La Belle est la Bête
40s actress Ann Savage died on Christmas Day, too late to be included in most of the year-in-review wraps. Her filmography isn’t as long as many of the other tough-bit actresses of her era, but Savage’s role in Detour is one of the most memorable in Hollywood history. Edgar Ulmer’s b-noir has been recouped as a noir classic many times over, but that’s no reason to slow up the charge: Savage’s performance, in particular, is a thing of sculptural beauty. When evaluating cheap entertainments, we must always reserve a place in our canon for that which is simply, yet profoundly intense. Savage’s Vera does not reach the Sisyphean heights of many self-conscious “great” performances, but it is reckless enough to loose our conventionalized understanding of character in the American crime drama. She disrupts the normal flow of flashback structures, voice-over narrations, seductive close-ups — all typical noir tropes which suture the male gaze Laura Mulvey describes in her famous essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” We’re introduced to Savage’s spitfire during the long driving scene after doomed dreamer Al Roberts first picks Vera up on the side of the charred desert highway. The scene lasts about ten minutes, a remarkable thing when you consider that Detour is only 67 minutes long. It’s part of the tweaked, somewhat counterintuitive rules of b-movie narration that this kind of extended “detour” is possible. Detour is not so beholden to causality and plot pacing as the typical Hollywood feature of the era. A premise and a few genre placeholders suffice — a different economy of means. This conversational set-piece is one Detour‘s most striking modernist flourishes and a clear precursor to Tarantino’s motor-mouthed road sequences in Death Proof.
The first thing we notice about Vera is her hair. It is supposed to be unwashed and actually looks it. Al asks her, “How far you going?” She flicks back the same question, but with the the air sucked out: she’s been here before. Ulmer frames Savage’s profile at almost a ninety-degree angle, a mug shot angle which accentuates her hard features. Al, meanwhile, slips into his retrogressive voice-over mode (complete with string score) and deduces her matted looks to be the sign of ennobled suffering, that underneath the tough façade she possesses a “natural beauty.” In a wonderfully sharp turn, Vera snaps to attention at the moment Al’s inner logic has led him to imagine a happy ending for the two of them. Like a pin into the balloon, Vera’s pertinent question pierces Al’s conditional tense: “Where did you hide his body?” Ulmer uses the sonorous voice-over to foreground Savage’s sharp tongue with comic-book zest. Similarly, his arch use of rear projection (it’s impossible to miss in a scene this long) makes Vera seem all the more there. A study in negative space, a John Waters heroine in the making, Savage’s throbbing femme fatale is the locus around which Detour‘s conventional elements become distended, bent out of shape. This effect is not so different from the suffocating, black-star desperation Richard Widmark brought to most of his parts (Widmark also died this past year, another significant loss to the noir heritage). We often talk of the way directors, screenwriters and cinematographers contributed to noir’s unsettling cynicism, but performers like Widmark and Savage remind us that the actors kept pace, inflecting the downcast stories with a fresh vocabulary of hard stares, undisguised sneers and staccato line readings.
I sat a couple of rows behind Savage when she made the trip to the PFA for a screening of Detour during a 2005 Ulmer retrospective. She was gracious and perceptive, in fine aristocratic form. Her great admirer is likely Guy Maddin, the Canadian filmmaker who got her back in front of the camera to play his mother in My Winnipeg. Maddin — who really ought to be considered a filmmaker-critic for his writings, an eccentric corpus which compliments and ocassionally surpasses his film work — penned a brief appreciation at the time of the film’s release here.
A last little addendum: my year-end film piece for the Guardian is here.