“How far you goin’?” “How far YOU goin’?”
Happy birthday, Ann Savage

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.

Ann Savage 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” 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.”

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 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.

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14 Responses to “How far you goin’?” “How far YOU goin’?”
Happy birthday, Ann Savage

  1. Terrific post, Sheila! I admit that I don’t know much about Ann Savage but your comments about her attitude toward acting HAVE to be right. No one could spit that performance out of nowhere. After GUN CRAZY, DETOUR is my favorite noir. It’s no coincidence that they both have classic femme fatale characters for the ages.

    And you made me wonder which Garbo film they are talking about!

    • sheila says:

      Marilyn – thanks!! Yes, Detour is one of my favorite film noirs too!

      And I agree about her acting. There’s that quote “fortune favors the prepared mind”. Ann Savage was PREPARED. She had been preparing herself for an opportunity like Detour for years – but the best part is: even if Detour hadn’t come along, she still would have been devoted to that preparation process.

      Of course, thank goodness Detour came along!

      Let me look in the Orson/Bogdanovich book where the conversation takes place and see if they mention the actual film. Which one do you think it is? Queen Christina? Or ….

      I love how Orson kinda puts PB in his place!

      • Maybe NINOTCHKA. I can think of several films that I consider really great, however, including FLESH AND THE DEVIL, THE MYSTERIOUS LADY, and QUEEN CHRISTINA.

        • sheila says:

          I love Ninotchka, too – I believe it is one of PB’s favorite films. I’ll check when I get home, and see the surrounding context of the comment.

          • sheila says:

            Marilyn – I went back to the This is Orson Welles book to find the context of the Garbo comment. There’s quite a bit of back and forth about Garbo throughout the book but here is the nugget of it:

            PB: What did you think of [Garbo]?

            OW: The greatest … I see from your silence that you don’t agree.

            PB: I just think if it hadn’t been for Ninotchka and Camille you might not say that, because —

            OW: If it hadn’t been for Don Quixote, I don’t think you could say that Cervantes was the greatest writer in Spanish literature.

            PB: My point is, she wasn’t great when she didn’t have a really good director.

            OW: There you are, plugging the directors again.

  2. sheila says:

    Marilyn – just read your piece on Detour. Great stuff. I absolutely loved this:

    // What really makes this film fascinating is Al’s first-person narrative. This is the film that taught me an unforgettable lesson about the unreliable narrator. If we hadn’t had the voiceover from Al’s point of view, we would be inclined to think he was a true innocent caught in a spiral of bad luck and fear. Instead, we are forced to examine every element of the film to see if it seems plausible, to see if maybe it didn’t happen another way. Was Al’s musicianship as great as we heard, or was it what he imagined? If he really was the next Paderewski, as his boss snidely suggests, would he really be playing in a dump?//


    Here is Marilyn’s review of DETOUR.

  3. It’s interesting to think of Vera through Al’s eyes. It adds another layer to Savage’s performance. She is playing Vera AND Al’s perception of Vera. Is she really that venomous? The entire film is so layered.

  4. Kent says:

    Ann would have loved this piece, Sheila! Thank you! Ann was a very complex woman driven by many wonderful and some dark things, but I feel her greatest desire was to be taken seriously as an actress. She would have loved you for the detailed and passionate understanding you give her art.
    Ann was singular enough to say that she KNEW she was hitting it on the set of Detour, and for her it was confirmed when the very fast moving, hard bitten crew stopped the shoot to applaud her. Nothing like that ever happened on a B movie set in Hollywood of the forties. More significantly, nothing like that had happened to HER on her nearly two dozen previous movies.

    Though much has been written about Detour, very little has ever focused on the actual mechanics of the acting. It is nice to see that you also have great praise for the art of Tom Neal. Ann always went far out of her way to praise his performance in Detour. He is FANTASTIC in the film. Acting. Neal was not a weak man or passive in the slightest. It is only in the pulpy, reductive sob sister style of writing and public speaking that Tom Neal is assumed to actually “be” like his character. NOTHING, not one frame, of Ann and Tom’s three previous movies together hints for the slightest second at the performances they both give in Detour.

    But this is her day… she was a great lady. She had a strong heart and it was a good one. She worked hard at living a better life than she was given at the start. She was constantly learning and growing. She watched a few of Guy Maddin’s movies and instantly understood the brilliance of his approach to film and HOW he chose to shoot his coverage as a director. In addition to acting, Ann also understood the camera. She knew that Guy and she could accomplish something extraordinary… and they did. She was a true genius of acting and also of life. You would have loved her and I know she would have loved you. When she wanted to absorb a piece of writing she would ask to have it read to her. If she loved it, she would ask to hear it twice. This is a piece she would have asked to hear three times.

    • sheila says:

      Kent! Tears welling up, what a beautiful comment, and a fascinating portrait of this actress, her work ethic, her essential smarts, and her talent.

      Great point about Tom Neal: how much fun did those two have playing off of each other, huh?? Perhaps it was the same for him, too: he knew that when that script came along, he had hit the jackpot.

      How exciting to have a crew applaud you. I know that that is a rare thing indeed. But her performance is not just good – it’s exciting. I still get a thrill watching her work.


  5. Maureen says:

    I haven’t seen this movie! I am adding it to my must see list pronto. How much do I love that this post is about Ann Savage, film noir, but also mentions one of my favorite heroes-Rikki Tikki Tavi!

  6. Kent says:

    Thanks again Sheila for this great tribute to a great lady! More of her work deserves to be seen. She was hilarious in real life, and her timing in the handful of comedies she made is exquisite. But the ONE, Detour, continues to be seen and written about, and it still has the power to terrorize and turn on audiences today! No small feat with all the real terrors of our times!

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