Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson.
Detour (1945), tonight’s Winter Nights film, comes from a little independent studio despised for its cheap pictures. The studio, PRC, was said to be an acronym for “Putrid, Rotten Crud.” (Well, it wasn’t actually “crud,” but you get the idea!) This moniker was so pervasive that today, when a PRC movie is recovered, we often find that this phrase has been marked on the film can by an unhappy projectionist. Why then would the IMA choose to show a film from such a studio?
The answer is simple. Detour (1945) is an exception to the rule. Director Edgar G. Ulmer never let a tiny budget hamper him. Like many film noir directors, Ulmer had a background that stretched back into the German Expressionist era in the 1920s. The Black Cat (1934) was his first major American film as director, and it was made at a time when Universal was strapped for cash. Rather than shoot it as a traditional horror film in a drippy castle, with expensive sets, Ulmer rewrote the movie to take place in an ultra-modern fortress, with spartan interiors that cost little to make. The film was a hit, and Ulmer seemed on his way as a top director.
Shortly afterward, Ulmer met his future wife Shirley, who was married to producer Max Alexander, nephew of studio boss Carl Laemmle. Shirley and Max divorced, she married Ulmer, and the new couple were banned from the Universal lot. Ulmer’s career was over before it had really begun. He was banished to small studios for many years, where his talent for stretching a dollar was tested every day, especially at bottom-of-the-barrel PRC.
PRC specialized in westerns and cheap horror films. At the time, theaters would pay a flat fee for a movie that could play in the bottom half of a double feature. If PRC could make a movie for less than that fee, then it was profitable before it ever played in theaters. Their profits went up as the film budgets went down. Who cared if it was any good?
Ulmer cared. By crafting Detour as a road-trip sort of film, the need for sets was minimal, and he could concentrate on action and dialogue. His leading man, Tom Neal, was reliable, although somewhat temperamental, and the rest of the cast were competent B-movie actors who could deliver a decent performance with minimal rehearsal time.
Detour begins with a hitchhiker (Neal), who assumes the identity of a dead man. The man had died accidentally during a road trip, and to avoid suspicion, Neal assumes his identity. Things go downhill from there, as he meets up with a woman who knew the dead man. She uses this knowledge for blackmail, and Neal gets in over his head. The plot twists a great deal, so the less said about it the better!
The film died away soon after its release, but it became a sleeper hit as it was released to endless television broadcasts. PRC went out of business and failed to renew the copyrights on many of its films, including this one. TV managers loved it, because they could show the film for free. Audiences appreciated Detour’s stark black-and-white photography, dank mood, and double-dealing characters. Its reputation grew to the point that Detour is now considered a landmark film noir.
Unfortunately, the same copyright status is hampering Detour’s survival today. There is little money to make in preserving a film without copyright, since anyone can make his own copy. There has been no definitive preservation made. Many 16mm duplicate copies have made it to DVD and even internet download sites, but they generally have very poor image quality. The 35mm print for this showing is the last one known to survive. It comes from the collection of Wade Williams, who loves Detour so much that he remade it in 1992 with Tom Neal’s lookalike son!
After Detour, Edgar Ulmer recovered his career, although he often did low-budget films afterwards. When the Library of Congress recently restored The Man from Planet X (1951), they discovered that the original negative was made up of dozens of different kinds of film. Ulmer had snagged unused portions of film from other productions, sometimes a few feet at a time, to save money. Over the years, some of these differing stocks reacted with each other. Some sections got darker and some brighter. It was virtually impossible to reprint the film properly!
Ulmer died in 1972. His daughter Arianne, who is active in recovering and restoring her father’s films, was instrumental in helping the IMA get the print of Detour for this special showing.