Once upon a time there was a motion picture called Detour (1945). It was a small, wiry thing, gristle and bone. It would have been the runt of any litter, except for the sad fact that it came from a litter of runts, movies made for pocket change and thrust out into the world without support, left to fend for themselves in a harsh and competitive environment.
What Detour lacked in polish and graces it made up for with a steely constitution. It was made of stern stuff, this angry little poem written in the language of failure and defeat. Its flickering frames contain a story of an aspiring artist whose talent would seem to merit one kind of fate, glorious and celebratory, but whose life is shuttled down a cruel detour to a very different destination. He begins his adventure dreaming of a new life in a sunnier world, and finishes up lost and lonely, an exile.
The grubby little picture flailed its way across movie screens in 1945 with no greater or lesser prominence than any of its impoverished brethren. It was a B-movie, and such things have no shelf life. Detour, however, did. More than a half-century later, film critics and fans were still falling over themselves to shower it with accolades. In movie parlance, Detour had “legs.”
It was fashioned by a man named Edgar G. Ulmer, who like some Jewish mystic of myth had a habit of pulling clay from the ground and giving it his special imprint such that it could come to eternal life, a Golem. Detour was not Ulmer’s only bid to cinema immortality, but it was his most distinctive and memorable. His own life had been touched by such detours: an artist of no small ability whose destiny was redirected, stunted, misfired. For the pointy-heads who took up Detour as their cause-celebre, the film and its maker were a recursive Moebius strip, art and artist endlessly reflected in one another.
Ulmer has been called many things—King of the B’s is a common title. But the nickname says more about his circumstances than his role within them. Look past the fact that he made low-budget programmers, look only at the films themselves, and we can see he was heir to the grand traditions of German Expressionism, and a direct precursor and inspiration to the avatars of the French New Wave. That he worked in American genre pictures, mercenary as mercenary gets, makes his legacy that much more important: here was living proof that the world of European high-art cinema and American commercial moviemaking were not mutually exclusive.
Or so film historical conventional wisdom would have you believe. Real life is never so tidy.