In a cultural and industrial landscape significantly altered by the barrage of sexual-abuse and harassment allegations against now-notorious Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in late 2017 that sparked the #MeToo movement, a film about rape trauma made as early as 1950 by classical Hollywood superstar-turned-filmmaker Ida Lupino feels almost custom-designed to be championed by self-identifying feminists. This was not, however, always the case. In her foundational and hugely influential 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, acclaimed feminist film critic Molly Haskell pulled no punches in her unambiguous rejection of Lupino’s oeuvre as a director:
Lupino was tougher as an actress than as a director: the movies she made (Hard, Fast, and Beautiful, The Bigamist, The Hitchhiker) are conventional, even sexist; and in her interviews, like so many women who have nothing to complain about, she purrs like a contented kitten, arches her back at the mention of women’s lib, and quotes Noël Coward to the effect that woman should be struck regularly like gongs.1
In an interview in 1981, Haskell clarified her position more sympathetically:
Among women directors in the past, Ida Lupino was actually a very tough and fantastic woman, and more of a feminist in her Raoul Walsh films than she was as a director. She was constantly going on about how women – you know, using the Noël Coward line – should be struck regularly with a gun. I think she was being a little disingenuous some of the time. She probably wanted – as women will do, and for good reason – to make sure that everybody realized she was just a woman, that she didn’t want to be threatening.2
Yet, even leaning towards the gentler wording of the second quote, it would require impressive rhetorical gymnastics to interpret Haskell as positioning Lupino’s work and politics as a filmmaker as particularly progressive. For Haskell, at best, Lupino was a strong screen performer with a distinctive feminist edge; at worst, she was a virtual gender traitor, and certainly not a filmmaker who demonstrated any particular insight about, interest in or compassion for the lived experience of women in the world at the time she was making films.
Maybe Haskell simply chose to ignore Outrage, or – more logically, perhaps – maybe she simply did not have access to the film. Writing in 1974, at a time well before MUBI, Netflix, Amazon and The Pirate Bay, Haskell simply may not have had the kind of access to film archives that we do today. That any reference to Outrage is missing from the former, rather fiery, quote is therefore a curious (and perhaps simply practical) omission. In Haskell’s defence, it would seem somewhat petty to hold a critic to something they said almost 45 years ago when the world has changed so much in that time. Feminism itself has gone through two new waves since the mid-1970s, and positions deemed no-brainers then have, in many cases, been wholly rethought and reconsidered in the half-century since Haskell was writing. Haskell’s work on film and gender politics is unequivocally significant, yet her strong words against Lupino are certainly worthy of mention here as a springboard from which to think through why this particular film challenges her rejection of Lupino as a filmmaker.
The intersection of #MeToo with the rise in recent years of critical and industrial discourse surrounding the challenges women filmmakers have faced today render Outrage a foundational text. The film follows Ann Walton (Mala Powers), a sensible, grounded young woman with a good job and a nice fiancé, Jim Owens (Robert Clarke). On her usual walk home from work after leaving late one evening, Ann becomes aware that she is being followed. She attempts to escape, but she is captured and raped by a man who has previously shown a romantic interest in her, his interest unreciprocated. When she returns to her parents’ house where she lives, the police are called, and Jim is informed; everyone is compassionate and supportive, but Ann’s paranoia and shame overwhelm her. Unable to identify the rapist in a police line-up, her internalised trauma overcomes her, and she runs away to Los Angeles. While travelling, she hears a news story about her disappearance and that her family have revealed the details of her assault as the probable cause for her sudden departure. Confused and upset, she does not complete her journey, and instead finds herself in a small town where a priest (Tod Andrews) dedicates himself to assisting her, coming to her support when her severe trauma leads her to assault a man she confuses for the man who raped her.
Following Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda (1948), Outrage was the first mainstream Hollywood film to address rape and its consequences head-on, with emphasis placed on the subjective experience of the woman who survived it. Yet importantly, unlike in Johnny Belinda, rape in Lupino’s film is not quarantined to an abstracted historical past but is rather something that occurs in the film’s present day, in familiar suburban spaces, to nice, seemingly ‘normal’ girls with regular jobs, regular families and regular fiancés. Drenched as the assault scene is in aggressive film noir aesthetics that render tangible the subjective horror of the experience, just as confronting is the almost unendurable questioning Ann must face at the hands of the police and when she attempts to return to work and resume some kind of pattern. Much of the film – not only the rape scene, but, in particular, the later one in which she bludgeons the well-intentioned farm boy – privileges Ann’s perspective. We see things the same way she does: we feel both with her and for her, something that, almost 70 years later, many films centred on sexual violence still struggle to achieve.
Like Johnny Belinda, Outrage on a very clear level suggests that institutionalised male intervention (here a priest, in the earlier film a doctor) is the way to ‘solve’ rape trauma. In sharp contrast to the astonishing first quarter of the film, in which Ann’s experience is rendered so powerfully and sympathetically and with such a deep acknowledgement of the horror of what is happening to her, the simplistic, almost rosy conclusion – in which she travels home to her parents and fiancé ostensibly ‘cured’, returning in an uncomplicated way to a status quo drenched in 1950s Americana – is almost shocking in terms of its suddenness (from a contemporary perspective, at least). While these final moments seem a universe away from the nuance of Ann’s experience depicted earlier in the movie, we as spectators cannot forget so easily, and those images remain imprinted long after the film has ended. An important figure in the history of feminist film criticism, Molly Haskell was right about a lot of things; but, on this one subject, history perhaps tells us something different: not only was Lupino just as tough a director as she was an actor, she was also kind, compassionate and sensitive. When it comes to representations of sexual violence in the cinema, Lupino was on this front – as she was on so many others – a true pioneer.
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Outrage (1950 USA 75 mins)
Prod Co: The Filmakers Prod: Collier Young Dir: Ida Lupino Scr: Ida Lupino, Malvin Wald and Collier Young Phot: Louis Clyde Stoumen and Archie Stout Ed: Harvey Manger Mus: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Mala Powers, Tod Andrews, Robert Clarke, Raymond Bond, Lillian Hamilton, Roy Engel