yet no hint, however, that the arrest is a hypothetical daydream from Alex Roth’s/Al Roberts’s future, as the scene will play in the film. The synopsis renders the episode as entirely matter-of-fact: “The police arrest Roth . . .”
The stilted Christmas-week synopsis situates Roth for the first time inside a Nevada diner, reacting to a jukebox song:
The story opens in a cheap diner in Las Vegas where some truck drivers and the male lead, Alexander Roth, are eating. Across the street is the marriage parlor of a Justice of the Peace to which a wedding party have arrived.
The jukebox plays “Sophisticated Lady” and Roth loses his temper at this music. At this point and throughout the story, Roth’s voice comes over at times to indicate what he is thinking, and now they indicate that he cannot stand that piece of music.
There is a cut back to a cheap cafe, Break o’ Dawn Club, in New York, where Roth was the pianist and his sweetheart, Sue Henry, was the singer. Roth had written “Sophisticated Lady” for Sue to sing. Roth wants to get married but Sue says she is going to have a try at Hollywood; they quarrel and she goes to Hollywood, while Roth remains behind. A little later Roth telephones Sue and tells her he is going to hitch-hike to Hollywood.
In Arizona Roth is picked up by Charles Haskell Jr., a cheap gambler who is also ill . . .
“Sophisticated Lady” persisted into Ann Savage’s final shooting script, and “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me”—a Broadway number by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill from much earlier, in the 1920s—replaced the 1932 Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, and Mitchell Parish tune of early love, disillusionment, nostalgia, and regret only during filming. While “Sophisticated Lady” emphasized the Sue-in-Hollywood story, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” would shift the musical stresses to Roth’s/Roberts’s melancholy inwardness.
The December 29 synopsis further escalated the parallel Hollywood plot, past Goldsmith’s novel, though agent Fish and actor Raoul had apparently exited the film PRC was planning. Now, by way of an atmospheric glance at a Vegas “marriage parlor,” this Detour cut Roth’s cross-country flashbacks against scenes of a Nevada wedding. The bride of that opening wedding party, we twig at the close, is none other than Sue (for some reason here tagged Sue Henry), and her groom, Tony Dillon, emerges as a bookie who once knew Charles Haskell. Ever since they reached Los Angeles, Roth and Vera have unwittingly bird-dogged Sue. When they fail to dispose of Haskell’s car, as the synopsis resumes,
they also find a list of some people who owed Haskell money and Vera insists that Roth try to collect these items.
The first man on the list has skipped town; the second one is dead; the third one is a big shot gambler, Tony Dillon, who owns a gambling house on the strip and who says Haskell really owed him money, so he won’t pay anything.
Then Vera reads in the paper that wealthy exporter Charles Haskell Sr. is about to die and she insists that Roth pretend to be the son of this man so he can get some of the estate. Roth refuses. Vera, evidently tubercular, says she knows she is going to die soon, but she intends to have some of the luxuries of life before she dies.
Then newspapers report finding of body, in Arizona, apparently that of Roth, and Sue, working as a carhop in a drive-in, sees the article.
Roth and Vera quarrel about her pressure on him, and she takes the phone into the bedroom to call the police. Roth tries to pull the telephone cord out of the room but it is around Vera’s neck and she is accidentally strangled to death.
After Roth flees, the plots intersect outside the Vegas diner:
Then back to Las Vegas where Gambler Tony Dillon and Sue have come to be married. Roth is at the lunchroom since he has started hitch-hiking east after the death of Vera. The police arrest Roth and his voice wonders what will become of him when he goes on trial.
Dillon and Sue emerge from the marriage parlor, now married, and Sue being unaware Roth is still alive.
Six weeks after logging this synopsis, the Breen Office wrote on February 13, 1945, to Leon Fromkess, president of PRC, to critique a new (second-draft) Detour screenplay, indicating that they were “pleased to report that the basic story seems to comply with the provisions of the Production Code.” Still, they ordered small modifications, some intended to minimize the “unacceptable gruesomeness” of both Haskell’s and Vera’s deaths, or to avoid the “suggestion of any sex suggestiveness” between Roth and Vera; and Vera’s drinking, Roth’s use of the word fry to invoke the electric chair, and the diner proprietor’s spitting on his towel also troubled Breen. One minor caution—“Here and elsewhere we assume that Verney will be played merely as a ‘fuss budget’ rather than any suggestion of a ‘pansy’”—signals that the Nevada wedding endured into this script. We know from Savage’s shooting script that Verney was the justice of the peace who married Sue and Tony Dillon. Finally, another letter, this one from PRC assistant story editor Alice Young to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and sent on May 26, cataloged the last of the preproduction revisions: “The changes made since your previous reading cover a few dialogue changes, a change in the name of the main character to Al Roberts, and the elimination of the scenes covering the attempt to collect the IOUs of Haskell.”
Savage’s shooting script, as I said, bears the date May 24, 1945, and reflects these adjustments. But “Sophisticated Lady” is still the song playing on the jukebox, and her version retains the Las Vegas nuptials of Sue and Dillon. Roberts’s flashbacks are framed at the start and finish by his girl’s marriage, and then interrupted again after Haskell’s death by a long wedding-parlor scene choreographed to the strains of the Ellington tune drifting in from the diner across the street. In Savage’s script, moreover, Sue works as a carhop in the same drive-in where Al and Vera eat after deciding not to sell Haskell’s auto. Although she doesn’t see Roberts, she learns of his “death” from a newspaper they leave on a tray, the newspaper in which Vera read about Haskell’s father’s illness. Whether plangent or shot through with slapstick, the episodes inside the “wedding chapel—horace verney, justice of the peace” scene dissipate the intensity of Roberts’s retrospection. Amid jokes, Sue and Al’s near misses shrink the psychic distance between them to tiny mordancies of geographic proximity. At the stage of the final shooting script, Detour was not yet sealed inside Roberts’s troubled head. Goldsmith’s screenplay would have yielded a different film.
Now, what about Lew Landers? The production budget for Detour distinctly assigns Landers four times as much cash as Ulmer, and he stands as the director of record on Savage’s shooting script. Landers directed other films for PRC in 1945, including Crime, Inc. (also starring Tom Neal), and Shadow of Terror, which was released just before Detour. Perhaps even more prolific than Ulmer, Landers, credited with over 300 films and television episodes, also worked at Universal during the thirties (under his birth name, Louis Friedlander), and crossed all genres, from thrillers, westerns, and historical swashbucklers to Johnny Weissmuller vehicles. Did Landers oversee Detour from Goldsmith’s initial treatment through the completion of a shooting script? At PRC, Ulmer operated as a studio executive as well as a director, developing or designing additional projects—he boasted to Bogdanovich, “I did so many pictures for them. What helped me at PRC was that I could use my crew—I was nearly running the studio from a technical end . . . At that time I was called ‘the Capra of PRC.’” Since Shadow of Terror and Detour would have been in development at PRC in the same season, did Landers opt for—or was he reassigned—the other film? A story Wheeler Dixon tells about Shadow of Terror in his history of PRC intimates just how pronto and serendipitously the Poverty Row organization moved:
A PRC release slated for fall 1945 was an original story by actor Sheldon Leonard called Shadow of Terror. It was about a research chemist (Richard Fraser) who has the formula for the most powerful explosive in the world, of how he was beset by spies in an attempt to wrest the formula from him, and of his eventual triumph. An average spy yarn, directed in average fashion by old faithful Lew Landers. While still in the cans awaiting final editing, a headline event occurred on August 6, 1945. The atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; by the first of September, the war was over and peace treaties were being signed in Tokyo Bay. The explosive formula was never mentioned in Shadow of Terror; PRC obtained newsreel clips of the atomic test explosions (just made public), tacked them on to the end of the film, had a narrator’s voice intoning that this was Fraser’s secret all along, and the movie was ready for theaters by the first week in September. It was such a rush job that the atomic bomb footage had to be physically spliced into the footage, rather than printed into the original negative. But PRC had made a coup. The war was over, and a B picture was there first.
“Directed in average fashion by old faithful Lew Landers.” Might Landers’s higher fee denote only his status as a freelancer at PRC, while Ulmer was under contract, a salaried employee, his weekly wages ($250) written off to Detour? Was Landers’s pay for Shadow of Terror absorbed into the Detour budget? Still, when did Landers leave the project? Savage told me that, prior to filming, Ulmer ran her screen test, conducted all rehearsals, and then directed every scene in which she appears. She also knew Landers—he had just piloted her through After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943) and Two-Man Submarine (1944, costarring Neal). “Lew was an old friend,” Savage said, “and I liked him a lot. But I never saw him anywhere near Detour. It was always Edgar.”
Filming on Detour began on June 11, 1945, less than three weeks after the date on the Savage screenplay that still carried Landers’s name. Against the legends, or Ulmer’s own bluster, of a scant six days, the budget specifies that photography took eighteen days: fourteen on PRC soundstages, four on location. At $117,226.80, Detour came in nearly $30,000 over budget—according to some fanciful early appreciations of the film, $30,000 was the entire budget! Movie bookkeeping is notoriously shifty, but the only figure I’m in a position to verify, Savage’s salary of $2,100, by her recollection is accurate.
As for the nagging issue of the wedding chapel and the other Sue Harvey scenes, and whether Ulmer filmed them or just omitted them before shooting? Well, we can say . . . maybe. The actor costs in the budget look high—“bits” and “extras” at $4,523.70, amounting to more than half the $7,030.89 spent on leads. Promotional materials in the Breen Office files, moreover, suggest that the roles of Dillon and Verney were at least cast. A Detour credits sheet and plot précis of the sort a studio would spread among distributors and potential reviewers, and designated “not for publication,” assigns the role of Tony Dillon to Roger Clark (Ulmer used him for the 1943 Girls in Chains), and Verney to Lucien Littlefield (William S. Hart’s sidekick in the 1925 Tumbleweeds). The précis opens on Roberts and Verney—“Al Roberts, a defeated-looking man in shabby clothes, is furtively drinking coffee in a Las Vegas diner when Horace Verney, a justice of the peace, comes in. He needs some witnesses in a hurry for a marriage he has to perform . . .”—and concludes after the wedding: “Roberts leaves the diner and passes by the chapel where Sue, believing him dead, has just married Tony Dillon. He hits the road again. A car pulls to a halt beside him. It is a police car.”
I prefer to think the frugal Ulmer didn’t shoot Goldsmith’s extra scenes, that he created Detour in the camera, not just the editing room. My preference—my guess—is to think he did this for reasons equal parts art and commerce. As Ulmer told Bogdanovich, “I have nothing against commercialism, but you cannot outweigh the creative urge . . . I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money’s sake.” What he accomplished when he jettisoned “Sophisticated Lady” maybe led Ulmer to sidestep those other scenes as well. PRC had budgeted $3,500 for “Sophisticated Lady.” When he substituted “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” Ulmer not only tunneled Detour deeper into Al Roberts’s psyche, he also saved his studio $2,000.
“It’s now commonplace to approach the film as an allegory for Ulmer himself.”
During his conversations with Bogdanovich, Ulmer—reviewing his life during the twenties—refers to both Europe and Hollywood as home. “Home,” as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “wherever that may be.”
Decades ago, Dana Polan and George Lipsitz associated Detour with Ulmer’s own geographical detours, and it’s now commonplace to approach the film, especially the fallen-classical-virtuoso-turned-nightclub-piano-player icon of Al Roberts, as an allegory for Ulmer himself, the high-culture collaborator of Reinhardt and Murnau, for Christ’s sake, and his anxious, humiliating exile to Hollywood’s Poverty Row.
Once broached, the concept is so obvious, who could refuse it? The surprise is how thoroughly Ulmer himself resisted spotlighting that artist-manqué slant for Roberts in his adaptation of Goldsmith’s novel. Early on, Al Roberts showcases Chopin and Brahms, and wisecracks sardonically to Sue about making Carnegie Hall “as a janitor,” but once he sticks out his thumb, you’d scarcely know his fingers had graced a piano. Yet Goldsmith’s Alexander Roth constantly worries the pop/classical dichotomy, at once apologetic and grandiose:
I met her while I was playing first fiddle in a little club on West Fifty-Seventh Street, not far from Columbus Circle. I was only doing that sort of work to force my old man off the relief rolls. He wanted me to go on studying under Professor Puglesi, but I’m funny that way. I don’t like people making any sacrifices for me—not even my own father. As it was, my dad almost died of shame when I came home one day and told him what I was doing and that I intended to keep it up. And the professor? Well he damned near blew his cork. “A concert violinist playing jazz music in a cheap night club! Ye gods! My boy, in three—maybe even two—years I will have you making your debut. You will be the envy of everybody who can call himself a musician. Believe what I am telling you and quit this foolish job right away.”
As Ulmer’s Roberts foreshadows the protagonists of Jim Thompson’s first-person novels, Goldsmith’s Roth predicts the shattered highbrow musicians of David Goodis’s fictions, especially Eddie, the saloon entertainer in the 1956 Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player).
If rote, self-pitying allegory was what Ulmer was after, Roth was ready-made. Yet Detour ultimately does shade as an intensely personal film—a deflected autobiography of cinematic style. From the spectral coffee cup at the Nevada Diner to the colossal shadows of the musicians backing Sue, from Roberts’s motel nightmares about Haskell to his fixation on fate, doom, and identity, so much of Detour—even the notion itself of a subjective story line—is a swirl of expressionistic flourishes. Ulmer stitched into nearly all his films brilliant shreds and patches of the European masterpieces he had seen as a young man in Vienna and Berlin—The Golem, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Murnau’s Nosferatu and The Last Laugh: among the films, in short, he would later claim he had worked on.
To dismiss those Ulmer claims as exaggerations, even lies, is to miscalculate, I believe, their point and value, and mistake him for Roberts. I think of Bob Dylan recreating for interviewers his childhood experiences of carnivals or Texas bluesmen, and the thrilling, still unsettling sense the mature Dylan can give of inhabiting a musical country peopled entirely by the great dead: Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie, Rabbit Brown, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Charley Patton, Harold Arlen, Al Jolson, and Emmett Miller.
Near the end of his life, as he conjured up a past with Reinhardt and Murnau, both of whom he actually had done tasks for, but also promiscuously G. W. Pabst, Fritz Lang, Carl Boese, Paul Wegener, Ernst Lubitsch, Mauritz Stiller—whomever—inserting himself into their momentous films much as he once infused traces of those grand old films into his own, Ulmer was mapping his private symbolic landscape, the dramatic and psychic world where all his movies, like Detour, take place.
Detour, finally, suggests a rank sequel to Ulmer’s own People on Sunday, a sort of last city-symphony film after the tradition of Dziga Vertov, Walter Ruttmann, Alberto Cavalcanti, Jean Vigo, Charles Sheeler, and Paul Strand. Back in 1930, Ulmer and co. had pioneered a fresh documentary joy—erotic play, possibility, wonder, freedom, technological marvels—in modern urban spaces, but Detour narrows the city into a claustrophobia of process shots and crummy sets. The New York and Los Angeles of Detour are labyrinths, but exhausted and futile. Has Manhattan ever looked deader than when Al and Sue meander their way across Ulmer’s murky soundstage (street signs, lamps, a horse-driven milk wagon)? Hollywood is a blur of car lots and threadbare apartments, and once there, Al and Sue never were further apart. The web of unconscious desires that might drive people like them across America to California constricts to stock footage of switchboard operators, phone lines, and empty highways, tightens into murder by a telephone wire. If inside his dreams Al fancies himself a gallant flaneur, he winds up a silent stalker, calling Sue but hanging up on her, and a killer.
It’s here, then, in the fall of 1945, that expressionism, the city symphony, and Detour tumble into film noir, a term French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier will introduce the following year. Ulmer told Bogdanovich that he had once planned a film called Single Indemnity. But as Al Roberts says, “The world is full of skeptics.”
The author wishes to thank Arianné Ulmer Cipes, Ann Savage, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, the Margaret Herrick Library, and the editors of LIT magazine, where, in 2007, a very early version of this account appeared.
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