Detour should be episodic, but it’s not. The film chronicles the misadventures of Tom Neal’s night club pianist, who’s stuck not being good enough for Carnegie Hall and having a fickle fiancée (Claudia Drake) from the outset. When he does decide to follow her out to her dreams in California, instead of saving bus fare, he hitchhikes and things go badly for him.
Along the way–and even from the opening bookend (Detour‘s almost entirely in flashback)–he runs across interesting people and situations. And even though Martin Goldsmith’s script has some great stuff in it, neither director Ulmer nor Goldsmith turn these little encounters into vignettes. They’re part of a lengthy narrative, with Neal doing a voiceover for the whole thing. The result is a seventy minute picture with some boring spots, which it shouldn’t have.
Part of the problem is how long it takes Detour to define itself. The script has a full first act setting up Neal’s uninteresting back story. He’s a whiny jerk, Drake isn’t likable, Ulmer doesn’t have to budget to do big club scenes–but Goldsmith’s script does make it all interesting. Neal doesn’t even give a good performance.
Things start getting interesting after the hitchhiking montage when Edmund MacDonald picks up Neal. MacDonald’s a real creep; it softens Neal up a bit. But he’s just a MacGuffin to get Ann Savage into the picture. She’s a realistically, thoughtfully conceived evil human being. Savage is occasionally histrionic, but she makes Detour special.
Otherwise, it’d just be boring.