B Film Noir Actress More Frightening Than Bette Davis? + The Savage Doppelgänger

B film noir Detour Tom Neal Ann Savage: Femme fatale = complete revulsion in mouthB film noir Detour with Tom Neal and Ann Savage, looking more like your usual femme fatale. In the U.K., the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer thoroughly dismissed Detour – but not Ann Savage – writing, “This very poor story has little to commend it. It tries the unusual by interspersing dialogue with commentary in the form of [Tom Neal's character] Al talking to himself, and fails. The direction is as poor as the story. The only bright spot is Ann Savage's performance as Vera, which she does so well that she really leaves a taste of complete revulsion in the mouth.”[1]

The Poverty Row handicap: B film noir actress Ann Savage vs. Bette Davis

(See previous post: “Femme Fatale Ann Savage: Detour Actress Labeled 'Meanest Woman in Film History.'”) Nearly a dozen years before Edgar G. Ulmer's B film noir Detour, John Cromwell's 1934 drama Of Human Bondage, also featuring an evil wench as its most important female character, had hardly been a commercial success.

Yet this downbeat film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1915 novel did provide a major boost to the career of Warner Bros. contract player Bette Davis, who, while on loan to RKO, had been cast as the irredeemably vicious cockney waitress Mildred Rogers, seen later in the film as a bedraggled, sunken-eyed, consumptive hag.

At the beginning (and at the end) of Detour, the hitchhiking femme fatale Vera doesn't look much healthier than Mildred; nonetheless, Ann Savage wasn't nearly as lucky as Davis, who went on to become the Queen of Warner Bros., toplining a series of glossy productions well into the late 1940s.

Even in the less rarified realm of film noir, there would be no Out of the Past, Lady in the Lake, or White Heat in Savage's future. The actresses who were eventually featured in these films – Jane Greer, Audrey Totter, Virginia Mayo – were, respectively, contract players at RKO, MGM, and Warners.

Delayed 'classic' B film noir & femme fatale status

Stranded in low-budget and low-box-office fare, relatively few Poverty Row (and facsimile) performers managed to move on to bigger and better things at bigger and better studios.

Indeed, its cheapo PRC label was most likely the key reason Detour failed to make any notable impact on Ann Savage's Hollywood career, in spite of an interview with Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun producer David O. Selznick, and the reported possibility of getting “the female lead”[2] in George Cukor's 1947 noir A Double Life.

“I was very disappointed that I never got the recognition I should have gotten from that performance,” she confessed to the Los Angeles Times in their 1985 interview. “I just couldn't seem to adjust to the fact that no one seemed to want to give me a crack at better roles. It was one of the things that really had to do with my dropping out. I was actually hurt by it.”

As it turned out, cult film – and cult film femme fatale – acclaim would materialize only decades later, after Edgar G. Ulmer's B noir, for some time in the public domain, gained influential fans thanks to its regular television showings.

B film noir actress Ann Savage The Last Crooked Mile: Actress stuck in low-budget fareB film noir actress Ann Savage in The Last Crooked Mile. Despite what should have been a career-making performance as the psychopathic femme fatale in the B film noir Detour, Ann Savage found herself stuck in more low-budget, little-seen, and largely forgotten B movies, mostly crime dramas and Westerns. One such was Republic Pictures' The Last Crooked Mile, which, according to Savage, was to have launched cowboy Don 'Red' Barry as a mainstream leading man. Former Columbia actress Adele Mara, who was kept busy at Republic throughout the 1940s (e.g., Song of Mexico, Blackmail), was the film's other female co-lead.

More Ann Savage movies: Largely forgotten B film noir & B Western mix

In the post-World War II, post-Detour years, Ann Savage was seen in about ten films, almost invariably low-budget productions – usually a B film noir & B Western mix – made at minor studios/indie companies. Among these were the following, in which she got to play more bad girls:

  • The PRC production Lady Chaser (1946), which reunited Savage with her Apology for Murder director, Sam Newfield. In the mystery comedy, she plays the blackmailer Inez, who nearly gets bumped off by her victim (Frank Ferguson) – who also happens to be the attorney for a woman (Inez Cooper) convicted of murdering her uncle after giving him a poisoned aspirin originally intended for Inez (the blackmailer, not the actress). Will the convicted woman's fiancé (Robert Lowery) be able to unwind the various threads so as to prove his beloved's innocence?
  • Phillip Ford's B film noir/thriller The Last Crooked Mile (1946), which, according to Savage, (unsuccessfully) attempted to launch Republic Pictures cowboy actor Don 'Red' Barry as a mainstream leading man. Savage was cast as a nightclub singer with a shady past, later referring to this more traditional femme fatale as “a wonderful heavy part.”[3] Adele Mara, who, like Savage, had began her Hollywood career at Columbia (You Were Never Lovelier, Reveille with Beverly) before moving on to Republic, was the other female lead.
  • William Berke's B indie Western Renegade Girl (1946), with Ann Savage as an outlaw out to get the renegade Indian who had killed her brother. Alan Curtis was her romantic interest. Never a good horsewoman, she was doubled in the horse-riding scenes by the same stuntwoman who had performed Jennifer Jones' riding feats in Duel in the Sun. Savage would remember Renegade Girl as a “nice Western.”[3]
  • Ford Beebe's United Artists-distributed B indie Western Satan's Cradle (1949), with Savage as another unsavory character – a scheming fake widow – opposite Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid and Leo Carrillo as Pancho.

Hollywood career twilight

In her final film appearance during that period, in Republic Pictures' A-ish Western Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), Ann Savage, who claimed she never turned down a movie offer, found herself way down the cast list. Audrey Totter (the two actresses became friends later in life), John Lund, Brian Donlevy, and Joan Leslie were the leads, working under the direction of veteran Allan Dwan (Robin Hood, Sands of Iwo Jima).

On the small screen, there were several acting gigs in the first half of the 1950s, notably the 1955 Gang Busters episode “The Red Dress Case,” in which Savage – as the unscrupulous, de facto leader of a gang of thugs – was reunited for the fifth and last time with her Detour leading man Tom Neal.

Movie comebacks

Ann Savage was married three times. Her third husband was her agent and former Reinhardt School of Theater manager Bert D'Armand (previously married to Cat People actress Jane Randolph). The marriage lasted from the mid-to-late 1940s (sources vary as to the exact year) to D'Armand's death in 1969.

In New York City for over a decade, Savage returned to Los Angeles around that time to be near her mother. She became a docket clerk receptionist at a downtown Los Angeles law office and, as a hobby, learned to fly.

As Detour was being reassessed and screened at revival houses and film museums throughout the U.S., she landed her first movie role in 33 years: a nun in Duncan Gibbs' 1986 low-budget drama Fire with Fire, starring Craig Sheffer and Virginia Madsen.[4]

Leaving aside her reluctance to spend too much time in front of the camera, Savage, at age 86, would be seen on the big screen one last time in 2007, playing Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's mother in My Winnipeg, an autobiographical mix of documentary footage and reenactments/fictional sequences.

Ann Savage My Winnipeg: B film noir actress could scare pants off Bette Davis?Former B film noir and B Western actress Ann Savage in the prestigious “docu-drama” My Winnipeg, with Wesley Cade and Amy Stewart. According to Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, he cast Ann Savage as his mother in his autobiographical documentary/drama mix My Winnipeg because the 1940s B film noir femme fatale, then in her mid-80s, “would have scared the pants off Bette Davis.” Maybe, maybe not. Either way, Savage's performance was well received by those critics who took the trouble to mention the Detour actress. In My Winnipeg, Darcy Fehr plays the young Guy Maddin.

From B film noir to 'alternative' documentary actress

As quoted in The Guardian, Guy Maddin viewed My Winnipeg as a “plunge back into the mythically inchoate days of my own – and my city's – childhood. These were days lived completely under the dominion of a fearsome maternal titan, years trembled out beneath the scented fist of my mother's gorgeous and glamorous dictatorship, and I knew there was only one person alive, who had ever lived, who could play her role: Ann Savage.”

On CBC, Maddin was also quoted as saying that he had cast the former B film noir actress as his mother because she “would have scared the pants off Bette Davis.”

Whether or not Ann Savage was that scary, My Winnipeg turned out to be the most prestigious film (at the time of release) of her career, receiving nominations from the Directors Guild of Canada and the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, the latter in the Genie Awards' Best Documentary category.

In addition, Maddin's docu-drama mix was the San Francisco Film Critics Circle's Best Documentary, and the year's Best Canadian Feature according to the the Toronto Film Festival jury and the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Praise from critics

Delivering a highly stylized performance, Ann Savage was singled out only a handful of times. In his The Guardian review, Peter Bradshaw wrote:

“[Guy Maddin] regales us with an embellished and souped-up history of Winnipeg and unreliably reconstructs his own claustrophobic family history, scoring a brilliant coup in bringing the 1940s Hollywood fatale star Ann Savage out of retirement to play his hilarious and formidable mother. (Maddin playfully adds a further level of fictionalisation in claiming that Savage is in fact his real mother, uneasily prevailed upon to play herself.)”

And here's Ruthe Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Now 87, Savage reads her lines slowly. Her hair pinned back from her face, she looks capable of anything Maddin throws at her.”

Femme fatale doppelgänger

In her later years, Ann Savage lived in Hollywood. About the possibility of her own autobiography coming out one day, she affirmed that she had no desire to write such a book “because I talk about [my life] all the time with Detour.”[3]

And here's one curious story I was told years ago: in the mid-1980s, Ann Savage was invited to a Los Angeles revival house for a q&a session following a screening of Detour. She attended the screening and answered questions.

The next day, the classic B film noir was screened again – and another Ann Savage showed up claiming that the previous night's Ann Savage had been an impostor.

To the best of my knowledge, this mystery has never been solved.[5]

 

B film noir actress Ann Savage Renegade Girl: Bigger + better films eluded Detour starB film noir actress Ann Savage and pal in Renegade Girl. Although remembered for one single film and performance – Edgar G. Ulmer's B film noir Detour – Ann Savage was featured in about 30 movies between 1943–1953. The overwhelming majority of these were low- or micro-budget productions, usually crime dramas and Westerns. In spite of her outstanding work as Detour's vicious femme fatale, Renegade Girl was the sort of movie and role Savage was getting offered in the post-World War II years. In her final film from that period, Woman They Almost Lynched, the gun-toting antiheroine was played by Audrey Totter.

David O. Selznick interview + which 'A Double Life' role?

[1] The extract from the Monthly Film Bulletin review of the B film noir Detour can be found in Noah Isenberg's Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins.

[2] The David O. Selznick interview is mentioned in Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage and in Deborah Caulfield's 1985 Los Angeles Times article/interview “So What Ever Happened to Bad Girl Ann Savage?”

Savage Detours is also the source for the B film noir's femme fatale almost getting “the female lead” opposite eventual Best Actor Oscar winner Ronald Colman in A Double Life – a somber psychological drama that actually has two key supporting female roles, played by Signe Hasso and Shelley Winters. Colman is the film's sole lead.

Curiously, in Savage Detours the Selznick interview is described as having gone “splendidly.” In the Los Angeles Times, Savage asserted that the meeting “didn't go well,” adding, “I felt very badly about it.”

[3] Ann Savage quotes regarding her role in the B film noir The Last Crooked Mile, the B Western Renegade Girl, and a possible autobiography via her interview (ca. 1990) with Los Angeles public access cable show host Skip E. Lowe.

[4] In case the IMDb info is accurate, Ann Savage also had an uncredited role in the 1991 episode “Boss Lady” of the television series Saved by the Bell, starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mario Lopez.

Movie star 'impostors' Vera Reynolds & Corinne Griffith

[5] Along the same lines as the Ann Savage doppelgänger/impostor story, a few decades ago there was a woman in Florida claiming she was second-rank silent film actress Vera Reynolds – featured in Cecil B. DeMille's The Golden Bed and The Road to Yesterday – while asserting that the Vera Reynolds who died in 1962 had been an impostor.

Along the opposite lines, at a 1960s divorce court hearing, silent era star Corinne Griffith (The Garden of Eden, The Divine Lady), formerly known as The Orchid Lady of the Screen, claimed that she was an impostor, declaring that the real Corinne Griffith had died and that she – Griffith's much younger sister – had taken her place.

Much younger impostor or no, that particular Corinne Griffith died a very wealthy woman at age 84 in July 1979 in Santa Monica.

 

Image of Tom Neal and Ann Savage in the classic B film noir Detour: Producers Releasing Corporation.

Ann Savage Renegade Girl image: Screen Guild Productions.

Ann Savage My Winnipeg image: Jody Shapiro / Everyday Pictures Inc.

Publicity shot of Ann Savage in the B film noir The Last Crooked Mile: Republic Pictures.

“B Film Noir Actress More Frightening Than Bette Davis? + The Savage Doppelgänger” last updated in March 2018.

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