Author praises ‘Detour’ for use of limited budget
The University’s American Studies department held a screening of Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic B-movie film noir Detour (1945) yesterday, followed by a question-and-answer session with professor Noah Isenberg, the director of the Screen Studies program at Eugene Lang College. The event featured a brief introduction by Prof. Thomas Doherty (AMST).
Isenberg, the chair of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang, has published numerous books and articles on the subject of film. He has also written extensively on both Ulmer and Detour, a film about piano player Al Roberts’s attempts to hitchhike his way from New York City to Los Angeles to meet up with his girlfriend, only to hit several unfortunate obstacles along the way.
Isenberg repeated throughout both his introduction and the question-and-answer session that the film’s budget—$117,000—is especially noteworthy, given the film’s place in the National Film Registry. “It really was done on a lemonade stand budget,” Isenberg said.
According to Isenberg, the production team cut costs where it could, replacing a Duke Ellington tune with a “tin pan alley number,” utilizing smoke machines to hide a lack of background scenery and filming, for the most part, without retakes so as to save film.
Yet, despite the film’s small budget, Isenberg said that Ulmer and his team were able to convey a “gripping story” that pulls the audience into the movie despite its cinematographic flaws. This feat, Isenberg said, is what defines the film as a “great example” of a film noir narrative.
Isenberg also noted that the film is significant in how it pushed censorship limits. The Motion Picture Production Code, which was written in 1930 but was only truly enforced in 1934, limited notions of bad language, sex and crime on moral grounds. As a result of the code, all movies were required to pass through the office of censor Joseph Breen, which resulted in the moniker, “the Breen office.”
“This is the kind of stuff that would make the Breen office go crazy,” Isenberg said. “The fact that they didn’t reshoot any of the things they were asked to reshoot, the fact that they summarily ignored the Breen office on those things that generally have to do with sex to me means that Breen probably wasn’t paying very close attention to this very low-budget picture.”
Additionally, Isenberg described how the film, which aired on television from the 1950s to the 1990s, experienced a revival in recent years, something Isenberg attributes to its status as something of a B-movie cult classic.
“It really was a cult classic, with ‘cult’ underscored three times,” Isenberg said.
This cult following, said Isenberg, was responsible for getting the film into the National Film Registry in 1992, preserving it for generations to come.
Yet, despite its lack of proper set, its continuity errors—characters’ body positions and clothing styles occasionally change from shot to shot—and lack of budget, Isenberg said the film is still worth viewing for both its narrative and what it does with so little funding. Moreover, Isenberg said, the film is a true testament to Ulmer’s unique style as a director.
“If you’re curious about this director’s crazy life and career, [Detour] makes a great Halloween gift,” Isenberg said. “It’s on the shelves.”