Ida Lupino was an anomaly, a phenom, a pioneer. She was an actress, of course, a woman whose acting career stretched from the early 1930s to Columbo episodes in the mid-1970s. At first her roles were insignificant, like in Artists and Models (1937).
The Light That Failed (1939) gave her a juicier role, more to do, with some emotional complexity.
An excellent role in The Sea Wolf came in 1941, but the real breakthrough for Lupino was when she played opposite Humphrey Bogart in the crime-thriller/adventure movie High Sierra (1941). She’s unforgettable in it, and the film was a huge hit. And in terms of Bogart: Casablanca would come the following year, putting Bogart firmly in the Improbable Leading Man category (he was short, balding, and had a lisp: his transition into iconic Leading Man is one of the most improbable – and perfect – results that emerged out of the studio system). Before that, though, he played gangsters, criminals, and anti-heroes.
High Sierra ends with a doomed stand-off between Bogart hiding in the rocks above with the cops gathered below. It is a sequence still imitated today. Lupino was terrific in High Sierra, and able to hold her own with Bogart, a worthy co-star. She was perfect for the rise of film noir, its obsession with sex and neuroticism, crime and the underworld. There was something about her that suggested a woman with secrets, a woman who had been around. I love her in Moontide (1942), opposite a fabulous Jean Gabin.
She is first seen as a black faraway figure walking determinedly into a rough ocean. Her suicide attempt is never explained, but the character played by Gabin, a binge-drinker and a womanizer, rescues her and takes her back to the floating deck he lives on, a place where he sells “live bait.” Over the course of a couple of days, she and he connect. The connection surprises both of them, she, because she had considered her life was over, and he, because he was caught up in a whirl of self-destruction and never thought about love. Claude Rains is wonderful (as always) as Gabin’s smiling supportive friend. Thomas Mitchell is excellent in it, as Gabin’s jealous friend, probably gay (he is first seen whipping a naked Rains with a wet towel – all in fun, right?), and determined to yank Lupino off the pedestal that Gabin has put her on. You can imagine how he tries to do that.
She worked with all the great directors of the day, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh (a bunch of films), William Wellman, Michael Curtiz, Anatole Litvak, Charles Vidor, Jean Negulesco. In 1947, she got out of her contract with Warner Brothers and freelanced around. She still worked, but not as much as the late-30s and 40s. As her career transitioned into the 1950s, she started to play middle-aged parts, directed by Nicholas Ray, Robert Aldrich, Fritz Lang. Once live television shows started happening out of New York (the real Golden Ages of television), she switched to mostly television. She was in her 40s now, she wanted to keep working. Those live television programs, like “The Four Star Playhouse” “The Ford Television Theatre”, “General Electric Theatre” and on and on provided new and vigorous and exciting opportunities for actors, writers, and young directors. So many luminaries (Paddy Chayevsky. Arthur Penn) got their start in these programs. So many writers cut their teeth on them. And so many New York actors became famous through performances on these television programs. Lupino was still acting, in everything. She appeared on Twilight Zone, Bonanza, Batman, Mod Squad. She still did movies here and there. I love her performance in 1955 in Women’s Prison as the totally psychopathic prison warden, so cruel that the prisoners gang up on her to give her a taste of her own medicine. I reviewed Women’s Prison, love it.
It’s the kind of acting career I most admire. It mixes a blend of artistry, star power and practicality. Stardom was not as important to her as continuing to work. And work she did.
But the most pioneering part of her career (even if she had “just” been an actress she would be remembered as an icon of the tough wrong-side-of-the-tracks broad with a soft and mushy heart) was when she started directing. It happened early. Like I said: she was talented, but she was also practical. One can almost imagine her thinking Okay, I’m getting older now, not getting as good parts … what next? Many actresses are sunk by the so-called “blackout period” when they hit their 40s. That “blackout period” lasts about 15 years. Nobody wants to see women as they transition into old age, especially an actress whose beautiful youth had been captured on camera so many times. It is not only unfair but infuriating that the culture cannot deal with women’s transition into middle-age, and have no problem with men’s. But again, Lupino felt that reality at work, and made a change. She stepped behind the camera. She worked job to job for a bit, and then formed a production company with her husband. And so after that, we are graced with the gorgeous credit at the start of her films: AN IDA LUPINO PRODUCTION. Hell, yes!
I was thrilled when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to get a Best Directing Oscar. And I loved Hurt Locker. But it’s outrageous that the “first” would come so late in the game. (And take a look at the statistics of how many times a film helmed by a woman was nominated for Best Picture but NOT nominated for Best Director. I think it was Steven Spielberg who cracked, when this happened to Streisand, “I guess the picture directed itself, huh.” May have been someone else. I do know Streisand showed her director’s cut of Yentl to him and asked for his opinion. He said, “I wouldn’t change a frame.”)
There had been “women directors” since cinema’s earliest age. Not many. Dorothy Arzner was a pioneer in the 1930s, really the only woman behind the camera at that time. She directed the awesome pre-Code film Merrily We Go to Hell (starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney.) See it if you can. I reviewed here (unfortunately I lost a ton of pictures on my site with the last WordPress upgrade. Anger.) Shirley Clarke was another pioneer in the 50s. In France, Agnes Varda was starting to work, in deeply experimental films, and of course she became one of the leading lights of the French New Wave (and she’s still directing today). Elaine May was a pioneer in the 70s. Lina Wertmüller. The late Chantal Akerman (it hurts to say “late”). Joan Rivers. Gillian Armstrong. These women were anomalies at the time. Bold and pushing out the space for women in film. In the 80s, things started to really change. Some of the most influential pop-culture films of that generation were made by women, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling (whom I still love: MORE FILMS BY AMY HECKERLING) probably the most famous example. Penny Marshall directed gigantic Hollywood smash-hits. Nancy Savoca. Jane Campion. Julie Dash. Allison Anders. Barbra Streisand. Nora Ephron. Catherine Breillat. Mary Harron. Julie Taymor. Sofia Coppola (she was the third female director to be nominated for Best Director. Nice, but still: ridiculous considering the films of all of the women who came before her. Better late than never, I suppose.) Lisa Chodolenko. Haifaa al-Mansour (talk about a pioneer: first film to be shot inside Saudi Arabia. Helmed by a Saudi woman. Written by her too. She was not allowed to be out on the streets with her male actors, so she had to huddle in a truck with her monitor a block away, communicating with her crew and cast via walkie-talkie. That film was Wadjida, a wonderful film.) Ava DuVernay with Selma. Again, apparently Selma directed itself since it was nominated for Best Picture and DuVernay was NOT nominated for Best Director. How do these voters sleep at night?
Every single one of these directors owe a huge debt to Lupino.
Lupino’s directing career was almost as extensive as her acting career. She did both at the same time. It started by a fluke. A director had dropped out of a project (Lupino had written the script), and she was asked to step in. She did. It was 1949. The film was called Not Wanted and it was about an unwed mother. (Lupino was not scared to take on taboo topics, as Outrage also shows. And she brought a female perspective to them, so missing at that time in Hollywood.) However, Lupino went uncredited as the director of Not Wanted.
Outrage from 1950 portrays a young woman’s experience of PTSD after a violent rape. It’s so ahead of its time that the mind boggles. It’s frank about sexual crime and the debilitating flashbacks that sometimes come with PTSD. One of the most groundbreaking parts of Outrage was something noted by Richard Brody at The New Yorker:
[“Outrage” ] looks intimately, painfully, and analytically at what we now know to call rape culture.
Lupino directed The Bigamist around this time, an interesting film I actually just saw a couple of months ago about a nice guy who … ends up becoming a bigamist. Ida Lupino is in it as well, and Joan Fontaine is in it too. It’s a moody and ambivalent film (the whole thing is on Youtube, FYI).
Lupino directed family melodramas, “issue” pictures. She’s talented with creating a look and feel (the rape scene in Outrage is terrifying). She is most known for 1953’s The Hitch-hiker, a great great film.
If she hadn’t done The Hitch-Hiker, I’m not sure if her stature as a director would be as significant, although her other films are always good. What is so GREAT about The Hitch-Hiker is it is not, in any way shape or form, a “woman’s picture.” It’s a film about men. It’s a film with only men in it. It’s a thriller, not seen as women’s territory at all. (Back to Bigelow: That’s why I was disappointed Bigelow hadn’t acknowledged the pioneer women who came before her, especially Lupino, whom she owes so much to. Her speech was wonderful and emotional otherwise, I think it was just a missed opportunity. Like Lupino, Bigelow does not direct “chick flicks.” She directs action films, political films, war films, guys in camo, macho surfers. No love stories whatsoever. It doesn’t interest her.) Lupino was not hemmed in either by gender expectations of what she should be interested in, what she should do. She was able to take on any topic with power. The Hitch-Hiker is a great film, a moody terrifying noir about two guys who pick up a mysterious hitch-hiker.
Filled with dread and shadows, The Hitch-Hiker is enough to put Lupino on the map forever. She literally, in one fell swoop, broadened the boundaries for women in film. She did that. In 1953, mind you.
According to Wikipedia, Outrage in 1950 was the first studio picture directed by a woman SINCE Dorothy Arzner in the 1930s. Lupino wrote the script too. Talk about “auteur.”
There are some unforgettable and chilling images in the beginning scenes of Outrage, evidence of Lupino’s powerful visual style. She isn’t strictly a linear “and then this happened and then this happened” film-maker. She sets up a MOOD visually, the mood equally as important as the plot.
For example, Ann Walton (Mala Powers), a young woman working as a secretary in a bustling trucking company, heads to a nearby lunch truck in the first scene. She buys two pieces of chocolate cake. She’s on her way to have lunch with her boyfriend (soon-to-be-fiance) Jim (Robert Clarke). The lunch-truck worker is a big burly guy with a scar on his neck. The first image we get of him are his hands, pushing a coffee cup across the counter. As Ann makes her order, those hands remain, sticking into the right side of the frame. It’s terrifying, but also extremely specific. Sexual threat is already there. It’s the air women breathe. I’ve talked about this before. This is an incredibly insightful and bold observation to make in 1950. Women do not walk around trying to be sexualized objects. As with men, being sexual is a private matter, for specific times when they’re going to, you know, have sex. But the sexual side of women is brought out, in unwelcome circumstances, in unwelcome moments. They’re trying to buy lunch at a lunch-counter and they have to deal with leers and innuendoes and come-ons. At times that type of leering is indistinguishable from actual violence.(Not always – a guy cat-called me a couple months ago and he made my day. That was just days after the random sexual assault I experienced. So … that cat-caller – who was working on a construction site, total cliche, shouted out a comment to me about my “red hair” and how “stacked” I was … #1. He speaks the truth on both counts. I couldn’t argue with his perception of reality. and #2. I needed it, I was feeling pretty beat up, like a piece of shit really, and his tone was so friendly and appreciative. Go figure.) But some leers put the THREAT of rape into the air. Until this dynamic is truly understood, and until men start listening to women on this issue, we will still have problems.
Ann is an innocent. She’s happy with her boyfriend, lives with her parents, and is excited to be married. The sexualization of the atmosphere that women experience is omnipresent in Outrage, an accepted part of life, noxious and yet invisible. She even gets it from her co-worker, who is a nice person, but still manages to touch her inappropriately in one of their interactions. Women are up for grabs, you see. And it is expected that women will tolerate it.
One night Ann works late and starts to walk home through the ranks of empty cargo trucks parked in the lot outside the building. She whistles. Her happy mood is undercut so strongly by the shadowy hostile environment of that trucking lot that you are terrified for her. It’s similar to the opening scene of another disturbing movie about rape, 1961’s Something Wild (which, honestly, you must see.) Something Wild is OUT THERE, but equally honest about sexual trauma (the young woman comes home after the rape, tells no one, and goes straight to the bathroom where she cuts up the dress she was wearing and flushes the pieces down the toilet, and then gets into the tub and scrubs herself all over as though the dirt is underneath her skin).
Eventually, Ann realizes she is being followed. (She does not know it is the lunch-truck owner. She never sees his face.) His elongated shadow looms out around corners. A chase ensues. It is terrible. Ann tries to hide. But her footfalls echo through the silence, he finds her, he always finds her. Eventually, her hyperventilation is so extreme that she collapses on a small dock outside a warehouse. As the lunch-truck worker approaches slowly up the stairs, Lupino moves the camera up, up, up the side of the warehouse, so that the angle is dizzyingly high, and we cannot see Ann collapsed just around the corner, but we see the man’s approach. Then he disappears too around the corner. Blackout. The next image we see is Ann staggering home, holding her stomach, disheveled and dirty. It’s brutal.
Unlike Something Wild, Ann tells her parents, who call the police. Ann has collapsed into trauma, sedated by the kindly doctor, and unable to answer the questions of the female police detective. The burly male detective stands downstairs, uncomfortably dealing with Ann’s grieving devastated father. It’s all so honest. Police officers sending a woman to do the interview. The police officers do not come off as callous or judgmental. They are on the front-lines. They cannot protect women from this. They understand the trauma better than the community does. But there is just no system set up to support those who have been raped. The cops do the best they can.
The word “rape” is not used. “Criminal assault” is the term, and everybody knows what it means. The male detective feels helpless. Rapists (again: he says something like “the type of men who commit this heinous crime”) are sometimes rounded up, but they’re out on the street the next day, a commentary on women’s fear of moving forward with prosecution. This fear is exacerbated to the breaking point by a certain sense of prudery and judgment that follows Ann around relentlessly after the attack is known by her small-town community. People whisper about her on the streets. Men suddenly act really familiar with her (gross). Other women either don’t know what to say, or recoil from her like she has a communicable disease.
This here is a ruthless critique of the fear and prudery surrounding sex in 1950s America (and elsewhere, of course, but this is an American story.) It still exists today. Rape victims are torn apart and victimized again by the system, by people commenting on her and what happened to her. She must have brought it on somehow. Inadvertently, Outrage says that if you can’t even give something its proper name, if “rape” is a forbidden term, even by police officers, then a culture is in deep trouble.
One of the most sensitive aspects of the portrayal of Ann’s breakdown and PTSD following the rape comes about when her fiancé tries to comfort her, to insist that nothing has changed, that they will “put this all behind them” and be married and happy. That life is no longer for her, she feels, that future is no longer possible. Not only is she tarnished forever, something precious taken away from her, but she now cringes and recoils from male touch, even casual everyday touch, or affectionate touch from her fiancé.
Jim doesn’t understand what that rape has done to his fiance. He can’t conceive how her impression of herself has changed, how her former softness and openness to his touch (which we see in their first scene together) is now altered. When he tries to hug her, she leaps back. He’s hurt. He is confused. He doesn’t know enough to understand that this is a part of sexual trauma. When she insists that no, she will not marry him, he gets aggressive with her, grabbing her arms and shouting in her face. It’s the worst choice he could make. Her perception of men has altered. They all have the potential to do to her what that horrible man did to her.
Eventually, her psychosis deepens and she runs away. She has no idea where she is going. But somewhere she thinks that maybe if she moves to another place she won’t have to deal with what happened, nobody will know. Ending up in a small town, after a collapse by the side of the road, she is embraced by the community of orange-pickers. She works in the orange-packing factory. A pastor named Bruce Ferguson (beautifully played by Tod Andrews) is gentle with her, but you can tell he is eventually interested in her romantically too. The introduction of Bruce, his first scene with Ann, sets up an uneasy expectation that he, too, will take advantage of this troubled young woman. He touches her shoulder. At this point, the film has made its point so strongly about unwanted touch that you recoil FOR Ann. (The film is only an hour and 15 minutes long, to give you an idea of how efficient Lupino was as a storyteller.)
There are scenes when Ann’s old life seems like it will be about to catch up to her. She hears radio announcers talk about a “missing woman” named Ann Morton who fled after a “vicious criminal attack.” She is terrified of being tracked down. She feels safe with the pastor, with the orange pickers. She doesn’t want to go back.
She tells nobody about what has happened to her.
Minor everyday moments are fraught with terror. Men seem dangerous. Outrage is told entirely from Ann’s perspective, a deeply compassionate approach. Rape has a long-lasting impact, rape is an assault not just of the body but of who a person IS, and rape impacts the rest of someone’s life in the way that, say, a mugging does not. Because a purse is a purse. But your sexuality is something that is part of you, and when it is stolen from you it impacts ALL areas of your life. Outrage gets that.
There are scenes that are haunting, sensitively shot by Lupino, prioritizing Ann’s point of view. There’s one moment when Ann circles around a small platform of hearty country people dancing at a county fair. Ann is outside the charmed circle of being human, of being included in innocent pleasures like dancing and flirtation. Lupino shoots it in one, a slow pan around. It’s an intuitive and very perceptive approach. There is no language in Outrage saying, “I cannot love anyone or kiss anyone or marry anyone ever.” Lupino doesn’t need that explanatory dialogue. Ann’s slow walk around the fair platform says it all.
The ending is poignant and painful. I wouldn’t give it away. But the film addresses the reality of PTSD. It understands how flashbacks of trauma work. Its greatest contribution, though, may be its portrayal of the casual omnipresent atmosphere of sexual violence present in all women’s lives, so omnipresent that you become completely accustomed to feeling it and dealing with it.
It’s an extraordinary film. It is not available on DVD. TCM plays it on occasion. I did track down its entirety on Youtube. Probably uploaded without permission, so it may not stay there long.
Ida Lupino. A woman in a man’s world. Doing it her way. A hero.