Noir Femme Fatale: Ann Savage, 1922-2008
Except for one performance in a dozen-year acting career, she was as forgotten in Hollywood as a lost pawn-shop ticket. But in that single role of a hitchhiker in Edgar Ulmer's 1945 film noir classic, Detour, Ann Savage forever branded the character of Vera into the pop imagination. Detour was a B-movie made on half a shoestring but became an enduring fable in the mythology of sexual warfare, which is why Savage's death this past weekend at the age of 87 warrants more than a footnote.
Detour's narrative is an improbable domino fall of events that puts a hard-luck New Yorker named Al Roberts (played by Tom Neal) behind the wheel of a car -- and in clothes -- belonging to a dead man. Roberts is driving to the Coast to meet his sweetheart, but somewhere in the California desert he spots Vera thumbing a ride.
When her character is summoned by Roberts with a shout from his car, Savage tugs at her sweater almost imperceptibly, just enough to accent her figure for the sake of a potential benefactor. Her face remains as hard as granite.
"She looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world," Neal says in voice-over, as Roberts later gazes at a slumbering Vera. "Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty . . ."
Vera, in fact, is a roadside succubus thumbing her way from New Orleans to wartime Los Angeles for no apparent reason. She was every man's worst individual fear -- a drifting strain of the clap, perhaps, or the threat of personal obligations or, in Al Robert's case, a demon who sinks her blackmailing claws into him and won't let go until she's shaken every dime from his pockets. Nothing about Roberts placates Vera -- neither his logic nor his attempts to flatter or threaten her.
Years ago Janey Place, writing in Women in Film Noir, observed that the genre "is a male fantasy, as is most of our art." Still, she wrote, film noir represented a break with film tradition by portraying women who were not passive but who "are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality."
In Detour Ann Savage embodied all those things, from the way she tugged at that sweater to the unbreakable chokehold she had on a desperate fellow traveler. She was every man's nightmare -- and so, also, his most secret desire.