It’s one thing to say that a film is a “product of its time.” I do this fairly often since I’m normally focused on “the time” as much as I am the film. One of the great things about classic movies is that contemporary viewers are able to immerse themselves in the period of the film in question — the clothing, the dialog, the scenery — even the morality of the day, as suspicious as it often was. There’s something comfortable about “sinking into” a picture and becoming, if only briefly, a part of its world. However, in the case of Ida Lupino’s Outrage, what’s depicted on film is far from comfortably sentimental. It’s no coincidence that Outrage is often considered a film noir, as the central act of the film is a rape (though the term is never used), and it subsequently examines the alienation of the victim from her family and her community. Lupino sets this all up during the title sequence: as the credits flicker across the screen we get a bird’s eye glimpse of Mala Powers as she staggers through a forbidding maze of urban streets, constantly stealing glances over her shoulder for an attacker who is long gone. In the wake of her ordeal Powers is set adrift, isolated, a theme that Lupino expands upon throughout the film. Finally, through the ramifications of the rape the film illuminates the underside of the seemingly idyllic 1950s American small town.
Powers, in her first adult role, turned out to be a solid choice for the lead. Part Jean Hagan and part Judy Garland (minus the charisma and some of the talent), Powers’s “every girl” persona is well suited to the part of Ann Walton, girl-next-door who is viciously assaulted by the scarred counterman at the factory lunch stand. Despite the fact that the crux of Outrage lies in what happens afterwards, the most stylish and viscerally memorable sequence in the film is the attack itself, as Ann, caught late at night in the wrong place at the wrong time, is pursued through a vacant industrial landscape. Lupino alternates high- and low-angle shots as Ann darts through a maze of deserted alleys, piled high with crates and barricaded by semi-trailers. At one point she crouches along a wall plastered with circus posters, beneath grotesque clowns who sneer down and ogle her every step. After pleading for anonymous help and blaring the horn of a parked truck, she finally succumbs to terror and to fate. As the busted horn caterwauls, Ann curls into a fetal position and awaits the inevitable. As the man closes in, her attention is transfixed not on his face, but on the long scar that adorns his neck — redolent of the red slash of the clowns’ mouths. The attack itself is not depicted. Instead the tableau closes as an old man in an apartment just around the corner, aroused from sleep by the moan of the horn, glances unconcerned and oblivious before slamming his bedroom window.
The middle of the film concentrates on the days immediately following the crime. Ann staggers home to a mother so stunned that she gapes wordlessly at her daughter. The police are summoned and Ann is given the once over by the family doctor — whose treatment essentially starts and stops with sedation. The cops are amiable but helpless in lieu of Ann’s shocked inability to identify her attacker beyond his gender and his scar. It has been noted by others that the term “rape” is never heard, with the more subjective term “criminal assault” used in its place. Although the police have little to go on they manage to mount an impromptu lineup for Ann’s benefit, and Lupino effectively uses the scene to focus on the absurdity of the practice. No soundproof room, no one-way glass — Ann sits in the front row of a makeshift theater as a troop of scarred and scary hoodlums is paraded by. As each man looks down at her, shows his profile, and exposes his scar, Ann is asked over and again if he is her attacker. Lupino makes it understandably clear that even had Ann recognized her assailant, she’d be hardly likely to admit it in this setting, being too aghast and terrified to think coherently. Through close ups, fast cuts, and shifting camera angles, Lupino establishes the sort of stifling, consumptive fear that anyone would feel in similar circumstances.
After reading her name in the paper and hearing herself whispered about by friends and neighbors, Ann returns to work. Constantly reminded of the attack by the judgmental stares of her coworkers, her resolve to endure finally breaks, and she decides instead to flee. Totally divorced from her community, Ann boards a bus for Los Angeles. After hearing a radio announcement that she is being sought as a missing person, Ann wanders away on foot, and eventually collapses by the roadside. Her body is plucked from the apron by a dark character in a jalopy who drives away with her in the back seat. Lupino uses this moment to again show the irony of the girl’s precarious situation: The traumatic effect of the assault on Ann’s mind is such that she leaves behind the frying pan to risk the fire — half-dead and helpless on a deserted road. It’s no mistake that Lupino depicts her rescue ambiguously, a medium-long shot of an unknown man picking her up and placing her limp form in his car — and also no mistake that she makes us wait a time before we are certain of his good intentions.
Ann comes-to in strange surroundings and has a few frightened moments before she learns that soft-spoken preacher Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews), rescued and gave her into the care of a family of fruit farmers. The story then contrives to establish Ann in a new life at the grove. It turns out that she has much to offer, and they take her in without asking many questions. As the weeks and months pass, she carves out a place for herself and tries to forget her previous life. She can’t escape her past that easily though, which comes rushing back after she violently clubs a man at the annual harvest festival. Ann’s moment of self-defense is the most important in the film. It happens when some yokel comes on too strong at the picnic, and she whacks him on the head with a wrench because won’t keep his hands off. She again flees, only to be delivered to the authorities by a concerned Bruce. It’s at this point that Outrage takes a shocking turn and lives up to its title in an unintended way: Ann is arrested for assault. Although Lupino gives us a textbook lead-up to rape — including the dominant male figure pushing the girl to the ground in spite of her repeated protests, kissing at her and making his intentions very clear — it is the woman who is accused of a crime for defending herself. The farm hand’s part in the event is dismissed, as he’s widely known to be a “decent fellow.” In a film full of ironies, the most significant of all is that Ann, who previously submitted to her attacker and accepted her rape as inevitable, is treated as a criminal in the very moment she gains the resolve to defend herself. In the aftermath the only thing that keeps her out of Tehachapi is Bruce, who takes up her cause, guaranteeing psychiatric treatment for at least a year. Ann remarks at her hearing “Maybe I am crazy — sometimes I feel as if the whole world is upside down.”
Unfortunately, Outrage no longer functions as entertainment. The retrograde attitudes are so prevalent that the world of the film is not one we wish to enter, nor thankfully should we. Ida Lupino, always ahead of her time, deserves all the credit in the world for being the first to address the consequences of a rape in a major motion picture, but her pandering to the misogyny of the day is painfully dated and casts a horrible pall over the whole film. Nevertheless, it can often be enough to open the door, and Lupino opened many.
Director: Ida Lupino
Cinematographer: L.C. Stoumen and Archie Stout
Screenplay: Collier Young, Malvin Wald, and Ida Lupino
Starring: Mala Powers and Tod Andrews
Released by: RKO, via Filmmakers (Lupino's independent production company)
Running time: 75 minutes