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A young, newly-engaged woman ready to start her life is raped on her way home from work one night. Suffering mentally from the attack, she abandons her life, her family, and her home in an attempt to forget what transpired— and to regain some semblance of faith. Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) tackled rape when it was even more taboo than today. Film regulations of the period further limit its scope of exploration on the subject. (RMM: 3/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
Young secretary “Ann Walton” (Mala Powers) is having lunch with longtime boyfriend “Jim” (Robert Clarke) when he asks her to marry him. With her parents’ blessing later that night, Ann happily agrees to the engagement. The next day at work, Ann cannot contain her happiness as she breaks the good news to her coworkers.
When night falls, and it’s time to head home, Ann sets off on foot, whistling. A man shouts, “Hey, beautiful!” and takes off after her. Upon realizing that she is being pursued, Ann breaks into a run. She navigates the set like a maze, turning sharp corners and darting behind cars. Her fear is palpable as she begins to grow flustered, knocking over trash cans and banging on windows for help. I can feel my own anxiety rise in my throat. When Ann tries to start up a parked car, the car alarm alerts the pursuer to her exact whereabouts. She falls to the ground, seeing only the scar on the man’s neck before slipping into unconsciousness.
Later that night, Ann stumbles home, bruised, to a concerned mother. Her parents call in a doctor, and later detectives arrive to question her about the rapist’s appearance. But Ann only remembers the scar and shrieks that she couldn’t get away before breaking down in tears. She tries to go back to work but can’t handle the stares from the townspeople, who have heard about the attack. When Jim proposes they get married that very weekend, Ann refuses.
Seeking to escape the prying eyes of the town and her family, Ann buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Before she reaches the city, however, she finds herself on a ranch where she meets Reverend Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). Ferguson and the rest of this rural community make her feel at home, but she still cannot escape her past. When it rears its ugly head in the form of a flashback, she injures a man. But under Ferguson’s protection, Ann makes her way towards recovery.
What makes Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) so intriguing is its subject matter; this was the second film released during the Code era that used rape as a plot point, and it faced controversy. To briefly elaborate, The Motion Picture Production Code – more informally known as the Hays Code – was a set of moral guidelines for the self-censorship of content in American films that took effect in 1934. Lasting until 1968, it spelled out what was acceptable and what was not for American public audiences to see. Those even somewhat familiar with the Hays Code know that it prohibited on-screen depictions of homosexuality (classifying it as a sexual perversion) as well as interracial relationships.
After reading further into the Code’s rules and regulations, I was simultaneously surprised by the scope of its restrictions and unnerved by their contents. The code calls for film depictions of the “correct standards of life.” Written with Catholic undertones, the document pushed a particular set of values on audiences. Nuclear, middle-class families were favored, and sexual relationships before marriage were made to look undesirable. Though its intent not malicious, it effectively takes away an individual’s freedom to entertain ideas that lie outside of the Code’s guidelines. Ann’s wish to never get married is not honored – she returns to Jim by the end of the film – because marriage is deemed correct for a woman of the time.
If consumptive media will not show their audiences that there are other avenues for women, they are less likely to know of them and explore them. But negating actual real-life issues like poverty or single-parent families fails us in an even worse way – we do not acknowledge their existence. According to the Code, crime had to be punished onscreen and portrayed negatively, lest the audience receives the idea that violating the law in any way was permissible. Lupino makes it very clear that Ann is the victim and that her rapist must be punished for his crime (by the story’s end, he is found and put in prison.) In fact, it was rather refreshing to see the characters around her denounce the assailant’s actions so firmly and without dismissal. At no point during the film does a man place an ounce of blame on Ann. No sign of victim-blaming, no “why were you out alone at night?” or “what were you wearing?”
The direct manner in which they handle the crime contrasts oddly with the film’s refusal to actually to say the word “rape.” Now, the Code does stipulate that crime, though it can be part of the plot, cannot be explicitly shown. And of course, it is not necessary to actually see something like rape play out. But if it had not been implied in the chase scene or after, through Ann’s mental distress, I would not have known the nature of the crime. For most of the film, the characters refer to the incident as a “vicious assault.” I suppose it agrees with the Code’s prohibition of visually depicting crime. We wouldn’t want to give the audience any ideas. However, in refusing to call this gross deed by its name, do we not do a disservice to those affected by it? In making the subject matter more palatable for an audience, we have offended its victims, who do not have that luxury.
Outrage’s failure to reveal our society’s hypocrisy regarding rape leaves somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t believe that the public handled sexual assault with such fairness and directness in the 1950s as it does in the film because it doesn’t handle it even half as well today. In adhering to the Code’s rules, Outrage cannot be honest. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that we should exercise skepticism when watching the films of this time. It is dangerous to take a film’s depiction of life to be accurate to the period it represents, especially when things like mandated moral guidelines are at play.
While her community’s response to her plight might not seem real, Ann’s own response, miraculously, does. In perhaps the most viscerally honest scene of the film, Ann’s world shatters as the tragedy of her assault sinks in. Though Jim believes that they can get married and be happy, Ann believes she will never marry. To his words of comfort, she screams, “I don’t want you to touch me! Everything’s dirty, filthy, and dirty!” Her words cut Jim, and the audience, as they convey the deep sense of both physical and mental violation that Ann has endured and will continue to feel the effects of PTSD.
Mala Powers delivers a powerfully raw performance here that drives home the totality of Ann’s suffering. And though at the end of the film, after a year of therapy, Ann seems “healed,” we know that this is not a trauma that will dissipate so easily. Of course, she can lead a relatively normal and happy life, but it will not be without its moments of pain.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/28/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Ann begins to lose consciousness.
Photo Credits: Rod Tolmie
Q: Does Outrage pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Ann has conversations about life and her condition with her coworker, and later with Madge Harrison (Angela Clarke) of the Harrison ranch.