The Savagery of Ann Savage in Detour

She hisses her lines. She bites off the ends of words deliberately, to sound more intimidating. To dominate. Every gesture, every look, is meant to frighten and cow her opposition. Her eyes are intense, and while her mouth rat-a-tats at a mile a minute, her eyes often never move. This is part of the old-style of acting, especially seen in film noir, which is almost a lost art. It’s a “style”, and often “style” can seem artificial or put-on, but not with the greats. They embody the style in a way that seems inevitable. They are more than realistic. They are super real. It is a highly psychological style of acting. Keep the voice low and tough, talk fast, never stop for breath, and don’t over-complicate what you’re doing with the eyes. Keep the eyes focused and still. Ann Savage’s eyes in Detour are the eyes of a predator caught in a trap. She is a sister-in-spirit to the monstrous Cathy from East of Eden. She operates from panic and survival, but her eyes don’t panic. They are focused. You don’t want those eyes turning on you. It would be like being caught by the gaze of the cobra in the garden in Rikki Tikki Tavi. Good luck with looking away and keeping your soul intact. Her logic is impeccable (although criminal). She has thought of everything. No one is a match for her: not the guy who tried to rough her up a couple of miles back: she left him with scratches on his hand as though he had had a run-in with a panther. And certainly not a down-on-his-luck piano player hitchhiking across the country to get to his girl in Hollywood like Al (played by the wonderful Tom Neal). She easily takes charge of the situation the second she gets into Al’s stolen car. She reads him like a book. Al never gets his bearings with her. You can see him deflate. You can see him stare at her, almost with fear, wondering what type of creature he is dealing with. When she gets drunk, she really gets drunk. Memories of Cathy in East of Eden, again, who refused to touch liquor because she knew she would lose control of herself. Ann Savage loosens up when she “gets tight”, and a floozy nagging harridan comes bursting out of her grubby demeanor, a woman who knows what buttons to push in men, and has no scruples about going for the lowest blow.

When we first see Ann Savage in Detour, she stands at the side of a dusty road, her thumb out. She has a bag next to her. She is not dressed as a femme fatale. She wears a fuzzy sweater, a black skirt, and sensible shoes. Her hair is a mess. (Ann Savage told the story, years later, that the hair dresser had given her a beautiful hairdo which was nixed by Ulmer: “I want her to look like she has been sleeping on freight trains for the last week.”) She does. Al, who has been having a hellish time of it himself, sees her and offers her a ride. Before she walks over to his car, she has a moment of thinking about it. It becomes apparent later why she needs to think. She recognizes that car. Then, she has a small moment where she fixes the bottom of her sweater. Straightening it out. As though that one small fix could alter her appearance, make her look respectable. It’s strangely sweet. She still has pride. Let me just adjust my sweater, because I’ve been sleeping in it for weeks now. As she walks to the car, you start to see something else emerge on her face. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she is unsmiling, unsociable. She looks ferocious, frankly, in that short walk to the car. You think to yourself, “You know what, Al? Leave that dame in the dust. It won’t be worth it.”

It’s not.

There are a lot of crazy people out there. Dangerous and violent. Al has already seen a lot in his time hitchhiking and his voiceover talks about the nervewracking moments when you first get in a stranger’s car. Do you talk? How do you gauge if this person is sane, or if he will crack you over the head?

But the most dangerous thing on the dusty road between Arizona and Los Angeles is a diminutive grubby woman in a fuzzy sweater and blocky shoes. Her hissing sharp voice takes no prisoners. When she cuts to the chase, it is like she is shining a bright light into the eyes of a prisoner she is interrogating. She moves too quickly for her opponents to catch up.

Abandon hope. You will not win.

“How far you goin’?” Al asks the woman on the side of the ride.

She says, “How far YOU goin’?”

Vera is going all the way. You can’t ask an animal to behave in opposition to its own nature. You can try to tame said animal. Go for it.

And good luck.

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8 Responses to The Savagery of Ann Savage in Detour

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Savagery of Ann Savage in Detour | The Sheila Variations -- Topsy.com

  2. kathy says:

    I saw the James Dean East of Eden long after I read the book. I was really disappointed there was so little of Cathy. She’s a character you never forget. I saw the version with Jane Seymour. I just thought Jo Van Fleet would have taken it to a whole other level. These shady, evil women are mesmerizing and so much fun to watch! I’ve never seen Detour; but, now I’ll be on the lookout for it. Thanks, Sheila!

  3. Linda says:

    I enjoy following your blog. Interesting post, and by the way, you’re a wonderful writer.

  4. bybee says:

    Thanks for this post, Sheila. I will work Detour into my weekend!

    I wish that a version of East of Eden would come out that would get Cathy right.

  5. sheila says:

    Terrific film. Classic film noir.

    Cathy deserves her own movie. As long as she’s just the monstrous sideshow, the brothel madame that Cal tries to confront, we’ll never “get” Cathy. If you want to “get” Cathy, film noir is the place to start. Out of the Past, Double Indemnity – and then modern noir – The Last Seduction. True sociopaths, all of them. They bring a chill up your spine.

  6. Paul says:

    Having just discovered your blog, I’m working my way through all my favourites – Tura, Ann Savage, Marilyn – and loving the fact that you can find a new way of writing about subjects that have been done a thousand, or in Marilyn’s case, a million times before. The description of her first scene in Detour makes me want to watch it again immediately. Did you see her in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg? A lovely film, and all the better because it gave this extraordinary woman a final screen moment so soon before her death.

  7. sheila says:

    Paul – Yes, I have seen it – really amazing, no? An unforgettable actress, truly her own woman. There’s nobody else like her in Detour. She’s so GRUBBY, so nasty, so real.

  8. Kent says:

    I’ll always remember reading this linked to your facebook page and thinking SHIT MAN!! Ann would have LOVED this!!

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