by Walter Chaw
U.S. & Canada: YouTube
Ida Lupino was tough, smart, resilient, and talented. The inheritor of a centuries-old legacy of stage performers, she was only reluctantly an actress and nominal star before parlaying her reputation into a career behind the camera as producer and director. During Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age," she was something of a unicorn for the power she held as a woman in an industry dominated, then as now, by men. As an actress, her big break after years of playing some variation of prostitute/bad girl with a heart of gold came in Raoul Walsh's They Drive By Night (1940) as part of a cast that included Bogie, Ann Sheridan, and George Raft. She immediately followed it up with another Walsh/Bogie classic, High Sierra (1941), having parlayed her newfound respect into a contract with Warners that gave her some negotiating rights to star in other studios' projects. Lupino, from the start, had her head screwed on exactly right.
Lupino's fierce individualism and intelligence bought her a lot of pushback from Jack Warner, her boss at Warner Bros., as she turned down multiple roles that assaulted her dignity. (I like to think she turned down King's Row because it would've assaulted her dignity to be in a movie with Ronald Reagan.) And then, right at the beginning of the 1950s, she and her then-husband Collier Young formed an independent production company they called "The Filmmakers" that, like so many small, communal studios that would follow in the decades to come, began production behind a manifesto centred around subjects with socially redeeming value. Lupino was an activist.
Introducing her to my kids as such was all the convincing they needed. Team Lupino all the way. I'm often heartened amid this bullshit by the extent to which my children seem to take revolution as both destiny and birthright. Yes, they were born needing to do it because of the mess we've made for them; but, no, they don't mind in the slightest and are, in fact, loaded for bear. Lupino the activist's first film as director was Not Wanted (1949), on which she stepped in, uncredited, for an ailing Elmer Clifton. In the end, she was to receive co-writing, producer, and "introduces" credits. The film follows young, naive Sally (Sally Forrest), who goes to the big city in pursuit of a no-account jazz-bo only to find herself pregnant by him and shunned, essentially, by her previous support systems. Its opening title card declared, "This is a story that happens one hundred thousand times a year." Then Sally walks stolidly towards the camera as we hear a baby crying from somewhere off-screen.
Lupino's clean, "tabloid" style recalls Samuel Fuller's, if anyone's. She's not interested in fluff: no camera trickery or lurid technological tricks, just this stark exploration of various polarized emotional states.
My daughter immediately wanted to know why Lupino's power was so unusual, leading to a conversation about how women ruled Hollywood until Hollywood became big business and they were basically shunted off to the sidelines. That's hardly changed, alas; Lupino would be as much the unicorn today as she was in 1949.
Her first directing credit comes in that same year's Never Fear, in which Lupino is reunited with her Not Wanted star Sally Forrest, who plays, this time around, a dancer crippled by polio who needs to let go of some pride and accept help to make it to the rest of her life. The picture is a largely autobiographical study covering Lupino's own survival of polio. What resonates still about it is how Lupino cast actual people with disabilities to be extras in the picture--a practice that is, again, exceedingly rare to this day. In her style, the film, for all its risk of melodrama, never descends into cheap nor large emotions. It's tough as nails.
I introduced Outrage as a "tabloid" picture only recently acknowledged as a classic.
- Would this film have been more quickly acknowledged as a classic had it been directed by a man?
- How would this film have been different had it been directed by a man?
- What elements of Outrage remain controversial seventy years on?
My daughter was instantly grossed-out by the come-ons and glances the hero of the piece, Ann (Mala Powers), suffers from the men she encounters. It starts right off the bat with a food vendor who gives her the full-court press. Ann's obvious discomfort with the inappropriate attention is an anomaly in films of this era, where wolf-whistles and off-colour remarks are more often met with flirtatious put-downs or gratified looks. In Outrage, it's deep foreshadowing. Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961) plows this plot of land as well with an entire city of people peering with great, inappropriate interest at the budding sexuality of the young couple at the picture's centre.
Ann's stiff boyfriend, Jim (Robert Clarke), wants to get married, of course, and the stage is set in Outrage for a conventional domestic romance. I love the scene where Jim musters the nerve to ask for Ann's hand and, out of terror and nervousness, pulls the stuffing out of the arm of a couch. It reminds instantly of the escape sequence from Jordan Peele's Get Out--something my daughter observed. I think the image of a black man forced to "pick cotton" to get himself out of a bad scrape involving white folks is brilliantly loaded, of course, but here it's a nice comedic beat in a film that is not otherwise a comedy.
The kids had a strong reaction to the stalking/rape sequence. Lupino shoots it from high, God's-eye angles:
- What is the effect of shooting action from a high angle?
- How does it heighten the sense of vulnerability for Ann?
- How does it heighten the sense of isolation?
- When Ann tries to hide in the truck cab, what does the blaring of the horn evoke for you?
- When we see the face of the rapist, it's obscured by a pole--what is the effect of this framing?
With a fourteen-year-old son, I thought it was important to discuss the motivations for rape as well. Why, for instance, did the rapist think he had the right to do what he did? My son responded that he felt like he deserved sex with Ann. I asked him why that was and he said that men feel entitled to women's attention but women don't owe men anything. I shared with them Margaret Atwood's quote about how a man's greatest fear is that a woman will laugh at him, while a woman's greatest fear is that a man will kill her. It's a good thing to teach young men, I think: that women are not for them--not objects or things, but human beings who deserve their respect.
Ann returns home, dishevelled, catatonic. The police question her in bed; Lupino shoots her from behind a barred headboard.
- What is the effect of this camera angle on our reading of the moment?
- If this were a still picture, what could you infer from the image?
Ann, the next morning, is haunted, terrified in her own home. She rebuffs requests for a visit from her boyfriend. She's consumed by shame, an entire range of emotions. Outrage is exceptionally sensitive to the shock of the victim and the complexity of emotions she goes through. Her attempts to get back to some kind of normalcy are shaded now by her paranoia that everyone is talking about her. Brilliantly, Lupino shoots people on the street in such a way that we share in Ann's paranoia. At work, the thudding of a co-worker's stamp and the tapping of another's fingers jackhammer into Ann's head. And ours.
How does Lupino create a bond between Ann and us?
During a police-lineup sequence in which Ann is forced to be in the same room with a gallery of potential rapists, my kids remarked how awful it was that she was visible to them. Ann's inability to identify an assailant while the detective badgers her, forcing her to relive her assault, is portrayed as, in effect, a re-victimization. The event is traumatizing enough that even though her boyfriend is insistent he still wants to marry her, Ann hops a bus to destinations unknown, injures her ankle, and wakes up in a strange room in a strange city.
Why does Ann spurn Jeff's offer to marry her?
My daughter understood immediately that Ann needed a break from men wanting things from her. Both kids agreed that the "gift" of marriage without understanding her trauma and having empathy for her process of recovery is a fundamentally selfish act from "good guy" Jeff. He wants to be a hero, and the violence with which he insists he wants to marry her suggests he won't be taking "no" for an answer. Jeff is just another assailant who thinks a woman is a thing to possess.
Ann finds sanctuary for a time in a small town and a group of folks who run an orange-packing plant. Things seem to be going all right for her until a country dance, when another guy gets a little too friendly. Ann grabs a wrench and defends herself. My son noticed in this scene how Ann's backed up against a combine and that after she brains the would-be Romeo, it's revealed that the latch of her belt looks just like her weapon of self-defense. Lupino shoots Ann's flight down the road through more bars, this time the slats of a fence.
- If bars represent imprisonment, what is Ann imprisoned by?
- Is Ann's victim innocent?
The answer to the last one was a resounding "no." The new assailant, driven by sexual jealousy, keeps touching Ann's hair and making advances when Ann has very carefully stated her intentions. I made sure to tell both kids that they have my permission to open the brainpan of anyone who disrespects them similarly.
Outrage ends on a note of understanding and reconciliation. Ann isn't healed--it's not that easy--but Lupino provides that the road to healing begins with listening and with having the patience to accept that psychic wounds, like any wounds, take time and the proper professional intervention to heal.
Next time, we watch Edgar Wright's forever-fresh Shaun of the Dead.