Ann Savage 1921-2008

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The Associated Press is reporting that Ann Savage, an indelible presence in several low budget classics of the 1940s and 50s, died on Christmas Day from complications following a series of strokes. The complete obituary is here.

Savage will always be known for the attic intensity of her performance in Edgar G. Ulmer’s
“Detour,” which elevates the film noir convention of the femme fatale to mythological levels of implacable, impersonal fury. But she was also memorable in a number of other films: Lew Landers’s 1944 “Two Man Submarine” (her first appearance with the Tracy to her Hepburn, Tom Neal); as a wisecracking reporter with something extra in the Paramount Pine-Thomas b-picture “Midnight Manhunt” (1945); her steely reinterpretation of the Barbara Stanwyck role in “Apology for Murder,” Sam Newfield’s 1945 virtual remake of “Double Indemnity; as a victim of fate herself in Newfield’s 1946 “Lady Chaser”; leading a band of Civil War raiders in William Berke’s “Renegade Girl” (1946); as a dance hall girl in Allan Dwan’s 1953 dominatrix western “The Woman They Almost Lynched.” Neglected for decades, she received some long overdue recognition with her return to the screen as the unyielding mother in Guy Maddin’s 2007 “docu-fantasia” “My Winnipeg.”

“Listen, mister. I been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What did you do, kiss him with a wrench?”

34 comments to Ann Savage 1921-2008

  • nicolas saada

    Only a few months after Mary Windsor’s passing, another “queen of the B” disappears. I only saw her in DETOUR, but her performance in that film is just extraordinary.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    And Beverly Garland within the last month as well…

  • Julian Pearce

    Her perfomance in Detour really is one of the most unbridled pieces of nastiness ever recorded on film, unforgetable.

  • Larry Kart

    What is “attic” intensity a typo for (I think)? Antic? Manic?

  • Dave K

    “Attic” as in from ancient Athens — just trying to raise the tone around here, Larry.

  • Michael Worrall

    Ancient Athens! Hmmm..I am impressed.

  • Michael Worrall

    In the interests of this blog and what Dave asked in another thread, I apologize for my sarcastic response above.

  • Larry Kart

    “Attic” as in Greek tragedy, then? If so, I think I get it.

    P.S. No sarcasm intended by me, before or now.

  • This is sad news.
    Ann Savage really was extraordinary in Detour.
    Wish I could see the other 1940′s films Dave Kehr mentions!
    Have only seen “The Woman They Almost Lynched.” This is outstanding. But it hasn’t been seen for decades, one of many Allan Dwan films out of circulation.

  • PS The IMDB says Ann Savage had a small role in Murder in Times Square (Lew Landers, 1943). Don’t remember her in this. But the film as a whole is an above-average little B-movie whodunit, set among the tawdrier Broadway theater crowd.

  • The movie card for Detour shows a card game in progress. The cards, the ashtray, etc. form a “still life”. Ulmer’s films are full of such still lifes, and so are Fritz Lang’s. They are as beautifully arranged as in a painting. Good examples are in Ulmer’s The Black Cat, Goodbye Mr. Germ, My Son, the Hero, Murder Is My Beat.

    People often say Ulmer is influenced by Murnau. That is true: especially in the creation of a world within a studio, and the innovative use of studio sets. But Ulmer also repeatedly shows the influence of Fritz Lang, and their fondness for still lifes is an example.

  • Ulmer’s classical education often shows in his choice of music and painterly references. Of course, if you asked him (as Peter Bogdanovich did), it was Ulmer who influenced Murnau and Lang, as the production designer of “The Last Laugh,” the set designer of “Metropolis,” etc.

  • Question:
    Ulmer made vast claims as the genius behind the scenes in 1920′s Murnau, Lang, etc., in the Bogdanovich interview Dave Kehr cites.

    I always assumed that Ulmer was probably just making this all up. But have no real evidence of any sort, one way or another. Are there any solid, documented accounts of Ulmer’s role, if any, in “The Last Laugh” and “Metropolis”?

  • Hasn’t someone recently published a German-language biography of Ulmer, or am I hallucinating this? There are lots of ambiguities to be resolved in his resume. He is, at least, credited on “The Last Laugh” — and on “Four Devils” and “City Girl.”

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Dave, where is Ulmer credited for those three films? He told Bogdanovich that he was the “production designer,” (a function he claims to have invented),for “Sunrise,” “Four Devils” and “City Girl” but are there any documents in the Fox archives that prove that he was involved, and in what capacity?

  • J-P, I don’t have access to the Fox archives, but the AFI Catalog, which is a generally reliable source, lists Ulmer as the “Assistant Art Director.” But clearly a lot more research needs to be done on the mysterious EGU. For all of the “vast claims” that Mike mentions in regards to Ulmer and Lang, Ulmer isn’t mentioned once in the definitive Berlin Film Festival volume on Lang.

  • Kent Jones

    Martin Koerber might be a good source of information on this matter.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Dave, you are right for “Sunrise” but the AFI Catalog doesn’t mention Ulmer for either “Four Devils” or “City Girl.” Actually, “Sunrise” is the only film for which Ulmer is mentionned at all in the Catalog’s 1921-1930 volume. Of course the book was published in 1971 with most of the research probably going back to the sixties, and a lot of new research has been done since, but still a lot of Ulmer’s allegations probably should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Dave, is Savage really a femme fatale in DETOUR? Isn’t a femme fatale a woman who seduces a man then destroys him one way or another? Savage doesn’t seduce Neal, he doesn’t fall for her (he seems to dislike her as much as she dislikes him). Actually it’s one of the most unusual and fascinating things about the movie, these two who hate each other’s guts without the slightest inkling of a physical attraction.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    The AFI Catalog for 1931-1940, which was published in 1993 and includes considerably more information than the 1921-1930 volume (its “notes” sometimes run for several small-print pages)give us an idea of the problematic nature of Ulmer filmographies. The Catalog’s notes for “Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)” and “Grand Hotel” mention that “in a filmography in the biographical file of Edgar G. Ulmer at the AMPAS library,” Ulmer is listed as the director of the German and French versions of those films. However, as the catalog also notes, no such foreign versions are known to have been produced. One may wonder what other fanciful collaborations that AMPAS file might have come up with for the 1920s part of the Ulmer filmography.

  • Dave K

    J-P, I wouldn’t call what Savage does to Neal seduction, but she definitely makes her desires known and tries to force him to sleep with her. Are you working from an official definition of “femme fatale” that I’m not aware of? I didn’t know there were rules about these things.

    Of course, Ulmer’s allegations should be taken with a grain of salt. Have I suggested otherwise? It was our mutual friend Bertrand Tavernier who suggested to me that a lot more of his wild claims were turning out to be true than one would expect, though on what basis Bertrand was making this claim, I don’t know.

    I do wish you’d lay off the nit-picking for a while, J-P.

  • Stephen Bowie

    I’ve really only seen “Detour,” but on that basis Ann Savage struck me as an authentic sort of primitive artist: 100% force of personality and zero technique. That’s not a knock, of course: it’s the perfect approach for a character that’s essentially a Freudian nightmare brought to life. But I can’t imagine Savage ever being a mainstream star, that is, refining her persona to the extent of being able to play a million different notes on a theme like Stanwyck or Crawford. Or, maybe she just didn’t have the opportunity to develop her skills. Did she ever star in a movie that took more than a week to shoot?

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    No nit-picking intended,Dave. Certainly the concept of “femme fatale” can be understood in slightly different ways. There is no “official definition” of the phrase that I know of. I was just mentioning my own understanding of it, for which I apologize.

    I never implied that you suggested that Ulmer’s allegations shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt. I just pointed out that the AFI Catalog says nothing of his participation to “4 Devils” or “City Girl” and that the AMPAS filmography seems egregiously erroneous. I see no nit-picking there, especially not against you. I just thought it was a not uninteresting point to make. As for Bertrand’s remarks, they certainly make sense as it is unlikely that ALL of Ulmer’s allegations are false.

    Again I apologize for unwittingly offending you. I’ll try to be more careful in the future and abstain from everything even remotely sounding like nit-picking. let it be my first resolution for the New Year.

  • Julian Pearce

    Detour remains a very gratifying testament to the making of accidental masterpieces, which is not to say there is not a great deal of thought or talent involved. Do any of Joan Crawford’s performances today hold the utterly believable and ugly vigor of Ann Savage’s? Technique is not a fetish to be worshipped in the cine.

  • Michael Dempsey

    A fascinating element of “Detour” is the way Al Roberts (Tom Neal) keeps blaming fate for his plight. Fate may have something to do with placing Ann Savage’s Vera before him when he decides to offer her a lift, not knowing of her previous relationship with the dead businessman Haskell. But it doesn’t force him to offer her the lift.

    The truth, which the picture explores yet may partly deny, is that Al is too self-pityingly weak to resist Vera’s full-bore mania — definitively embodied in Ann Savage’s portrait of flat-out shrieking madness.

    Perhaps it was the only peformance this apparently Z-level actress could give. I’ve seen her in nothing else, or Neal either (he did hard time for an offscreen shooting), though they reportedly made six pictures together.

    Yet this is likely a performance no other screen actress has surpassed or maybe even matched. I still can’t decide how much of it arises from acting talent and how much might be, like what Neal does, an undiluted blast of something in her essential nature.

    Whatever the case, Ann Savage made her mark, a most worthwhile one.

  • She’s great in Apology to Murder too, and one wishes it were longer. In that movie she’s more of a traditional femme fatale using her sex appeal to grab herself some loot, and Hugh Beaumont is quite good as her victim. The movie makes the mistake of hurrying their affair, not giving it enough time to develop, which could have provided juicy interplay; but then again, it was designed for the bottom half of a double bill.

    I never much saw any sex appeal in Stanwyck’s Double Indemnity performance, although I generally like her in other films. So Savage’s more vital interpretation is almost a sly, not so veiled critique of it.

    Meanwhile, the other big loss this week is the rental section of Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place–today (12/31) is the last night for rentals before the collection moves to Sicily. Farewell, sweet rentals…

  • Noah Isenberg

    Regarding Ulmer’s inflated claims to Bogdanovich, i.e., the influential role he would like to have played on THE LAST LAUGH and METROPOLIS, there is no definitive evidence–wouldn’t it be nice to have some?–that puts him on the set of either picture. The German-language biography, a gem, is Stefan Grissemann’s MAN IM SCHATTEN (Zsolnay, 2003). I rely heavily on Grissemann in the long-overdue critical study of Ulmer I am in the process of finishing up for the University of California Press. Finally, re: Ann Savage as “femme fatale,” I think she simply defies the more conventional understanding of the term. But if she’s no femme fatale, then I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one.

  • Noah Isenberg

    p.s. There’s a second “n” in MANN IM SCHATTEN. Oops.

  • This is fascinating news.
    I will be looking forward to reading Noah Isenberg’s book.

  • By the way, it looks like a good year for Ulmer criticism, revival, and timely re-evaluation: another book coming out this year, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, has essays by Bill Krohn and myself, among many others. Bernd edited one that came out last year on Tod Browning, which is also good!

  • This is also fascinating news!
    Bill Krohn was always an Ulmer champion on a_film_by, with plenty of insightful things to say.

  • Noah Isenberg

    If you can believe it (and this claim is perhaps a bit more reliable than some of the more extravagant ones made by Ulmer in his famous Bogdanovich interview), Bernd Herzogenrath has not just one, but two Ulmer anthologies due out in 2009 — one from McFarland and one from Scarecrow. In late 2008, Gary D. Rhodes published a separate anthology of essays with Lexington Books — and, yes, my BFI Film Classics volume on DETOUR appeared in late 2008 as well. So there does seem to be something of a revival afoot. As for Ann Savage’s place in all of this, I think she’s very much at the heart of it; her sudden reemergence, in fall 1983, helped spark interest and generate a new wave — as did pioneering work by Bill Krohn, John Belton, Myron Meisel and others.

  • There is a long essay about Ulmer on my web site:

    Hope this works…

  • Noah, all this is great news, thanks. I will seek out your DETOUR book immediately!