Savage Detours, Film Noir, and the American Nightmare by Matt Dukes Jordan

Detour, 1945, feature film, USA, directed by Edgar Ulmer, starring Ann Savage as Vera, and Tom Neal as Al Roberts

Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage, 2009, a biography and filmography by Kent Adamson and Lisa Morton, McFarland, with a Foreword by Guy Maddin

The most fun role for actors is always the bad or twisted character, the weirder the better. Often villains in film are men, but sometimes they are women. The writer in Basic Instinct played by Sharon Stone was bad. The housewife in Double Indemnity was twisted. A list compiled by writers at Time magazine of the top ten movie villains EVER included Ann Savage in the film Detour. She was one of two females given that distinction. Her performance in the film is amazing because she is vicious, brutal, suicidal, and bullying, yet sexually fascinating in her trampiness and foxiness and also, at some level, she’s totally sympathetic. You wish she could get off the blackmail scheme she’s working on her victim, a passive barroom pianist played by tough-guy actor Tom Neal in a weakling role, and just, well, enjoy life without a bottle and the greed. Instead she’s driven, desperate, and on a death march. If you haven’t seen this film and like film noir, put it at the top of your list.

Detour is a relatively low-budget B-movie, not a film anyone thought would become a classic. It was released on November 30th, 1945 from a minor Hollywood studio, PRC. Their lot and offices were over on Santa Monica boulevard in West Hollywood where there’s a Trader Joe’s now. The company cranked out genre entertainment and made money. It was owned by Pathe, a major French film company, so the director, Austrian émigré Edgar Ulmer, had some finishing funds for niceties like a decent score and a few other touches after a fast 28-day shoot with a couple of B-actors. The script was 141 pages, written by a novelist, Martin Goldsmith, who wrote the story as a book first. Ulmer cut it by half. The film packs a lot of intense dark psychodrama into 67 minutes. The film writer Andrew Sarris called it the most despairing of all B-pictures. It has gradually become famous as a cult film and was selected as the first film noir and B-movie to be included in the National Registry of Film by the Library of Congress.

Both leads give great performances, but it’s the bad girl, Vera, played by Ann Savage who steals the show. It’s the film she’s known for. It developed a following among noir and revival film aficionados over the years and her amazing and memorable performance inspired the quirky Canadian director, Guy Maddin, to cast her in the key role of his mother in his 2008 film, My Winnipeg. She was hoping it would be her return to screen acting after years outside the film business, but it turned out to be her last film. Her career had been mostly in B-films in the 1940s, then a long gap until the Maddin film.

In the last decade or so of her life, the LA-based filmmaker, writer, and B-film enthusiast Kent Adamson became her good friend, collaborator, and manager. They were working on her autobiography but ran out of time. Savage died in 2008 at age 87, Before she died, she had contracted to tell her life story to the publisher McFarland. Once she was gone, Adamson wrote her biography with Lisa Morton, who added an extensive, annotated filmography. Savage Detours is a gem for fans of film noir, Ann Savage, the history of Hollywood B-films, and the film Detour. It’s full off insights and inside information. They even included part of the original screenplay with personal notes written by Savage.

I’ve had the good fortune to have three long conversations with Adamson by telephone and another in person. Adamson knows about as much about Ann Savage and the film Detour as anyone on the planet, which is to say in the entire universe. It’s always been a great pleasure to discuss Detour, Ann Savage, and the history of B-films and independent films with him.

Adamson sees her character in the film, Vera, as a role reversal. “She’s playing what was a man’s role in those days, a predatory drifter. She dominates Tom Neal, and he takes it. She’s active and he’s passive. There’s nothing like it in the films of the 1940s. She’s very sexually aggressive. She’s raw, she craves sex – tonight. She’s not the typical mysterious glamour girl femme fatale like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, she dominates, she takes” said Adamson over coffee in Los Feliz, in a nicer part of the once-tawdry Hollywood underbelly area where Bukowski lived from the 1950s to the 1970s and which he called East Hollywood.

Which brings up something important to consider in relation to Detour: the underbelly of Hollywood. Not only were B-movies like Detour the underbelly in terms of filmmaking, but Hollywood itself, a gold-rush, get-rich-quick place, had and still does have its own underbelly of schemers, dreamers, swindlers, and low-wage earners hoping for the big break– people looking for the main chance, a way out. As Adamson pointed out to me, Detour is not only a product of the underbelly of Hollywood in terms of production, but it’s ultimately also a story about a Hollywood schemer, Vera, a dying young woman who tries to force a hapless pianist to play a role, pull a con, by pretending to be, ACTING as, the son of a wealthy dying man so the two of them can get the big inheritance. The characters are on the road to Hollywood, and the last third is set there. Detour is every bit as much a Hollywood story as Sunset Boulevard or A Star is Born, depicting life in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard instead of the top, Adamson said. It follows a long tradition of stories about unknowns hoping to make it big in Hollywood.

Ann Savage, with careful coaching from director Ulmer, performed so convincingly and powerfully that she defined an archetype, the classic ambitious American female who dominates the male, pushing him relentlessly to strive for wealth. But that drive to achieve isn’t unique only to underdog females in a patriarchal society; one where they had to work through the male to achieve power and money. The near compulsion to make it is built into the American character. Beginning in the late 19th century the last of the old system of European rule-by-the-nobility died out via changes in laws that favored competition and gave rise to the corporation as a legal and financial force with almost unlimited power and reach (at one time corporations were far more accountable and limited in purpose and scope by law). America became a super-competitive place of all-against-all and a big-time robber baron and financial schemer like Vanderbilt could rise from the merchant class to owning about ten percent of American wealth by the time he died. The rise of the merchant-banking class got rolling in Europe with the Medicis in the late 1300s and with the Puritan sober merchants in England in the 1500s who at once point overthrew the king (Charles 1, eventually executed), but it reached its fullest realization in America. The mentality continues to prevail.

Detour is a dark look at relentless, desperate striving, a desire to get rich by any means. It’s neatly encapsulated in a 67-minute small-scale drama about a weak musician who longs to reunite with a girlfriend who left him for Hollywood, and a dying young woman who sees a shot at wealth in a randomly encountered set of circumstances as she hitchhikes west across America. Some degree of ambition and struggle is required to survive, but as Vera and Al Roberts go through the journey of their lives, Vera’s supercharged greediness and desperation plus some random events took them both on a strange and savage detour. This film and Born to Kill are both memorably grim and represent a kind of film that explored and critiqued the dark side of the American dream. It’s Detour that highlighted the feral female most effectively and in so doing, gave Ann Savage the role of a lifetime.

MDJ has just published his spanking new book ” Weirdo Noir” here:

For some more of MDJ writing & other palaver check out some links:

2 thoughts on “Savage Detours, Film Noir, and the American Nightmare by Matt Dukes Jordan”

    1. I just watched Detour about three weeks ago. Great film.

      I also watched the Rudolph Mate directed Dead on Arrival. Plot is a little weak on this one but still an aesthetically pleasing piece of cinema.

      It is, as you say, the underbelly of the American dream. But in fact it is also the underbelly of human nature. It’s simply that no where else is this human law of self-preservation so apparent than in American society.

      I’ve been banging on about Blast of Silence ever since it was gifted to me by the high priest of The Church of Satan about 5 years ago. Written, directed and starred in by Allen Barron. This to me, is one of the greatest noir fims ever made.

      Enjoyed your piece.

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