Detour (1990): A Wrong Turn

Dave charts the fascinating history of a barely-seen remake of a noir classic.

In polite circles, millionaire multi-hyphenate Wade Williams tends to be described as a heady mix of writer-director-producer-exhibitor-philanthropist. Bitten by the sci-fi bug at the age of nine after catching a showing of Flight to Mars (1951), by 1960 he’d signed his first set of distribution rights with The Man from Planet X (1951) – which was, funnily enough, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. But more about him later…  

In more critical company, the Kansas City born entrepreneur is regarded as a ‘rights squatter’ equal to Raymond Rohauer: a notorious hoarder infamous for claiming film ownership under dubious pretexts. Williams was a little more virtuous than that – though his tendency to tamper with the films he acquired is unforgivable.

In Rocketship X-M (1950), Williams was so perturbed by the use of ill-fitting stock footage he supposedly hired some Cascade Effects alumni to shoot replacement shots [1]. It was a similar situation with Invaders From Mars (1953). When it toured revival houses in 1978, the tinkering mogul cut a number of lines from the original movie because the audience had apparently laughed in the wrong places. Nevertheless, it was the enduring appeal of Invaders From Mars that eventually led to a hefty paycheque. Cannon paid Williams fifty times his original fee for the film’s remake rights and honoured him with an associate producer credit on their subsequent Tobe Hooper-helmed overhaul.

With the Invaders cash in his pocket, Williams set about completing Midnight Movie Massacre (1989): a homage to the films he’d spent his life acquiring. Williams had started the project five years earlier and it had been left unfinished since. Beset by rewrites, a collapsed distribution deal, and the firing of its original director, it was a generally unpleasant experience for the filmmaker – although a screening party for the doomed production presented Williams with a unique opportunity pertaining to noir classic Detour (1945).

“It was Ann Miller, the actress-dancer who told me about it,” recalled Williams in the San Francisco Examiner. “She told me that the movie had been revived in L.A. and had been a big success at Tom Cooper’s Vagabond Theatre. She described how Ann Savage had shown up for it, as well as Tom Neal Jr. who was the carbon copy of his father. Miller told me, ‘He’d be great if you did a remake’. Well, that got me curious, and I tracked down a print.” [2]

Thrilled by what he saw, Williams’ next port of call was the home of Martin Goldsmith, author of the 1939 source material, Detour: An Extraordinary Tale, and the film’s screenwriter. Based on his own personal experiences during Depression era America when he’d drive aspiring actors from New York to Los Angeles in his 1933 Buick for twenty-five dollars a pop, Goldsmith informed Williams that his one-hundred and forty page script had been whittled down by producer Leon Fromkess. The primary excision was a lengthy subplot concerning Sue (the girl Tom Neal’s character heads west for) and the scenarios she finds herself in during her quest for fame. Keen to restore this aspect – both from a completist’s perspective and to also pad out the running time from the original’s seventy minutes to the now-expected ninety – Williams hired fellow Kansas creative, Roger C. Hull, to rework Detour‘s screenplay as Goldsmith’s union membership priced him out.

Convinced that he could make the picture with an economical budget, Williams began prepping Detour 2.0 as a $250,000 feature that would shoot in his home state. A couple of days would be taken up on exteriors, but for the most part he was intent on shooting at Filmworks Studio: an old Kansas City cinema that Williams had converted into a production facility. As per Ann Miller’s recommendation, he did indeed hire architect and occasional bit-part actor Tom Neal Jr. Hollywood had turned its back on his father in the wake of a fistfight with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton in the early ’50s. Blackballed and left to eke out a career in gardening and landscaping, you have to wonder if Neal Jr. accepted the role to bring a little ‘90s attention to his troubled father and his moment in the sun. Of note: in 1965 police were summoned to Neal Sr.’s Palm Springs home. There they discovered the body of his third wife, Gail, who had received a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Claiming a gun accidentally discharged, Neal was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and went on to serve six years in prison. Eight months after his release in 1971, he was found dead in bed by his then fifteen-year old son. His death was attributed to heart failure.

Back to the movie. Not satisfied with just having a connection to the original via his lead actor, Williams also attempted to draw Ann Savage into the remake. Savage was extraordinary in Ulmer’s original. Wim Wenders called her performance “fifteen years ahead of its time” [3] – but soon after her marriage to agent Bert D’Armand in 1946, Savage walked away from the film business. The infrequently-seen Savage did give Williams the honour of a lunch meeting, but after consulting the late Ulmer’s wife, Shirley, and his daughter, Arianne, she decided against a cameo in any prospective new version. Filling her original role was Lea Lavish: a theatre actress from Kansas City in her sole film outing. In the newly written part intended for Savage, Williams managed to coax Susanna Foster out of semi-retirement – a golden age actress who’s perhaps best remembered for playing Christine in Phantom of the Opera (1943).

Williams’ modern day DETOUR (1990) is a disconcerting affair. So much of it is shot-for-shot that it skirts perilously close to the pointlessness of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998). However, the inclusion of the extra Sue (an efficient Erin McGrane) scenes do at least bring a new dimension to the story, offering clarity to what Neal’s Al Roberts might have faced if they were reunited. Speaking of whom, Neal Jr. is certainly an uncanny replica of his Dad. Aged only one year older than his father was in the original, the dimple and steely glare require a double take. Alas, he’s no match in the acting stakes. Lacking the pervading sense of darkness that shrouded his ol’ pop’s incarnation – as well as the weary intonation of his voice – Neal Jr.’s presence gets old quick. It’s a similar scenario with Lavish, who seems to have been sent in the direction of mimicry rather than interpretation, and what begins as a potential femme fatale descends into a low-brow caricature.

Still, Williams’ Detour redux isn’t without value, and you have to give the impresario a modicum of praise for attempting the impossible – even if, ultimately, it’s a sanitised and decidedly faded facsimile. Irrespective of its flaws, there was a degree of interest towards the finished film following its premiere on 2nd November 1990, where it debuted to a near capacity crowd at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. Predicted to have a solid commercial life by the festival’s director, Gregory von Hausch, Detour played a series of galas over a period of two years, while VCI courted it for a home video release paired with Ulmer’s original.

But then came a phone call.

According to Williams [4], a prominent movie producer in the U.K. was intent on forging ahead with a big budget, starrily cast remake of Detour, and the studio backing it were desperate to nix the release of his version. After two years in the wild, and still without a firm handshake on a distribution deal, Williams relented and accepted a cheque for $250,000 – the full cost of his picture. In turn he agreed to relinquish the remake rights for seven years, which made his incarnation of Detour eligible for release in 1999. Sadly, by then all the festival-driven momentum had been lost – and with the studio remake never materialising, Williams’ pet project failed to make even the slightest of dents in film noir mythology.

Detour ’90 isn’t great, but it deserves better than what it’s got. And as a curiosity alone, it’s at least a footnote in the history of one of the greatest films ever made.

[1] The Ultimate Invaders from Mars Savant Essay by Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk, 1999.
[2] Detour Déjà Vu by John Stanley, San Francisco Examiner, 15th November 1992.
[3] Ann Savage Obituary, Daily Telegraph, 2nd January 2009.
[4] Wade Williams Interview, The JM Archives, YouTube, 16th November 2017.

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