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
Los Angeles for no apparent reason. She was every man's worst
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
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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.