by Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins
Over two successive weekends in January 2014, with the support of director Dennis Lim and his colleagues at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I was lucky enough to help program a series called Edgar G. Ulmer: Back from the Margins. It was scheduled more or less to coincide with the publication of my biography of Ulmer, a book that I’d labored on more than a decade, and was to bring increased attention one of mid-century Hollywood’s most neglected filmmakers. At that time, Ulmer was still far better known as a “cineaste maudit,” an accursed filmmaker whose work tended to exist, if at all, in a subterranean world of collectors, cinephiles, and small, art-house film geeks—or in the pages of the “Expressive Esoterica” section of Andrew Sarris’s American Cinema—than as a director whose work would ever receive the kind of loving, painstakingly meticulous, and expensive digital restoration that other, big-name directors of his generation were beginning to enjoy. Edgar Ulmer on Blu-ray?
So when Criterion announced the release Detour, Ulmer’s best-known film, in a lavish 4k restoration undertaken by the Academy Film Archive in collaboration with the Cinémathèque Française and partly bankrolled by the George Lucas Foundation, this was a minor cause for celebration. For the past couple of weeks, Twitter and social media have been abuzz with excitement about the March 19 release. The initial round of reviews have begun to trickle in from online outlets like Slant and some of the trusty older magazines like Filmmaker, and the chorus of praise has been almost startling. For those of us, who first watched Detour on tawdry, scratched-up 16mm prints—in my case, it was at the Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley, in the early 1990s—or on pockmarked VHS cassettes, the thought of a 4k restoration, available in Blu-ray format, could almost seem sacrilegious. A Finnish film critic, Hannu Björkbacka, got in touch with me to convey a mild sense of panic via Twitter (“How is that even allowed?”), wondering if such a restoration would somehow compromise the integrity of a movie made for one of the lowliest of Poverty Row studios. But as it turns out, Detour has never looked so good and has never had such potential to reach a new audience who may now be even more inclined than Sarris was in 1968 to assert, “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer!”
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