Lupino: Outrage (1950)

Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, Outrage was only the second post-Code Hollywood film to deal with rape (after Johnny Belinda), although the word is never spoken outright in the script. Instead, Lupino focuses on silence – the way silence is enforced and the way silence is endorsed by the Hollywood system she was working within. The film starts with a series of dramatic aerial perspectives, as a young woman, who turns out to be Ann Walton, played by Mala Power, flees an unknown assailant. Since we can see her pursuer, the camera takes on the role of antagonist, hounding her from street to street until the male gaze is drawn into pointed and predatory relief. From there, Lupino jumps back to the twenty-four hours before the chase, but retains this same propulsive sense of motion, starting with a glass that Mr. Denker, a concession stand employee, ricochets across the counter to one of his customers.

It turns out that Denker, played by Jerry Hausner, is working at the same factory as Ann, who quickly catches his eye. The same night, he stalks her after a late shift, taking his time to relish her fear as she tries to elude him through the empty night. Although this scene starts in the factory precinct, Lupino quickly expands it out to a more amorphous noir cityscape, while blurring its coordinates until it feels like we’re on a film set composed of leftovers from earlier noir productions. This noir bricolage tightens Ann in its grasp, until she has nowhere to go but into the arms of her assailant, whose face remains occluded by darkness in a final noir flourish. Whereas classical noir typically focused on the alienation of men in urban environments, Lupino flips the script to dwell on the even more profound alterity of women in the night city.

More specifically, Lupino draws upon the automobile as the emblem of masculine autonomy in film noir. As her assailant closes in, Ann passes a number of men in cars, but they’re either oblivious or indifferent to her plight, disappearing back into the silence without heeding her cries, and making her pedestrian passage seem especially vulnerable by comparison. When she can run no further, she hides amongst a lot of parked vehicles, and finally gets into a truck, whose latticed windows culminate the noir framing, and confuse her into accidentally activating the horn. Grating against the silence of the night, this becomes the soundtrack to her assault, and prevents one last bystander from hearing her anguish when it wakes him up.

This ballooning and contouring of space has a sequel in the twenty-four hours after the assault, which starts with Ann recounting the crime for the first time framed by the striated bars of her bed, before she looks tentatively out her window the next morning, faced with a world where public space has suddenly taken on a new precarity and vulnerability. Determined to return to work immediately, she pauses twice on the threshold of her parents’ house, first when she walks out the gate, and then when she crossed the property line with her neighbours, holding the fence post for support as she fumbles her way to the bus stop.

During the attack and the aftermath, space has become both more claustrophobic and agoraphobic, and this intensity continues when Ann arrives at work. On the one hand, she’s hyper-aware of the crushing gazes of her colleagues, and yet their inability or unwillingness to lend genuine support makes her seem tiny in the yawning judgement of her office. Since she didn’t see her attacker, anyone could be the assailant, so every encounter is tinged with risk, especially since she gets an ineffable sense of her being tainted, a tacit sense she’s complicit, even or especially from well-meaning men. While her fiancée, Jim Owens, played by Robert Clarke, doesn’t blame her for the assault, he does insist on getting married immediately, presumably to reclaim her body as soon as possible, even as he thinks it apposite to take her over state lines and maybe move there for good. Similarly, while Detective Sergeant Hendrix, played by Hal March, expresses his sympathy in very politically correct terms, he makes it clear Ann will be responsible for another attack if she doesn’t identify her assailant in a line-up the next night, despite the fact that she never saw his face.

Neither of these men, who should be protecting Ann, are able to process her trauma and pain in any other way except explaining what she should do and speaking for (and over) her. In fact, it’s hard to think of a sequence from this era in which speaking over, for and down to women is so painfully denaturalised as conventional Hollywood tropes as in this last period before Ann finally seeks out a line of flight from a public space that seems both too constrained and too amorphous to accommodate her. She does so by fleeing the Midwest and heading to Los Angeles, an inherently paradoxical journey, at least as Lupino frames it, since Ann is attempting to escape the noirish world that followed her assault, but she’s also heading straight to the birthplace of noir. That tensile trajectory suggests an inchoate desire to confront the cinematic apparatus head-on, to expose and challenge noir as the optic that has left her no plausible option in the wake of the crime that has been committed on her body.

The furthest that Ann, and Lupino, can get, are the orange groves of rural California. After running away from a bus driver who seems to have identified her from a radio broadcast, Ann ends up walking the last stretch of the journey, wandering through a sea of orchards until she can’t walk anymore, as she collapses by the side of the road. The brightness of the oranges (which we hear about later in the film) gives way to the darkest space of the film, until Ann is rescued by Reverend Bruce Ferguson, a local priest, played by Tod Andrews, and taken to the home of a local agricultural family. This ushers in the second half of the film, which some critics have taken issue with, but which works beautifully to evoke the horizon of what could be said about sexual assault at this point in time, even in a progressive film directed and co-written by Hollywood’s original female auteur. For a brief moment, Ann glimpses a professional rehabilitation, as she takes a job as an orange packer, and then a book-keeper, mingling with the Hispanic working women as the film longs to expand its horizons, in keeping with the news that plays on the bus radio just before she gets off. First, we hear about the dredging of the San Pedro Channel, and then about a United Nations convention, as Ann’s Midwest entrapment gives way, fleetingly, to a more bicoastal and cosmopolitan urbanism.  

Yet professional rehabilitation quickly gives way to pastoral rehabilitation, as Ferguson takes Ann to his favourite spot on the property, the vista that recovered his faith after World War II. To the film’s credit, Ferguson initially offers a very sympathetic lens into Ann’s trauma, which he compares to his own crisis in faith after returning from the front: “We have to face ourselves and look at the world all over again.” Over time, they develop a genuine friendship, rather than a romance, as Ferguson becomes an emblem of good masculinity, collapsing Ann’s assault into a more general rehabilitation of patriarchy and the male order of things.

Nevertheless, there are sharp limits to this process. Ferguson’s state of nature culminates with a local dance, where couples dance in serene unison as Lupino uses her most elaborate tracking-shot to trace a way through their perambulations to position Ann at the centre of the action. Symbolically, this shot restores Ann to the world of healthy romance, only to bring in a second assailant, Frank Marini, played by Jerry Parris, who works on the property. Frank is less overtly aggressive than Denker, but that just makes him creepier, as he follows Ann away from the dance, confesses that he’s been watching her since she arrived at the orchard, tries repeatedly to kiss her, and then roughly forces her to ground when she resists, leaving her no option but to smash him over the head with a wrench to break away from his grasp.

At this moment, the film reaches its figurative limit. Clearly, there’s a continuity between these two assailants, but Lupino seems tacitly aware that a mainstream audience can’t or won’t accept it – that their threshold for “acceptable” assault is likely to be very low. The way she handles that bind is to turn this ostensibly “harmless” assailant into a trigger for the “real” assailant, who appears before Ann’s eyes now, propelling her into the most flamboyant line of flight in the film. Continuing her westward trajectory, she now eschews roads and paths, heading straight over the landscape, the memory of the wrench still fresh in her memory, in one final brief gimpse of a genuine working-class feminism. Yet that propulsion brings her back to the vista Ferguson elaborated for her, and the gender constructions of 50s Hollywood.

Despite the progressive opening, and despite Ann’s assault and subsequent lines of flight, the film must still end with the woman on trial, as the repressed noir substrate returns with a vengeance in the straited bars of the cell where Ann is housed once the orchard farmers catch up with her. Even her greatest advocate, Ferguson, cannot understand that the second assailant was as much a criminal as the first, asking her “Tell me, why’d you try to kill Frank? I’ve know him for a long time – he meant you no harm.” Appointing himself as her lawyer, he raises “temporary insanity,” “cognitive dissonance” and “an awful chain reaction” to explain why she defended herself against a man who crushed her to ground after she said no multiple times. Having dismissed the criminality of the second assailant, the priest now downplays the first, lamenting that Denker was never treated for his mental health issues: “Our generation has produced too many neuroses, too many displaced people here at home.” The long legacy of WWII, which the film initially used to broker sympathy with Ann, now drives a more structural sympathy for her original assailant, who we never see again, let alone standing trial.

Yet we never see Ann’s husband again either, since while the priest may be the reparative patriarchal figure, holding Ann’s heads in his hands during the penultimate scene, Lupino never shows the repair that he supposedly effects. Ann heads back to the Midwest, but the film closes at the bus stop where she first met Ferguson, the outermost point of her journey to Los Angeles. She gets on the bus, Ferguson drives away, and the credits roll over this final liminal space, the closest that Ann and Lupino could get to the City of Angels, and the furthest a film could go in taking on the male gaze at this point in time. It’s a remarkable ending to a remarkable film, precious precisely because of how soberly it understands what it’s up against – a hard enough story to tell in 2022, let alone in 1950, at the peak of Hollywood hegemony.

About Billy Stevenson (888 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: