When Faces Counted Most

By Noah Isenberg

renegade-girl-william-berke.jpgRenegade Girl, 1946

Detour’s Ann Savage played feral femmes with a skill and energy we won’t see again

While children across the globe were busy tearing open their presents on Christmas Day 2008, Ann Savage, the 87 year-old bad girl of film noir was battling a series of strokes – one of the few fights she would ultimately lose – in a Hollywood nursing home. By the time of her passing, Savage had in fact successfully clawed her way through thirty-plus screen roles, the bulk of them quite nasty, in her extended career as an actress. Perhaps most famous for her haunting portrayal of Vera, the shamelessly brutal, acid-tongued femme fatale in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), she was wooed out of retirement for one last stint before the camera by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, making a final encore appearance as his mother in My Winnipeg (2007).

Born Bernice Maxine Lyon on 19th February 1921 in Columbia, South Carolina, Savage – whose name change came with her self-reinvention in Hollywood in the early 1940s – was raised an only child in a devoutly Baptist family that traded addresses, from New Orleans to Dallas, with dizzying frequency. Already as a young girl, still known as ‘Bernie’, she earned a reputation as something of a firebrand. “I started, or finished, my share of schoolyard scuffles,” she told Eddie Muller in his book Dark City Dames. “When somebody hit me, girl or boy, I fought back furiously.” Many years later, while Savage was rehearsing to play the title role in Klondike Kate (1943), the actor Tom Neal, who also stars opposite her in Detour, thought he would get a laugh from his entourage of onlookers by planting his tongue in Savage’s ear. “I belted him in the jaw,” she recounts plainly, “Nobody was going to play me cheap.”

Before Savage made her way into the movies, she worked in Los Angeles at a number of odd jobs—as a counter girl for Eastman Kodak and as a waitress and desk clerk at the La Brea and Beverly Hills bowling alleys. As she explained in several published and unpublished interviews over the years, it was a pinsetter at the Beverly Hills Bowl who first told her of a secretarial job at Max Reinhardt’s acting school. There she quickly cut a deal with Bert D’Armand, the school’s manager, who would later become her agent, her husband, and the instigator of her critical name change, to barter her hours toiling as a secretary against the cost of school tuition. It didn’t take long for Savage to score a contract at Columbia where, in addition to a string of minor bit parts, she would star in a few second billers, among them Klondike Kate and Two-Man Submarine (1944), both with Tom Neal.

renegade-girl-william-berke-2.jpgRenegade Girl, 1946

Most of Savage’s films from her Columbia days, and from the first two years of her career, 1943-44, are nearly impossible to see today. It’s therefore a minor cause for celebration that just a few months before her death, as if in anticipation of a sudden need to memorialize her lesser-known work, a three-disc box set of video DVD-R transfers, Apology for Murder – Seven Savages, was released by a fittingly dodgy Southern Californian outfit called VintageFilmBuff.com. As one might expect, the image quality is sub-par, often scratched up and blurry, but nonetheless the set affords precious glimpses of Savage’s full range of performances, foremost among them the tawdry western Renegade Girl (1946), in which her depiction of a fast-talking blonde outlaw is strangely compelling. The collection encompasses three other low-budget B picture; all of them, including the title film, a barefaced rip-off of Double Indemnity from poverty row, with Savage as a stand-in for Barbara Stanwyck, were made right around the time that she aced her way into Detour (as a bonus, the box set tacks on the original trailer). It also features a couple of her generally unremarkable TV appearances from the 1950s and a bizarre ‘family’ film – something to be filed away in the miscellaneous drawer – called The Right Side, in which Savage, playing the uncharacteristically virtuous Mary, helps convert her gambling-addicted husband into a morally upstanding, God-fearing citizen.

Despite the cult status that Detour has acquired over time, and the ardent following that the figure of Vera in particular seemed to spark, Savage lived most of her adult life in obscurity. By the mid 1950s, having severed ties to the film business, she was living in New York as Ann Savage D’Armand with her husband, with whom she would later relocate to Miami. Following his death in 1969, she returned to LA, but continued to disavow her acting career, instead finding work as a receptionist at a downtown law office. Unexpectedly, in the autumn of 1983, while still working at the same law office, Savage showed up at a screening of Detour, the opening film of the Ulmer ‘King of the Bs’ retrospective at UCLA. In the Q&A that followed the screening, Shirley Ulmer, the director’s widow and lifelong collaborator, was asked about the afterlife of Vera. “No one knows what became of Ann Savage,” she responded, at which point Savage, still seated incognito in the back of auditorium, piped up and announced, “I’m here.” Soon after, Savage spoke with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times of her role in Detour and admitted, “I was very disappointed that I never got the recognition I should have gotten from that performance.”

my-winnipeg-guy-maddin.jpgMy Winnipeg, 2007 

Of course, in the years since, Savage has received her share of accolades beyond the standard fan mail. Perhaps the most affecting tribute came in the final year of her life, when Maddin, who had long recognized the strength of Savage’s Vera (“a role as much ferally attacked as performed,” in his apt formulation), had the audacity to cast her as his mother in his ‘docu-fantasia’ of his childhood. Rekindling the spirit of Vera in his mother, the titan of 800 Ellice Avenue, Maddin – taking an important page out of Ulmer’s playbook – has her belt out her lines with a terrifying ferocity. We can almost hear faint echoes of “you sap!” and “where did you leave his body!” when she grills her on-screen daughter with “did he pin you down or did you just lie back and let nature take its course!” And, much as in her depiction of Vera, it is Savage’s face alone that inspires intense awe, if not trembling fear. As Maddin observes, “Savage comes from a time when faces, especially faces in luminous, silvery close-up, counted most. . . [her face] seizes the camera, arrests it, and loads even the newest, cheap film stock with quantities of silver not used in Hollywood since the 1940s. The power of her visage is still shocking.”

When news of Savage’s death hit the wires, it was hard to know how to react – whether, as if mourning a fallen comrade from your outlaw posse, to pour a little beer on the ground or, more piously and perhaps in a practice more common in Hollywood, to say Kaddish, the Jewish ritual prayer over the dead, a custom that she certainly would have known from her own circle of friends, collaborators, and loved ones. “Life’s like a ball game,” Savage insists as Vera. “You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you wake up and find it’s the ninth inning.” Her own ninth came to an end this past Christmas, but we would be hard pressed to find other actors of her generation or ours who managed to swing the bat as fiercely as she did.

Noah Isenberg is the author, most recently, of Detour (BFI) and editor of Weimar Cinema (Columbia). In March, he co-organized an Ann Savage tribute at the Arsenal Kino in Berlin.