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Image Entertainment presents
"That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you."
DVD ReviewThe story of Edgar G. Ulmer is an interesting one. Born in the Czech Republic in 1904, he began work in film as a set designer on The Golum (1920), and devised the first ever tracking shot for F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh. He then worked on The Cabinet Of Dr. Calgari and a trio of Fritz Lang films including Metropolis before inventing the role of Production Designer (which entailed building perspective sets for each shot of a room) for Lang's landmark M. Moving to Hollywood with the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, Ulmer went to work at Universal as art director for Eric von Stroheim, but within six months was studying under William Wyler to be a director. He produced his crowning achievement at Universal with The Black Cat, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but his affair with Shirley Kassler Alexander, then wife of the studio head's nephew Max, invoked the wrath of Universal's head man, and Ulmer was cast out of Hollywood. Upon marrying Shirley, the two moved to New York and began making ethnic films. After joining the poorest of the Poverty Row studios, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), he could have returned to Hollywood, but instead decided to work independently. Poverty Row allowed for creative freedom, and stretching his limited budgets by using his background in production design, he set about producing genre classics like The Man From Planet X, Bluebeard and the subject of this review, Detour.
Filmed in just six days, Detour is noted as being the noirest of the noir. Shot night for night, primarily in studio, the film recounts via flashback and voiceover the tale that landed Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in a dive of a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. Like it always does, it started out sweet enough. Al worked as a piano player in a night club in New York, with his fiancee Sue as the singer. Al wants to get married, but Sue (Claudia Drake) wants to wait until they've made it, and to do so she's heading off to California with stars in her eyes. Not long after, Al decides he can't take it any longer, and is heading out west himself to join her, though being broke means he is relying on his thumb to get him there. It's a long road, but as he gets into Arizona, he is picked up by a young tycoon type, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who is driving all the way to LA to raise a poke for a big race in Florida. After a while of uneasiness the conversation opens up, and Al notices the scratches on Charles' hand, though it's explained that they are on account of some dame, who he tossed from the car earlier on the trip. Things are going fine, they share a meal and hit the road again with Al driving while Charles takes a nap, but then it starts to rain, and as he pulls over to put the top up, Al discovers that Charles is dead. Fearing he'll be blamed, he drags the corpse off the side of the road, and reassembles himself in Charles' clothing, assuming his identity until he can get into a big city. This plan seems to be going okay until he decides to pick up a hitchhiker, a girl (Ann Savage) who knows more about Al than he wants known, and who will stop at nothing to sucker him into her own little scheme. Al's life is about to take a detour.
Detour is the first Poverty Row film to be chosen for preservation by the Library Of Congress. It captures the absolute essence of film noir, and despite being shot with no budget, easily holds up against other films in the genre. Dark, complete with voiceover narration and shown in flashback, with a femme fatale to end them all. Just avoid looking too closely at the cover if you don't want to have the movie spoiled for you.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The good news is that Detour was rescued and released on DVD. The bad news is that this film is in pretty bad shape, and while it is still watchable, the effects of over a half a century of neglect are very evident. Aside from the usual dust and scratches one expects from an old film, there are several sections where multiple frames are missing, resulting in distracting jump cuts. There are major sections of either poor telecine or extreme frame damage, where the image jumps as though it were loose from the sprockets. Gouges and large areas of other damage are present throughout as well.
These aside, the contrast levels are fairly good throughout the film, though most transitions look like the came from a different source. The transfer itself is fine, but the source is in rough shape, which is a real shame.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Like the video, audio has also suffered over time. The near constant hiss occasionally drops out, making it even more noticeabble when it comes back a few seconds later. There are at least two major dropouts in the sound altogether, and when the picture starts getting rough, as it does in that later third of the film, the audio is right there with it. There are a collection of thumps and static during parts of the film. This certainly isn't a disc that will have you disbelieving the film was made in 1945.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues
Extras Review: Extras? What extras?
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsThis release of Detour is a fine example of what happens when a great film is left neglected, as the packaging boasts a pristine, new, beautifully restored transfer from the original nitrate masters. I guess we have different ideas of what "pristine" means. Noir buffs need this in their collection, but on the understanding that the film is in rough shape.
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