Ann Savage dies at 87; femme fatale starred in cult favorite ‘Detour’

Ann Savage
Ann Savage was best known for her role as a woman ruthlessly blackmailing a stranger played by Tom Neal, right, in director Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 B-movie “Detour.” The film reversed traditional male-female roles.
(Los Angeles Times)
From Times Staff And Wire Reports

Ann Savage, who earned a cult following as a femme fatale in such 1940s pulp-fiction movies as “Detour,” has died. She was 87.

The actress died in her sleep at a nursing home in Hollywood on Christmas Day from complications after a series of strokes, said her manager, Kent Adamson.

Her Hollywood career had largely been over since the mid-1950s, but she had a resurgence over the last year with a role in Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg.”

Starting with her 1943 debut in the crime story “One Dangerous Night,” Savage made more than 30 films through the 1950s, including westerns (“Saddles and Sagebrush,” “Satan’s Cradle”), musicals (“Dancing in Manhattan,” “Ever Since Venus”) and wartime tales (“Passport to Suez,” “Two-Man Submarine”).

But Savage was best-known for director Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 B-movie “Detour,” in which she played a woman ruthlessly blackmailing a stranger, played by Tom Neal.

“It’s actually a showcase role,” Adamson said. “Neal and Savage really reversed the traditional male-female roles of the time. She’s vicious and predatory . . . and he’s very, very passive. It’s very unusual for a ‘40s film to have a woman come on that strong.”

She was born Bernice Maxine Lyon in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 19, 1921. She lived in Dallas until age 9, when her mother and stepfather moved to Los Angeles.

A star-struck moviegoer, she enrolled in German producer Max Reinhardt’s acting school. It was there that she met Bert D’Armand, who became her agent and years later her husband.

She was eventually under contract at Columbia Pictures and started a career in a series of B movies, but she had little respect for much of the work.

“They were mindless,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “The actresses were just scenery. The stories all revolved around the male actors; they really had the choice roles. All the actresses had to do was to look lovely, since the dialogue was ridiculous.”

But “Detour,” which she made for Producers Releasing Corp., was something different.

The role, at first, gave her pause. “I had just come off a lot that kept me looking absolutely perfect,” she said. “But Vera was not a pretty woman: She was maniacal. Edgar objected to my hair looking so neat and had the hairdresser run cold cream through it to make it streaky and stringy. He even made sure my face stayed dirty . . . and shiny.”

After the critical acclaim for “Detour,” Savage had dreams of a real career as an actress. But it never happened.

She went on to make other bad-girl movies: “The Spider” (in which she was strangled in the end); “Lady Chaser” (she played a blackmailer) and “Pier 23,” in which she attempted to divert duty-minded shopkeeper/private eye Hugh Beaumont.

Her career became less important to her, Savage said, after her marriage to D’Armand in 1947.

Savage did some television in the 1950s, including “Death Valley Days” and “The Ford Television Theatre,” then left Hollywood for New York City, where she appeared in commercials and industrial films.

After D’Armand died in 1968, Savage returned to Los Angeles and found work as a legal secretary.

Decades after it was filmed, “Detour” and Savage gained a cult audience on television and home video.

In 1986, Savage returned to acting in “Fire With Fire,” a drama with Virginia Madsen and D.B. Sweeney.

Adamson said Maddin had been a longtime fan of “Detour” and cast Savage to play his mother in “My Winnipeg,” a combination documentary, drama and personal memoir about his native city in Canada.

Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan called her appearance a “wonderful turn.”

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Memorial services are pending.

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