Criminalising the Victim: Sexual Assault and Trauma in ‘Outrage’

Anne presses her body up against a wall, seemingly trying to hide herself. The wall is papered with circus posters, creating an unsettling backdrop as a huge clown's face is right behind Anne.
RKO Radio Pictures

Content Warning: Reference to and discussion of sexual assault and associated trauma. 

London-born writer, director, actress, singer and producer Ida Lupino was a forced to be reckoned with in 1950s Hollywood. As a Director, Lupino was a true trailblazer creating issue-based films that often examined highly controversial topics such as pregnancy before marriage and (after being diagnosed with polio at the age of sixteen) the effects of long- term illness. The only woman to ever direct an episode of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, Lupino was a highly driven and creative woman who let nothing stand in the way of her goals. In 1950, at the height of her career, she directed Outrage, a provocative and deeply moving film about rape and the objectification and silencing of women.  

Losing Yourself: The Damaging Power of Sexual Assault

The notion of male spectatorship and women being watched is seeded from the outset. Within the first ten minutes, protagonist Anne (Mala Powers) is subjected to the gaze of her fiancé, father (Raymond Bond), co-workers, and the owner of a refreshment stand. Engaged to be married, Anne and her fiancé Jim (Robert Clarke) announce the news to her parents and while her mother (Lillian Hamilton) is delighted at the news, her father pulls her to one side, noting that he would prefer her to focus on her career. Although marriage at a young age could be viewed as a shedding of independence, here it is crucial to note that this reflects Anne’s choice and therefore in questioning this and pushing his own wishes upon his daughter, her father functions as an oppressive force. In the throes of contentedness, Anne is shown whisking to and from work, taking lunches with Jim and enjoying afternoon coffee with a female colleague. 

This blissful and carefree existence is suddenly shattered when upon leaving work one evening, Anne suspects that she is being followed. In a scene that will be stirringly familiar to many women, she begins to walk faster, picking up pace as the danger intensifies. When the footsteps continue in their slow and steady pursuit (foreshadowing Michael Myers’ menacingly even-paced gait) she bangs on nearby houses for help and just like Laurie Strode in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), she is ignored. At one point, she runs over the word ‘stop’ which is painted in large white letters on a road, a visual illustration of what she is unable to verbalise in this tragic moment. 

The pivotal chase scene is played out in real-time and is uncomfortably realistic. We watch as Anne resolutely tries to put distance between herself and her pursuer, desperately willing her to succeed. However, once tears start to cloud her eyes and her breathing becomes shallow, we are forced to accept the inevitable. In a final and quick-witted attempt, she jumps into a parked truck and pushes the horn down to attract attention but regrettably, no one comes to her aid. The persistent, deafening, and repetitive sound of the horn becomes the score, signifying her terror as she collapses with fear and exhaustion before her stalker, but not before she catches sight of a prominent scar on his neck. 

Anne lies face down in her bed, looking distressed. An older man and woman sit beside her, with grave expressions.
RKO Radio Pictures

Post-incident, Anne stumbles towards the front door of her family home catatonic and unable to talk. As if to affirm the change that has taken place within her, the next shot we see is of a police sergeant holding a photograph of her prior to the incident, looking happy and carefree. A female detective interrogates a clearly fragile Anne in the privacy of her bedroom, throwing question after question at her without offering any words of comfort or understanding. This approach provokes a reliving of the attack, with Anne recounting how she “couldn’t move”. As she grabs hold of her bed post we see a child’s doll attached to it by string, a memento of innocence lost. 

Post attack, Anne is fearful to open the door, refuses to eat and remains in her dressing gown. Aware that the whole town is talking about recent events, she soon courageously resolves to go back to work. At her dressing room table, we see her large shadow looming behind her, a reflection of the two parts of herself-the woman before and the woman after the incident. As she prepares for her first day at work, her father questions her life choices once more. In bringing himself into the narrative, he overlooks the person at the centre of the strain and trauma-his daughter. As Anne walks tentatively down the street alone, the neighbours stop, stare and discuss her in low-toned whispers. 

At work, in contrast to the warmth and friendliness of earlier scenes, Anne receives a cold and frosty reception while the room remains chillingly silent. Even her female friend offers no support and when Anne breaks down she tells her abruptly to: “cut it out”. The police ask Anne to view potential suspects of her attack and she is forced relive her trauma once more by viewing a line-up of men in a face-to -face setting. Sitting in front of four men (one of whom may be her attacker), Anne is pressurised by the police who even stoop to blackmail, telling her that if she does not positively identify the criminal, she will be putting other women at risk. 

Anne leans against a wall in an office, looking perturbed as she grips the edge. Two other young women sit behind her, staring and leaning in towards each other to whisper.
RKO Radio Pictures

After failing to identify her attacker, Anne’s fiancé Jim tells her: “nothing matters, except us” and in doing so, he is refusing to acknowledge that what matters most is Anne being able to heal from the experience she has suffered. He physically shakes her, remarking: “we are going to be married right away, I want you”, demonstrating that his focus is on his desires only. Hurt and confused, Anne runs into the safety of her home, checking discreetly through the curtains that Jim has gone. Pacing up and down, she takes the photograph of herself and smashes it to the floor, grieving the loss of happier times in her life. 

Picking up the Pieces: A Journey of Healing

Uncertain of what to do next, Anne wonders to a coach station to embark on a journey which crucially, she must make alone. Stopping at a diner, she overhears via radio that the police are looking for her; rather than her attacker, she has now become the subject of the hunt. Leaving the coach party behind, she walks the roads aimlessly until she is picked up by a Church Doctor, Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews) who takes her to the nearby Harrison Ranch. In a moment that Hitchcock will recreate eight years later in Vertigo, Anne finds herself waking in a strange bed. The following day, she becomes the object of male desire once more as she is surrounded by ranch workers who stare and ogle at her arrival. 

Putting her secretarial skills to use, Anne works long hours on the ranch to distract herself. Ferguson takes her on a walk to his favourite hideaway spot in the openness of country fields and for the first time since the attack, she seems to be totally at ease. He opens up to her about events in his personal life: “we all go through dark times” he tells her, a remark which resonates deeply. Returning to the ranch, Anne is rattled when a police officer arrives on a routine enquiry. Barely holding herself together, in a scene recollective of her attack, she runs and hides when Ferguson and the officer go inside to talk. 

Frank and Anne stand in a field in front of a muddy bank and a harvester. Frank grabs Anne by the waist, and she raises her hand, clutching a wrench, to strike him in fear.
RKO Radio Pictures

Later that evening, Anne returns and reveals to Ferguson that she has not been truthful with him and that she has in fact run away from home. Rather than address the issue, he insists that she attends the local Harvest Dance. At the gathering, Anne watches the couples around her dance, moving past them nervously; she is a clear outsider in this community. At one point, she is approached by ranch-worker Frank (Jerry Paris), whose attempts to get close to her are wholly one-sided and unwanted. She moves free but he continues to pursue her demanding entitlement and ownership over her: “ever since you came here I wanted to do this, why can’t I kiss you?” Lying on a stack of hay trembling, she notices a scar on his neck and hits him with a nearby wrench. Shocked at what she has done, she immediately drops the weapon and looks at his body in horror before running to the hideaway spot. 

A Voiceless Victim

With the situation now in the hands of the law, the police inform Ferguson that Anne has been subject to a ‘criminal assault’ but no more is said about how this has impacted upon her. Previously the victim, Anne is now behind bars labelled as a criminal. As Ferguson probes for the reason behind Franks’ attack, he minimises her experience by remarking upon how he has known the worker for a long time, and he would have not meant her any harm. While describing the attack on Frank, Anne relives her trauma once more and we learn that she has, through her post traumatic state, misremembered some parts of the incident. 

In court, Anne hears that Frank will not press charges but despite this the judge is still determined to punish her, conceding that she almost murdered a man. At no point does he enquire after her health or acknowledge the trauma she has undergone. Ferguson stands to talk on her behalf as disappointingly, she is not granted the opportunity to speak for herself. He delivers a lengthy explanation detailing how Anne’s attacker confessed to the police two days ago following an arrest for armed robbery. The attacker we discover, has spent time in and out of prison and reform schools all his life and has been punished but never treated. However, rather than level all the blame at the attacker’s door, Lupino seeks to look beyond the individual and presents us with some challenging questions on how society is to blame for the lack of treatment available. 

The Judge asks for an assurance that Anne will not continue in her dissolutions and requests for a psychiatrist to review her condition. As a result, she undergoes another ordeal and yet another man examines her before giving his opinion on her experience. Post-examination, Anne confides to Ferguson: “sometimes it feels as though the whole world is turned upside down” a statement that reflects how as a victim she has ultimately been treated as a criminal.  A dismissal is granted but only on the proviso that Ferguson promises to ensure she receives twelve months of psychiatric treatment. He “gladly accepts the responsibility” but the question of why Anne cannot promise this herself lingers heavily in the air. Once again she is put into the hands of men as Ferguson confirms the judge will receive a psychiatric report on the first of every month. 

A close up of Anne, who stares towards the camera with a frightened expression.
RKO Radio Pictures

As the film draws to a close, Ferguson reveals that he has contacted Anne’s parents, a decision which he has taken without seeking her permission first and in doing so he removes any choices away from her. Determined she must go home now, Ferguson’s attitude towards her comes across as a temporary fixation. Just like a project, she has been welcomed, worked on and now tossed out at his bidding. As they exchange goodbyes, she remarks “you understand everything, you understand me” Perhaps however, it is the journey that Anne has made herself which has enabled her to heal rather than this being credited solely to Ferguson. In the final scene, Anne is shown taking a bus back home, but we never know if she reaches her intended destination or not, which leaves an air of ambiguity. 

In Outrage, Lupino handles the sensitive subject matter of rape with consideration and thoughtfulness towards the victim whilst also highlighting the broad and important societal failures in relation to mental health, criminal justice and the legal system. Furthermore, this film is a brooding lament on the objectification of women who are not given space to speak for themselves and are time and time again told what is best for them, exposed to trauma and prevented from making their own choices. A widely undiscovered and under discussed work, over seventy years later Outage retains a darkness and humanity that is deeply affecting.

by Rebecca McCallum

Rebecca is a horror enthusiast from the North West of England with a specific interest in writing think pieces that dissect and analyse the films of the genre, Rebecca is Assistant Editor @ghoulsmagazine and has contributed articles for @evolutionpod, @horrorhomeroom, @zobowithshotgun and @anatomyofascream. Find her on Twitter @PendlePumpkin.

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