Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles were talking about Greta Garbo. Bogdanovich, unthinkingly, said, “You know, I love Greta Garbo, but it’s such a shame she did only one really great movie.” There was a pause, Orson just looking at Bogdanovich. Orson then said, “You only need one.”
Ann Savage had a long career with many ups and downs. She did lots of B-pictures (and she usually stood out), but the material was not often up to her natural gifts. She was a hard-working actress, who was dedicated to the craft of acting. She studied with Max Reinhardt, and used the techniques she learned at his classes all her life. She people-watched. She would “rehearse” by herself at home, trying out voices and characters and walks. This was all when she was “not on the clock”. She didn’t wait for an actual job to work on her acting. She was always working. She kept her instincts sharp, it takes practice. She watched other actors voraciously, and while she didn’t try to mimic them, she knew that she should try to steal whenever she could. She loved Carole Lombard’s laugh. It was infectious and brilliant. How did Lombard do it?? She was obsessed with Barbara Stanwyck. She knew that Stanwyck was operating at a very high level of expertise, and so Stanwyck was someone to watch and study and learn from. Savage was very smart in that way. Savage said that practicing her craft kept her “sane in a crazy world”.
Her final role was in award-winning Winnipeg-based director Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg in 2007. She died in 2008.
Not too many actresses’ careers span from almost the silents to digital. Savage’s work ethic never left her. Her appreciation for talent, old and new, was insatiable. She was grateful to the fans who loved her work, who would show up at events to get her autograph. She lived long enough to see the birth of film noir festivals, and TCM, and film bloggers with long memories who paid tribute to her career. She loved it.
But back to the exchange that started this post, the one between Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles.
Lots of actresses made tons of B-movies in the 40s and 50s. Many of them are wonderful. Ann Savage is wonderful whenever she appears.
But in 1945, Ann Savage made Detour, where she played Vera, one of the most unforgettable female characters ever put on screen. Detour was a film noir, shot on a shoestring, in the minimum amount of time. It paired her with the wonderful Tom Neal, playing Al, a dupe of a guy sucked into Vera’s grubby malicious web. They are dynamite onscreen together. Vera is not just a character: she is an acute and sensitive psychological portrait of a woman who is a monster. She’s a monster because of what she has gone through, but film noir, in general, doesn’t care about the reasons. Monsters are monsters. Our nightmares are real. Vera, as played by Ann Savage, is so compelling that you find yourself on her side, merely because she is so watchable. Her behavior is often unforgivable and ruthless, but you can see the hard knocks handed to Vera all over her face. You don’t blame her. You are glad you are not Al, you are glad you never picked up this particular hitchhiker, but she is so compelling, so treacherous, that you get the sense you are in the presence of a predator, an animal whose only concern is to survive. We don’t blame a black widow spider for biting the ankle of a golfer unfortunate enough to step on it. The black widow spider is just doing what it is supposed to do. You cannot blame an animal for trying to survive.
Ann Savage gives an unforgettable portrayal of survival in Detour. It is for her performance as Vera that she will always be known. When you learn a little bit more about her, you realize that Detour did not “come out of nowhere”. It was not an “anomaly” in her career, her greatness in the role was not a happy accident (as happens sometimes: sometimes actors who never really have shined before are given a role that releases something in them that makes them rise to greatness, but it cannot be repeated: they only had that one performance “in them”). Ann Savage was smart enough, canny enough, to look at the script for Detour and know that a goldmine had been dropped in her lap. She knew what she could do with the part. She knew that parts like Vera don’t come along often. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t A-list. Worrying about where you are in the hierarchy of Hollywood is a sure way to turn in forgettable tight performances.
Ann Savage let the panther out of the cage in Detour. She strolls through the picture like a nightmare made manifest, but it is also the most natural and modern of performances. She is, often, quite frightening in it. She doesn’t need to do too much (and that, perhaps, was her greatest accomplishment in the role). No scenery needs to be chewed. She doesn’t need to “show” anything, she doesn’t need to worry about telegraphing to the audience this woman’s devious nature. Ann Savage was not an amateur at this point. She had years of experience, but even more important than her work experience was her attitude towards acting. She loved it. She loved it whether she was doing it on a sound-stage or practicing her craft at home. That kind of dedication is rare, especially in a career like acting where you are congratulated for how famous you are, you are remembered because you were in “big projects” with A-list actors. And even someone like Greta Garbo could be boiled down to having done “only one really great movie”.
And so I always think of Orson Welles’ rejoinder to Bogdanovich when I think of Ann Savage.
How is it a “shame” that a person did only one “really great movie”?
You only need one.
You don’t need more than Vera in Detour. Savage’s performance is one for the ages.
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” is seen as artificial or put-on, but that attitude just shows a lack of understanding of the purposes of style, and how style operates. Good actors inhabit the style in a way that seems inevitable. They are not just realistic. They are super real. This is a highly psychological style of acting (way more so, ironically, than “Method” acting). The style makes demands: 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 wild animal. 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.”
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 a bright light shining into the eyes of a prisoner she interrogates in a locked room. She moves too quickly for her opponents to catch up.
“How far you goin’?” Al asks the woman on the side of the road.
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.