Scroll down too quickly YouTube’s movie list and you might miss hidden gems such as “Detour,” the 1945 Edgar G. Ulmer B-movie about a loser struggling to free himself, without much conviction, from the successive traps he falls into. About “Detour,” Roger Ebert had this insightful comment: “The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they’re bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life.” This is true of Al Roberts, a New York pianist headed to California where his girlfriend has moved. He hitches a ride with a man who dies unexpectedly. Not wanting to be charged with murder, Roberts steals Haskell’s car and identity. Then, as luck would have it, he falls in with a woman who knows he’s not Haskell and starts blackmailing him.
The entire story, taking place over a day or so, sustains throughout its brooding atmosphere. Also, as the Guardian wrote in a 2004 article about an Ulmer revival at the National Film Theatre in London, it “ boasts production design and lighting as inventive as anything found in the huge budget German silent-era classics, on which he served his apprenticeship.”
Not least interesting is the back story of Ulmer who started out by assisting F.W. Murnau and worked in Hollywood with Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Author of more than a hundred B-movies of which only “Detour” and a couple of others are still known, he was born in Olomouc, in what is now the Czech Republic. A memorial plaque commemorates him in his place of birth. Ulmer died in 1972 but his name crops up occasionally. Peter Bogdanovich wrote of him: “Nobody has ever made good pictures faster or for less money.” Case in point, “Detour,” shot in 28 days for under $20,000.
If Ulmer led an interesting life, so did his male star in “Detour,” looker Tom Neal, who despite never making it big in the movies because of his vile temper, eventually reached a different kind of celebrity, killing his third wife and ending up in jail. As for Ann Savage, the actress playing the sultry femme fatale, the success of “Detour” which has been called “arguably film noir’s greatest low-budget feature,” kept her somewhat in the public eye, a guest at film festivals programming the film, her work called by Wim Wenders “at least fifteen years ahead of its time,” and Guy Maddin casting her in his 2007 “My Winnipeg.” She died in 2008, Ulmer and Neal too are both long gone. But “Detour” remains, still worth a viewing.