Friday, 22 August 2014

Female authorship and the rape-revenge narrative: Ida Lupino’s 'Outrage' (1950)


The present review focuses on Ida Lupino’s film Outrage starring Mala Powers as Ann Walton, the victim of a brutal sexual assault. As a pre-1970s rape-revenge film it barely foreshadows the developments that were to surface with the arrival of second-wave feminism. Yet its feminist potential has been largely undervalued due to the tendency in the narrative to pathologise the rape victim and her reliance on Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Todd Andrews) to defend her in front of the authorities as well as to ensure her social rehabilitation.

However, Pam Cook’s statement that the film “seems to embody the fluctuating, unsettled nature of th[e] boundary” between classicism and post-classicism in Hollywood (156) hints at the film’s ideological ambiguity, which was also detected by Claire Johnston in relation to Lupino’s oeuvre (38). Having this as a starting point I would like to provide a brief analysis of the way the rape-revenge narrative functions in Outrage to destabilize, even if temporarily, the wider patriarchal ideological context.

The title sequence of the film starts with a high angle shot of a street at night and a woman running, trying to escape an unknown as yet to the audience threat. The film’s title enlarges on screen while the image of the woman staggering is still in the background. This poignant opening leaves no room for doubt as to the certainty of the crime and the film’s condemning attitude towards it.

Subsequently, the narrative resumes a conventional chronological sequence by introducing Ann’s character, running to the canteen outside her work. The man working at the canteen flirts with her but she does not respond. She goes to meet her boyfriend and he announces his promotion and asks her to marry him. He tells her that she can now quit her job since he will be able to support her. She happily accepts and they make plans for announcing their decision to her parents. It is important to note that until this point the couple seems to be on an equal plane in terms of the power hierarchies in their relationship and the rape follows Ann’s relinquishment of her independence. Generally women in films at the time are usually punished for transgressing the traditional norms that prescribe their place in the domestic sphere. It is therefore noteworthy that the moment Ann loses that equality with her partner she is immediately afterwards sexually assaulted, which results in a literal violation of her subjectivity and effectively undermines her place in society.

The actual rape, in accordance with censorship restrictions, is not shown. Yet the scene leading up to it successfully conveys the heroine’s psychological turmoil. It starts with an intercutting of shots of Ann leaving the office and the canteen owner closing up, a technique that gradually increases psychological tension and creates suspense. A close-up shot of the man reveals a scar on his neck, a key feature in the identification of the rapist. The camera then cuts to Ann coming out of the building skipping on her way home after her last day at work. The man shuts his canteen and follows her shouting “Hey beautiful!” to which she does not respond. He persists, lurking in a predatory manner, trying to call her over repeatedly. The pace quickens and eventually Ann reaches a parking lot and tries to call for attention by pressing the horn of a lorry. Her last effort to evade her pursuer is unsuccessful as she stumbles and falls in a semi-conscious state. Through a point of view shot of the man his face remains hidden. However, his scar is visible and as he approaches, the image gets increasingly blurry indicating Ann’s loss of consciousness. The camera moves quickly away and upwards revealing a neighbor coming to check out the noise. Failing to see anything, he goes back in and the camera fades to black.

In the next shot, Ann is seen staggering to her house and the non-diegetic solemn music accentuates the tragic incident that has just occurred. The whole scene of Ann’s pursuit and the off-screen rape starts 9 minutes into the film and lasts for about 5 minutes. The remaining 60 minutes of the film deal with the aftermath and the process of Ann’s recuperation and re-integration in society. She arrives home in deep shock, unable to respond to her mother’s worried inquiries. In the next scene the police come to speak to her and she has a nervous breakdown. Ann’s father says to the policeman: “Tonight my daughter was brutally attacked. Why don’t you do something about preventing crimes like this?” and he adds: “Is this why you raise a daughter? Is this what you love and sacrifice for? What kind of times are these that such things can happen? Only this morning she was carefree and happy and now…”. This poignant speech shows his devastation as he comments on the larger social issue of the threat women face. It also expresses the gravity of the issue even if it remains unspoken, as the word rape is never mentioned throughout the film. Simultaneously it foreshadows the difficulty in overcoming this trauma, which usually involved killing the perpetrator after the victim was already dead.

Therefore the importance of this film lies in focusing on the process of surviving this traumatic experience. Shortly after her rape, Ann tries to resume her normal routine but she quickly perceives that the way other people see her has changed drastically and she is primarily defined as the victim of a sexual crime. Jim provides a solution to move away and start a new life, but she rejects his proposal and breaks off the engagement. In order to restore her violated subjectivity she runs away so as to be around people that do not know anything about her, which is achieved in the small farming community she finds refuge. Also the rejection of her father’s and her fiancé’s protection and assistance in her recovery indicates her need to regain agency and take control.

Bruce plays a huge part in Ann’s recuperation firstly due to his discreet attitude. He gradually gains her trust, which is highlighted in the scene at the countryside where he tells her about his past. He says, “We all go through dark times” explaining that after the war he lost his faith. It is possible to detect a potential parallel that is created here between the traumatic experiences of war and rape. Both characters have had a profound identity shock, which puts them on an equal plane and allows them to connect. The insinuation regarding the similarity of their experience further emphasizes the severity of rape as a crime or as an act of “political terrorism” (Morgan 135), which is of course equally applicable to war.
Yet I would argue that the revenge part of the narrative is the most ideologically transgressive aspect in the film. It is a case of “displaced revenge” since the heroine takes her revenge on another man and not the actual rapist (Read 95). 54 minutes into the film, and after Ann has slowly begun the process of recuperation, there is the scene of the dance during which Frank (Jerry Paris), approaches her romantically. When she refuses his advances he becomes even more determined to woo her. She repeatedly tells him to leave her alone but he ignores this adding that he doesn’t want to hurt her but only to kiss her. When she runs off once more, he grabs her and she falls back. As he approaches and continues talking to her, there is a close-up on his mouth and neck. At this point there is a short sequence of alternating point of view shots between Frank’s and the rapist’s necks. The camera then cuts to Ann’s terrified face as she reaches out, grabs a wrench and hits Frank over the head. Here the film offers the most usefully ambiguous for a feminist reading opportunity, since it is insinuated that there is a thin line between an overly keen suitor and a rapist. Therefore the film creates, even if temporarily, an uncomfortable equation between a sociopath and an otherwise ‘innocent’ man.

However, the aftermath of Ann’s ‘revenge’ functions to re-establish the shaken patriarchal values in the film, since Ann is apprehended for the attack on Frank and she is only exonerated after Bruce says that her act was caused by “temporary insanity”. She is examined by a psychiatrist and is subsequently put under Bruce’s supervision to ensure she rehabilitates in society. Moreover, the characterization of the rapist as “a neurotic” not only eliminates responsibility for his action, but it also creates a safe distinction between him and other male characters. Thus any subversive elements in the ideological fabric of the film are safely ironed out in the end, but their inclusion, in view of the film’s production context in post-war America, is important nonetheless.

Consequently, even if Outrage may not explicitly set out to tell a feminist story (Read 77), there are a number of elements inserted into the film, which make a feminist reading possible. This review emphasizes its uniqueness as a female-authored pre-1970s rape-revenge film in presenting the possibility for such a feminist reading.


Cook, Pam. “No fixed address: the women’s picture from Outrage to Blue Steel.” Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. London: Routledge, 2005. 146-64.
Johnston, Claire. “Women's Cinema As Counter-Cinema.” Notes on Women's Cinema. Screen (Pamphlet 2): 24-31.
Morgan, Robin. “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape.” Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Ed. Laura Lederer. New York: William Morrow, 1980. 134-40.
Read, Jacinda. The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-revenge Cycle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.

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