Outrage (1950)

Outrage (1950)

Between 1949 and 1953, actress/writer/director/producer/general badass Ida Lupino directed five feature films, making her the most prolific female director of her era. She was only the second woman to join the DGA, and she learned to direct during one of her extensive suspensions from Warner Brothers, where she wandered the backlots and watched directors at work. She was vocal about the need for more female directors, for directors to take on more taboo and out of the way subjects. And, like so many of her fellow female stars, she was far smarter and more talented than she was probably ever given credit for.

Outrage was her third film as a director, and in it we can see most clearly the development of the talent that she would hone to perfection with The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. And like those films, Lupino takes on a deeply taboo subject with an unforgiving clarity of vision that transcends the film’s somewhat pat third act.

Outrage deals with rape and sexual assault with explicit attention (for the era) and a degree of sympathy that’s as refreshing as it is surprising. The film focalizes itself not through the pain suffered by those surrounding the victim, not through the search for the attacker or the machinations of the family, but through the victim almost exclusively. Lupino makes use of multiple POV shots to drive home the audience’s sympathy with the violated woman, her sense of fear and shame and undirected anger, and how she finds a way to cope with the trauma of her assault.

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young woman working as a bookkeeper, with a boyfriend who becomes her fiance (Robert Owens), a loving family, and a normal, middle-class future. As she leaves work late one night, she’s followed and then attacked by the man who works the concession stand near her workplace, and who we see early on hitting on her with no response. Ann runs and then blacks out before the attack; she can’t recall the face of the man, remembering only the scar on his neck. Her sense of shame around her family, her fiance, and her fellow workers eventually drives her out of town, fleeing to the countryside where she finds a kind of solace with the help of Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). But her assault continues to haunt her, even as she tries to repress it, and her terror soon takes a darker turn.

Outrage has so many interesting elements that it’s difficult to pick up on a single one. Lupino treats the subject with sympathy, but also photographs it as a film noir. When Ann flees from her hometown, she does so with the air of a criminal – she hides her face when her disappearance is talked about on the radio, and begins to act guilty when she’s introduced to a local sheriff. She changes her name, and declines to talk about where she came from or why she left. All of this is part of the recognizable tropes of film noir – the man or woman on the run. But Ann is the victim, not the criminal; her shame was something that was forced upon her. The film takes pains to avoid placing any blame on Ann for her assault. She hardly knows the man who attacks her; her greatest crime is turning him down, and even then it’s a rejection that carries very little weight. Like many women, Ann is catcalled and whistled at and she generally ignores it or takes it in stride as a simple fact of being female. Up to her assault, Ann is treated as an average woman, without any particular neuroses or anxieties; the sort of woman about to marry a long-time boyfriend, with a family that loves her and a good job that she enjoys. She is, in other words, a normal girl for the 1950s.

This act of rendering a victimized woman completely sympathetic, avoiding even the shadow of blame attached to her, drives several points home. The terror of the assault is that it really can happen to anyone; Ann’s greatest error is an understandable fear that slowly morphs into panic, which in turn makes her make bad decisions and errors as she runs. In Lupino’s work, victimized women are not “asking for it;” they are not “fallen women,” they do not “lead men on.” They are normal, average women victimized not just by a single man, but by the expectations and taboos of the culture surrounding them.

The film’s strongest and most terrifying scene is the lead up to the assault, as Ann’s eventual rapist pursues her through an empty urban landscape. Ann’s walk through the empty streets and industrial yards is at first relaxed; it’s quite obvious that she has done this often, and she’s comfortable in her surroundings. As her attacker pursues her, occasionally whistling or calling out, her panic develops. She’s clearly aware that she’s alone, isolated, and under threat. Lupino’s camera draws away from her into overhead shots combined with medium close-ups, emphasizing her isolation. Belatedly, Ann begins to do what most women are instructed to do in such situations – she heads for a cab, that quickly pulls away from her, and then begins banging on windows, calling for help. But no help comes. Ann finally resorts to hiding from her would-be attacker, but fails at the last to escape him. This combination of panic and an attempt at clear-headedness is believable – as any woman who has ever been followed by a man will tell you – and reminds us that most women who don’t actually fight their rapists are not actually consenting. Ann is terrified, she runs, she finally blacks out to defend her mind from the attack. It’s heart-breaking partially because the story is all too familiar.

As the film goes on, Lupino develops the terror that men can be for women, including ones that technically “mean no harm.” Ann’s fiance Jim at one point chases and grabs her, trying to convince her that they should run away and get married barely a week after her assault. Late in the third act, another man attempts to kiss Ann, despite her repeated denials. Ann’s horror at men and the prospect of being married, is part of her trauma, and the film doesn’t blame her for it. The men that she’s able to connect to following her assault are the ones like Bruce, who do not obviously view her as sexual, and who do not attempt to touch or coerce her.

Outrage’s greatest weakness is in providing a kind of solution to Ann’s trauma via Bruce, a reverend and a former Army chaplain who attempts to break through Ann’s reticence with a recounting of his own traumatic experience. The film relies on a pat combination of psychological and religious salvation that jars a bit with the earlier, noir-ish tone. In this, however, Outrage shows its generation more than anything. There are really only two solutions for Ann in the 1950s – salvation, or condemnation, and there was every possibility that the film would err on the more recognizable side of the “fallen woman” trope and plunge Ann into a life of vice or prostitution. But Lupino does have a defter hand than that. If the film somewhat shirks in its otherwise clear depiction of rape culture in the final act – including a decidedly post-war explanation of the attacker’s warped psychology – I think it can be forgiven.

Outrage is very much a film of its time, but it renders a sympathetic, complex understanding of the aftermath of rape, told through a woman’s eyes and with a woman’s camera. While Lupino would make technically better films, she probably never made a more significant one.

Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Beware, My Lovely (1952)


Beware, My Lovely falls into that particular sub-genre of thrillers classified as “house invasion” films: a criminal or gang of criminals manage to break into a family’s home and take it over, transforming the safe suburban landscape into a land of dark shadows and looming threats. The sub-genre was particularly prevalent in post-World War II America as an off-shoot of Cold War paranoia and the increasing sense that the enemy could be the person next door. In Beware, My Lovely, the sub-genre also deals with the incipient sense of inferiority of post-war masculinity.

Beware, My Lovely is set in 1918 and features Ida Lupino as Helen Gordon, a widowed housewife preparing her home for Christmas by a spate of extensive cleaning. Her lodger is leaving for several weeks, and her young niece Ruth is of little assistance, so Helen calls in an itinerant handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) to help her with the heavy work. As Helen finds herself alone with Howard, it develops that the otherwise friendly worker has a serious psychosis. After a violent outburst, Howard confesses to Helen that he has occasional blackouts where he does things – including murder – that he later cannot remember. Although Helen tries to express sympathy for the damaged man, she soon discovers that Howard has locked them in the house and hidden the keys, prompting a battle of wills as Helen tries to convince the damaged Howard to let her go.

Beware, My Lovely is a chamber-piece of a film noir anchored primarily by Lupino and Ryan, with only a few supporting characters coming in and out. It moves quickly, developing Howard’s psychosis and subsequent possession of the house as something nearly outside of his control. Ryan plays his part with remarkable pathos: Howard isn’t a bad or evil person per se; he’s after nothing more than help and some cure for his loneliness, but is incapable of controlling his blackouts or his behavior within them. Refused entry into the army, Howard’s madness seems to be instigated by a sense that he’s “less of a man,” his violence directed at women that he believes are laughing at him. It’s Helen’s niece who prompts his outburst when she tells him that the housework he’s doing is “woman’s work.” beware-my-lovely

Lupino has a more thankless role. While Helen begins the film with a strong emotional character, her behavior sometimes borders on nonsensical. She never seems to get past her terror and so remains a victim throughout the film – a companion to similar female characters in home invasion films who never manage to get their hands on a coffee pot, a lamp, or a kitchen knife long enough to do something. While the audience shares her terror, her ineptitude becomes increasingly exasperating. This isn’t a slur on Lupino, however, who has one of the strongest screen personas you can ask for in a Classical Hollywood actress. But Lupino’s very strength of character makes Helen’s behavior seem unbelievable; Ida Lupino would never faint the way this woman does.

Despite Helen’s hysteria, there’s much to like in Beware, My Lovely. It maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere that does not let up until the final frame. Most of the film takes place within Helen’s house, juxtaposed occasionally against the world outside that goes along as it always had, developing into a seeming mockery of Helen’s situation. It’s the scenes of near-escape that have the most energy, as do the moments where Helen tries to convince Howard that she’ll help him if he’ll only unlock the front door.

Beware, My Lovely has the hallmarks of a classic, even if it falls somewhat short in the execution. Ryan and Lupino are attractive screen presences, and Ryan in particular uses his looming physicality and sorrowful eyes to excellent effect. If it never quite achieves the level it might, Beware, My Lovely is a diverting piece of thriller cinema.