Ida Lupino: Auteuress (1980)

In his hagiography of American cinema, the Gospel according to St. Andrew, Sarris consigns Ida Lupino to outer limbo in a single sentence: “Ida Lupino’s directed films express much of the feeling if little of the skill which she has projected so admirably as an actress.” Not content with thus summarily dispatching Lupino’s lifetime opus, Sarris, “while on the subject,” brings up Lillian Gish’s one directorial attempt, and allows her conclusion to speak for itself: “Directing is no job for a lady.”

But Lupino fares little better with feminist critics, who are more concerned with statement-making than with filmmaking. Either she is cryptically dismissed as a director making “feminist films from an anti-feminist point of view,” or she is lukewarmly praised for courageously bucking the masculine establishment to make halfway interesting films on hokey subjects (which cheerfully ignores the fact that Lupino co-scripted most of these hokey subjects). Lupino’s work is often negatively set off against the “great” films of Dorothy Arzner, apparently under the misguided belief that a C.B. De Mille-ish class consciousness, runaway idealism, and about as much visual excitement as a shoebox become signs of genius when in the lip-service of a committed feminism. This is not to deny the real sociological interest of the Arzner films, nor the often fascinating contradictory play between premise and realisation; but it is to deny the exaltation of feminine mediocrity. Women can and have done much better. Ida Lupino has.

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In 1949, Lupino and her producer-husband Collier Young founded Emerald Films, later to become The Filmmakers, a small independent production company, and started to turn out some of the first low-budget, location-shot “problem movies.” In contrast to the turgid, morally weighted we-who-have-legs-salute-you-who-do-not Liberal Establishment let’s-clean-up-America-for-democracy serio-earnest treatments of the late Forties and early Fifties (Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire, and The Men), Lupino’s movies are small-scale rite-of-passage films – passage into womanhood, into nightmare, into lack of control.

Cast out of a familiar, protective environment, torn by conflicting desires or no desire at all, Lupino’s characters do not know how to act. Their “problems” – rape, polio, illegitimate children, bigamy – have put them beyond the pale, beyond the patterned security of their foreseeable futures. The “problem” is not how to reintegrate them back into the mainstream; the “problem” is the shallowness of the mainstream and the void it projects around them – the essential passivity of ready-made lives.

Feminists would argue that this is what makes Lupino’s films anti-feminist – the portrayal of women as passive – and certainly most of Lupino’s films are about women and all are about passivity. Lupino makes films about the inability to act, in much the same way Raoul Walsh and William Wellman (from whom she learned her craft) make films about action – not the narrative action ascribed to the character, but the energy deployed by him. This in contrast to a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis vehicle, where the locked-in one-to-one confrontation scenes and the total stasis of the camera in recording the real field of action – the emotion-swept face of the heroine – disguise passivity, naturalize it, deny change, record only the labour pains of action and the still-born death following it. Lupino’s films denaturalize passivity; it is unwanted, restless, anxious, impotent. Her characters are sleep-walkers, their subjectivity condemned to incompleteness, their faces swept by emotions that happen to them but never belong to them, the image of what they see distorted by nightmare or manifesting a being-there that resists assimilation. Between their subjectivity and the world there is nothing.

The heroines of the films Lupino directed display none of the qualities – neither the vulnerable, tenderly probing love of one have-not for another (High Sierra, On Dangerous Ground, Deep Valley), nor the cool, vital self-assurance and on-line energy (The Man I Love, Roadhouse), nor the nervously alternating currents of neurotic drive (Ladies in Retirement, They Drive by Night, The Hard Way) – that illuminate her own stand-out performances as an actress. Instead, her characters walk around in a daze, mutilated, traumatised, displaced persons wandering aimlessly from halfway house to halfway house on the byways of small-city America. Young, inexperienced, uprooted, they’re the other side of the coin of the obsessed, past-haunted post-war heroes of Walsh and Anthony Mann. Passing through social diseases they can’t quite make their own, unaware of their tentative search for identity’, caught in a destinyless corner of time, they live or flee from moment to moment. Yet their torn-out moments have an intensity, a naked unattached will-to-being that make the shaped destinies of others seem an off-space dream.

They’ve worked for a living since high school, not as brisk, efficient secretaries or boss-struck little-helpers, but as waitresses, factory workers, bookkeepers, neither in glamour nor in drudgery, not for self-fulfilment nor independence nor upward mobility, but because their families needed the money. They’ve lived on girlish fantasies and half-formed expectations; they’ve dreamed of love in darkened bedrooms and brought fiancés home to dinner. And then suddenly, brutally, they become women-and can relate to nothing and no one around them.

Lupino as co-writer is an auteur in a literal sense, and it is not difficult to schematize the overall pattern of her narratives: a brief opening positing a continuing “normal” life, a sudden traumatic interruption of that flow, an overwhelming sense of alienation and disorientation, a brief respite at some sheltered communal refuge, a reversal of trauma by the active assumption of what was initially passively experienced, and a tentative start of a new life.

Yet within this narrative unity, and the even greater unity of style, there is a constant exploration, experimentation. The topography and “feel” of the films change – from the nomadic dreamwalking phasing in and out of the world in Not Wanted to the claustrophobic, symbolically overcharged stasis of Never Fear, to the violent city/country geist-contrast of The Outrage, to the polarized situation-scaped layouts of an innocent in a social mine-field of Hard, Fast and Beautiful, to the virtuoso choreography of a threeway dance of death in The Hitch-Hiker. The interreaction between the hero(ine) and his (her) society changes, as do the class relationships. The distance between the character’s vision and that of the film changes, as does the significance of that distance – and all these changes complexly interrelate. Lupino’s films, like those of Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, and Robert Aldrich, are very much the product of a postwar consciousness, left, in the disjunctive transition between trauma and a possibly even more traumatic return to normality, to reconstruct or re-destruct the suddenly tenuous connections between an alienated subjectivity and the too-stable structures through which it can no longer define itself.

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Lupino’s first film, Not Wanted (1949) [1] – exploited commercially, and quite successfully, as a daring exposé of the shocking plight of an unwed mother – resembles its publicity very little. It is remarkably free of both the headshaking compassion for the “poor unfortunates” that mark many low-budget efforts to follow and the tawdry sensationalism of the big-budget Peyton Place generation of teenage preggie pics. Its heroine Sally (played by Sally Forrest) is a pretty young girl waitressing in a café, frustrated by the narrow unchanging colourlessness of small-town lower-class respectability. Her romantic dreams crystallise around the spot-lit figure of a not-so-up-and-coming piano player Steve (Leo Penn) in town for a short gig.

Many of the story elements of Not Wanted recall The Man I Love, Walsh’s Lupino-starring masterpiece of three years earlier: the driven piano player who can’t settle down, the lovemaking and suffering-rhymed power of the piano – even a waitress named Sally. But where Lupino is the dynamic centre of The Man I Love, holding the film and the family together, Sally Forrest leaves pieces of her life scattered across the map.

Sally’s parents are no better equipped for life than is she. Her father’s wistful indulgence and vague protective complicity, and her mother’s harried discontent (“If I nag at you it’s for your own good, ’cause I don’t want you to slave around the kitchen all your life like I have”) and stock-in-trade hopes (“I want you to meet a respectable man who can do things for you”), trace the limits of their quietly failed expectations, their uneasy apprehension of all that falls outside the perimeters of their own meager lot. The house is a series of singly occupied rooms – the mother in the kitchen, moving from left to right in seemingly endless preparations while her husband diffidently sneaks in the right corner of the frame and her daughter exits to her private dreaming space to the left.

Space is an emotional entity in a Lupino film. It’s not that the space expressionistically reflects the character’s emotional state, but that his way of inhabiting it, of sharing or defending it against intrusion, defines his relationship to the world. His desire to fortress or break down his isolation, his fear of or yearning for spatial continuity, his need to protect or avoid enclosure, is felt in even,’ gesture, every movement.

Thus, although Steve is perfectly willing to share his piano bench with Sally as he pounds the keyboard in half-committed, half-disillusioned virtuosity, and his body in farewell (and as it turns out fateful) park-sheltered intimacy, he fends off with moody desperation all her attempts to penetrate the off-space of his anxieties, his uneasy transience.

In contrast, Sally’s subsequent boyfriend Drew (Keefe Brasselle), is at home in any environment, and puppy-willing to share it. Even the seemingly barren scape of the “gaseteria” where he and Sally work yields cosy oases in the form of the open-air back of a truck or a couple of chairs drawn around a Coke machine.

Yet both the one’s angst-ridden wanderlust and the other’s engaging boy-next-door wholesomeness belie a sense of loss and loneliness. Steve, failure dogging his heels, is as helpless as Sally to insure his piece of any action. And the miniature enclosed world of model trains (in part a fantasy of unhampered locomotion, of circled completion) that the lame Drew enthusiastically brings to life for Sally, and his offhand joking about losing his leg in the war (“Bad habit of mine – I never watch where I’m going”), imply a never-to-be-completed struggle, an alienation constantly overcome by the will to survive, to connect up.

Sally’s discovery that she is pregnant by Steve, which comes immediately after her near-acceptance of Drew’s marriage proposal, breaks the connection, re-establishes the insularity. And, cast adrift anew, Sally’s life takes on a nomad purposelessness, marked by suitcases, bus stations, rooming-houses, odd jobs. Sally is the first in a long line of Lupino wanderers: Ann in The Outrage flees the city to points unknown; in Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Florence’s tennis matches take her half-way around the globe; the heroes of The Hitch-Hiker see their weekend vacation trip turn into an endless trek across an arid Mexico, with death the promised destination; Edmund O’Brien in The Bigamist suffers from a superfluity of fixed abodes between which he “commutes,” helpless to resolve an impossible duality’. In the state of rootlessness particular to the postwar world, Lupino’s characters are shell-shocked veterans who wonder if they can ever go home again.

There are temporary refuges; for Sally in Not Wanted, a home for unwed mothers constitutes a real community, with its matter-of-fact sisterly solidarity, shared chores, dreams, fears. But it is a community (like the rehabilitation centre in Never Fear) defined by its insulation from the outside world, overshadowed by its impermanence, and what holds it together is of necessity limited. Once outside the walls each will again become other, alien, isolated.

Even within the walls each is alone. Sally’s baby happens to her in total passivity. She is lifted unyielding, almost inert, from the bed to the stretcher, her face beaded with moisture, the walls going by above her head as in sharp-edged hallucination, the white-clad nurses bending down before the lights go out. There are many such “spacey” moments in Lupino’s films, moments of extreme emotional stress causing visual distortion, or moments of total obliviousness to the world (Sally at a cash-register in a diner, unaware of the woman impatient to pay her bill, giving the wrong change; or earlier, when Sally, sick with waiting to hear from Steve, dazedly wipes windshields for long unconscious minutes).

But these moments are never purely subjective nor purely indicative of stress. Rather, they bear witness to the radical dysfunction that forms the spoken or unspeakable subject of so many modern women writers (Jean Rhys foremost among them). The specific problems of Lupino’s characters are neither exemplary nor causal, and the camera captures neither the judgmental nor the emotional content of their thought, but rather the inwardness and intensity of a process of consciousness unrelated to ego, fixated on images of desire intuitively recognised as primordial and banal, vibrating with emotion that has renounced belief in itself and exhausted its own possibilities. Passivity in Lupino’s films is no comfortable sinking into despair, no well-fed suffering spiced with revolt or self-abnegation, but a stark, stock-still simultaneous inevitability and impossibility of consciousness. This consciousness is neither of nor outside the world: there is a constant interraction between this insistent subjectivity and a world it can neither encompass nor assimilate – positively or negatively.

In Not Wanted, when the economic impossibility of both caring for her child and earning their living forces Sally to give up her baby, it is neither a fifty-violin, why-her? tragedy nor one woman’s underlit descent into social iniquity but part of the exigencies of a real world that can no more be morally “resolved” than it can be ignored. A strong social sense, heritage of her Warners days, informs all Lupino’s films. The options of her characters are inseparable from their precise social situation; it influences their way of seeing their lives, acting upon the world. Lupino can no more depict a character outside a vital social context than can Walsh. Class is never a given but a lived.

Sally sits in a jail cell, having unconsciously kidnapped a baby to replace the one she has lost, surrounded by half-crazed women, and asks, “How did I get here?” For Lupino’s characters are always on the verge of a breakdown, not of their ability to relate to others but to be congruent with the world. Their passivity is a force, an autistic integrity, posing a self not as will but as pure subjectivity, devoid of will, devoid of intentionality, hypnotically powerful in its absolute resistance to time and becoming.

Thus Sally’s final instinctive headlong flight – with Drew in painful pursuit along an improvised yet pitless steeplechase, up endless flights of concrete steps, over railroad trestles, overpasses, bridges (the cruellest possible course for a one-legged man) – compresses, with extraordinary physical immediacy, the cumulative pain, desperation, and striving of the entire film into ten unrelenting minutes. When Drew finally falls forward, unable to go on, impotently pounding his fist against the slats of the wooden bridge, Sally stops running, her resistance powerless against his need, his aloneness.

Long before the New Wave “discovered” Paris, low-budget American films explored the city streets. The very specific topography traversed, not created, by the chase, the constant sense of a cityscape designed for quite other purposes (the gracious wide park-like steps, on the one hand, and the little-traversed foot-bridges and industrialised railroad yards on the other) illustrate well the exciting levels of dissonance and congruity a geographical sense of location shooting can provide, with its pre-existent maze of possibilities (Sally’s darting split-second seizing of every geographic opportunity, her whole-body plunge toward the railing, suicide less a desire than the only available route of escape). But, as always in Lupino, the almost “documentary” sense of locale, from city streets to the workings of a home for unwed mothers, and the intense emotional investment of the characters playing out their drama largely unaware of the world around them, create a very special tension. It is the extent to which her character’s consciousness fills the screen but not the world that allies her to Fuller, Ray, Aldrich, and the modernist Fifties films in general in their questioning of the subjective heroic consciousness structures of traditional Hollywood film.

Lupino’s second film, Never Fear (1950), is not about an unformed girl passing into womanhood, but an active, creative woman forced into a new, mutilated form of womanhood. The opening scenes spotlight a series of celebrations, as the personal and professional engagement of Carol (Sally Forrest again) and her partner-choreographer-fiancé Guy (Keefe Brasselle again) is launched by the success of their new nightclub act – a sinuous, provocative fencing number, enacting both within the mime narrative of the dance and in its flawless execution the vibrant responsiveness of Carol’s body, her shaping of space, and symbolic mastery of danger, while the choreographed, willing, post-victory surrender of her emblematic heart, body, and sword to her partner evokes the couple’s remarkably well balanced personal and professional duality, their equalised interdependence.

Polio not only destroys Carol’s career, it also destroys the couple’s equilibrium. The camera dollies in and holds on Guy, working on a new routine at the piano, off-handedly throwing enthusiastic remarks over his shoulder, only to unexpectedly cut to Carol behind him, literally hanging on the ropes of the stage in slowly dawning awareness of her illness, exploring the silent disaster, the invisible process of change within her. The inwardness of Carol’s experience is intensified by a few out-of-focus, sound-distorted point-of-view shots of Guy at the piano, unconscious of what is happening behind him; his implicit belief in the intimacy of a shared work time underscores her new-born awareness of being apart, excluded. For the next several scenes Carol is never seen in close-up. She recedes from the camera. The camera only regains its position of intimacy to record her self-willed isolation.

After the initial despair comes a moment when Carol’s body begins to respond after hours and weeks of concentrated physical work. (Here, and in the tennis sequences of Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Lupino captures a very sexual but non-phantasmic sense of a woman’s body, of the will that animates it, or fails to animate it.) Talismanically mantled in Guy’s faith-restoring nightgown-gift, caught up in a light-spilled epiphany, she wills herself to walk and fails – falling forward and pounding the floor with her fists, in the same gesture of impotent despair as was Drew’s on the bridge in Not Wanted.

Never Fear fully explores one of the most fascinating aspects of Lupino’s films. The interreaction of a claustrophobic “woman’s picture” emotionalism and a full-frame documentary realism (complete with extensively researched detail, non-professional actors, and, in many instances, true stories) creates a kind of two-level space of alternating, shifting focus, neither pole of which subsumes the other. A wheelchair square-dance date, uneasy mirror of Carol’s past partnership with Guy, is an excellent case in point.

Unlike the paraplegic basketball game in The Men – which billboards Bravery, Pathos, and the Indomitable Human Spirit, with the hero’s struggle more isolated and transcendent in its multiple reflection – the square dance, with its authentic cowboy band and unstudied motley group of on-lookers, rolls on with down-home, low-key matter-of-factness. In the precision coordination of the chrome-flashing wheelchairs, and the shifting patterned formations and reformations of the couples, the “insert” shots of Carol’s flushed, eager face appear as colourful details in the long-shot fresco of the dance-until Carol looks up to see Guy standing against a giant-gardenia-papered wall holding a gardenia (signature throughout of his constancy), like some dream-doubled spectre of her past life.

Lupino’s decision to grant no heroic shading to the existential Otherness of consciousness (that quality she of all Hollywood stars possessed) not only allows her to open-end the tie-ins between the hero and his surroundings, it also allows her to refocus the whole star-other axis of consciousness. As polio begins to break up the Carol-Guy couple, both drift into new attachments: Carol with a thoroughly “together” patient, Guy with a sympathetic secretary in a real-estate office where he gets a job selling “happy homes.” But, whereas Carol centre-stages her relationship (a “learning experience” that teaches her better to understand and accept her situation), Guy accompanies the secretary back to her apartment, only to fall asleep. In a series of startling extreme close-ups, the secretary’s face expresses both her full consciousness of the impossibility of love between them, and the half-empathetic, half-envious identification with the Other Woman she sends him back to.

The woman’s time-arresting, other-dimension face haunts the film, beyond all functionalism, representing as it does a consciousness doomed to transcend its own usefulness to itself and to others. It measures a lost potential the film never quite admits tracing. If the men are constantly supportive “doctor” types, whose positivistic therapeutic demands “cure” Carol, the women are linked by a mute, compassionate solidarity condemned to immanence, to incompleteness. Women seem to help each other by accident or to their own detriment, not out of lack of generosity but because, unlike the men, not possessing their own lives, they have no funds to cover their largesse.

In many ways, Never Fear is about “being a woman” – or, more precisely, about the difficulty of accepting a dependent, truncated version of womanhood disturbingly close to its most traditional limited social definition. The film arouses very ambivalent feelings in a contemporary audience, feelings that are represented on screen: the opening caption, proclaiming that this is a true story, arouses heroic expectations- Carol will again become a dancer, found a school for legless acrobats, do something-that are never resolved, or, for that matter, denied. On the one hand, Carol’s adjustment is treated much as a man’s would be: “being a man” or “being a woman” is a question of guts through compromise with an unalterable situation. Yet, on the other hand, “being a man” and “being a woman” imply two quite dissimilar things, as strongly evinced by the fact that no future beyond Guy is sought or projected. Carol is able to salvage her personality but not her life.

Never Fear is Lupino’s most specifically autobigraphical film: she had polio early in her career. But, like all Lupino’s films, it is a road-not-taken autobiography, the story of a dancer who couldn’t become a choreographer (read: actress who couldn’t become a director). Lupino has said that she wanted to make films about bewildered lost people, and she has perfectly understood the experience of passivity and the social forces that maintain and exploit it. Yet Lupino, as a woman who has gone very far beyond that stage in her own life – after years of undifferentiated parts as bleached blond ingenues in countless Paramount flicks, Lupino moved heaven and earth to get her all-important role in The Light That Failed, and never let go after that – is of necessity in a privileged position, which makes her experience and destiny inapplicable to the situation of her characters.

It’s the old liberal bind. For, ultimately, Lupino’s films, like those of Ray, are liberal films which, though critical of liberalism and aware of its limitations and contradictions, cannot go or see beyond it. Indeed, in both cases, the closer they come to their own class situation (Ray in Bigger Than Life, Lupino in Hard, Fast and Beautiful), the stronger is the social critique, the more grotesque and biting are the contradictions; the farther they go from their class situation (Ray in his first film, They Live by Night, Lupino in hers, Not Wanted), the more lyrical, tragic, and poetic is their vision.

Lupino’s attitude toward her characters is not without a quietly understated, almost maternal concern, which is related to her own complicity as director: to describe victims one must create their victimization and, ultimately, designate its source. In closing off to her characters the options she herself enjoys (and has fought for), Lupino finds herself in a very equivocal position it is both the strength and weakness of her films never to completely avoid or resolve. Lupino’s third film, The Outrage (1950), is an extremely curious one in the extent to which victimization by society in general and by men in particular is viewed alternately through paranoia and benevolence – both of which are excessive, neither of which is quite real, the world vascillating between nightmare and dream.

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A young girl, working overtime at a factory, locks up and starts for home. In the foreground, unseen by her, a man closes up a coffee stand. In the lonely silence of the empty city streets, both girl and man are caught up in the inexorable cross-cut logic of the chase. She is running now. Darting into an alley, she pounds frantically on the metal sides of a barrack-shaped building. No one hears – except the man, drawn on by the sounds of her passage. For always, at each stopping-place in her flight, the camera cuts back to an earlier stopping-place, now occupied by the man, the twice-told topography, as through some dream-distorted memory-trace, laid out with the irrevocable clarity of a Walshian encounter with destiny. This destiny is neither of character nor of nightmare; no moral, psychological, or social determinism structures this experiential time-and-space. The rapist-to-be is no Behaviourist specimen of pathological violence loosed on an unsuspecting society, nor is he a lurking Expressionistic menace at one with the sexual darkness; he is just a background figure led by impulse and circumstance into a major role in an event he as yet only half wills or understands.

In the closed-off maze of a truck yard, however, the event takes on a new configuration. The follow-the-leader chase, with its curious balance of active and passive (he precipitating the action she is impelled by, she carving out the time and space through which he must pass), resolves itself into a cat-and-mouse waiting game. The predator roams free somewhere outside the fragile frame-lines; the prey huddles against the large uncertain truck-shapes until, breaking cover, she stumbles and falls onto a loading platform. As he advances out of the shadows toward her, the camera pulls up and away from two figures soon lost to sight, pausing on the other side of an adjacent building where a man at an upstairs window peers out and, seeing nothing, closes the window on the rape scene of The Outrage.

Like Never Fear, The Outrage opens in celebration. Ann(Mala Powers) has a fiancé, the news of whose raise assures her happy integration into the values and life-style of her community. Her future is cast in a familiar and familial mould: the announcement of the engagement at the office amid effusive ring-admiring enthusiasm, the family dinner after which the fiancé must ask the unwilling father’s consent, the mother’s serene shepherding of the intended into the fold.

The rape changes all this, radically and overnight. The slow ascending withdrawal of the camera from the actual rape not only places the event in the larger social context of the unheeding city, it also locates it in the recesses of Ann’s psyche. The negatively charged blank it leaves at the film’s centre is also in Ann’s mind: the rape cannot be recorded since it cannot be assimilated, inscribing in off-space Ann’s brutal disconnection with day-to-day life. For Ann the rape registers less as a specific shocking incident than as an irreversible sea-change, transmuting the familiar into the unknown, relegating her experience to a time and space that cannot connect up.
But if the world has altered in Ann’s eyes, she too has altered in the eyes of the world. When Ann finally ventures out of the house, everything conspires to banish her to the other dimension of her trauma. Unlike the mechanised cityscapes of the rape scenes, Ann’s neighbourhood is very suburban, with its neat parcelled squares of lawn, its flagged mailboxes. Two gossiping neighbours break ranks and reform as she advances warily, the streets a uniform patterned surface which parts to let her, the alien, pass. She is the centre of all eyes, avid or averted. All reactions to Ann, from a busmate’s fussy overprotectiveness to an office worker’s heavy sympathising hand on her shoulder, quiver with a funereal, almost squeamish unease, particularly on the part of the men, the women being more blankly curious or openly empathetic.

The rape produces an instant male-female polarisation. Ann’s father and a detective pace downstairs, bent on action, while upstairs Ann’s mother and a note-taking policewoman huddle around her bed. The men all feel vaguely implicated in the rape (for reasons countless analyses of male-female sexual relations make abundantly clear). The genteel solicitude of the small-scale professional classes – Ann’s father is a teacher, Ann a bookkeeper – comes at the price of a kind of bloodlessness, a cutting off from the more “brutal” facts of life, a nice neat ordered corner threatened by the unritualised, undomesticated intrusion of raw sexuality (as opposed quite specifically to the opening engagement rituals). It is the petit bourgeoisie’s denial of all knowledge of the forces, sexual and otherwise, it renounces and represses in itself that makes it unable to reintegrate Ann into the community, and which makes Ann unable to cope with a reality her world denies, to relate her domestic circle to the maelstrom which has opened at its centre. In this threatened atmosphere, guilt veers from man (Ann’s father: “They looks at me as if I had done something”) to woman (Ann as damaged goods). Rape opens up the whole carefully-wrapped sexual can of worms: the “activity” of feminine passivity; man as violent aggressor; woman as guilty-innocent invitation to original sin vs. male exploitation. And the foundations of both the nuclear family and the community are menaced by this questioning – Ann’s father the police captain bound in a helpless embarrassed intimacy, glancing uneasily at the bridal-like confirmation photo of Ann, as they discover with a simultaneous shock the sexual otherness of Ann and the sexual otherness of the rapist, and their mitigated innocent-guilty relationship to both.

The police lineup procedure doubly forces the situation. Setting up a two-way paranoia (what others see in Ann vs. what Ann sees in others), it compels her to regard a whole series of men as potential rapists. And though the system works on some level to exonerate all other men by isolating the guilty one, thereby defusing Ann’s power to bestow sexual guilt (although this is obvious only in the opposite effect it has), it nonetheless implicates all masculine faces, including the policeman’s and her fiancé’s, in an insistent rhythmic montage of impossible demand.

The second half of The Outrage presents a violent contrast to the first, prefiguring On Dangerous Ground (in which Lupino starred, and a few scenes of which she directed) in its radical city-country split. To the fragmented, compartmentalised, highly fetishised collage of the city is opposed a kind of organic panorama where nothing seems separate. All the locations in the rural valley into which Ann wanders seem adjacent to, and extensions of, each other – even the house where Ann lives and the factory where she works are joined. The menacing glances in the city – which at best polarise and alienate, at worst sexually violate – are here defused, defetishised.

The medium of this defusing is Doc Ferguson (Tod Andrews), a pipe-smoking minister who acts as her intercessor and shock absorber. As Ann increasingly gives herself over to him, becomes his problem, Doc begins to function, if not as hero, then as camera and action subject of the frame, with Ann its questioned object. The routine arrival of a sheriff causes a barely contained panic in Ann; but instead of a cross-cutting between the threatening cop figure and the terrified Ann, all is encompassed in the back-and-forth of the minister’s questioning, ruminative gaze.

The one time Ann does turn her gaze toward the community, it sets off a complex and nearly murderous chain-reaction. A country Romeo approaches her from an off-space, which has been identified with Doc as the other pole in a series of reaction shots, and playfully but insistently presses her for a kiss – until, confusing him with the rapist, Ann clobbers him with a wrench. Although it is the man’s physical insistence that flashes Ann back to the rape, it is his naming of the desired, feared, and repressed sexual relationship between her and Doc (“No wonder Bruce Ferguson’s been keeping you to himself”) that triggers the shutting off of his voice, and exaggerates and displaces the already multiply-displaced sexuality.

Doc’s glance, witness to a mute struggle between “earthly” and “heavenly” love, effects a reversal, both of the lustful stare of the unseen rapist behind his coffee stand and of the uneasy malaise-filled paternalism of the post-rape reactions to Ann. By placing that malaise in a minister (in whom sexuality is itself problematic), Lupino shifts the centre of sexual questioning from women to man through whom the drama of sublimation must be played, creating in the process an ambiguous play among the promise of a “romantic” resolution (the whole Ann-Doc relationship follows an odd, but recognisable, falling-in-love build-up, and even the denial of their future together is played out as a reversal of the stock Hollywood reversal: the bus pulls away and lo! she’s still there – except she isn’t), a socio-humanistic precedent (case history of the reintegration of a rape victim back into society), and a religious parable (Doc as Christlike assumer and redeemer of male sexual guilt.)

In many ways the second part of The Outrage seems flat and unsatisfying, particularly after the non-stop dramatic reversals and tremendous emotional energy of the first. This is especially true of the formal hearings that anticlimax Ann’s assault-with-a-deadly-weapon number, where a juiceless, deadpan army of judges, prosecutors, doctors, and psychiatrists, goosed to justice by Doc’s impassioned pleas, officially absolve Ann, and by that process, society itself, of sexual guilt, and bus her off to the further therapeutic ministrations of family, fiancé, and shrink. The emotional investment the viewer has in Ann is hardly satisfied to see her shunted off on professional do-gooders and justice-dispensers-to see Ann’s temporary, if pathological, release from numbing passivity immediately absorbed by an implacably “protective” male society.

The finally unresolved sexual and social tension within the film (an undercurrent in all Lupino’s work, often through the somewhat ambivalent father-figures) reflect perhaps equally Lupino’s own uncertainties about male-female sexual identity and her variously empathetic, exploitative and benevolent, function as filmmaker. Through Ann’s subjectivity is experienced the disconnection, alienation, and sexual victimisation that Lupino recreates, one must suppose, out of some past or present potential or realised self; through the self-repressed “objectivity” of Doc is represented the compassionate, half-impotent desire of a more distanced, mature self to respond to the terrible vulnerability and need of that Other who Lupino is and whom she creates in the androgynous zone of the woman director.

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The partial shift in centre from Ann to Doc in The Outrage prefigures a gradual change of focus in Lupino’s films: a multiple, alternating point of view which, although structured around one character, nevertheless separates and localises the social and familial forces that shape, develop or limit his consciousness of the world and of his place in it. In Hard, Fast and Beautiful tennis player Florence (Sally Forrest), far from breaking with her family, embodies and plays out all its contradictions of protection and exploitation, as she fluctuates between the two conflicting role-models of mother Claire Trevor and father Kenneth Patterson.

It is the mother who seems to hold the reins of Florence’s life (as in the startling opening image of Trevor’s scissor-wielding hands cutting the dummy-draped fabric of Florence’s dress). Because her single-minded drive from poverty up the social ladder has fallen short of acceptable goals, she has withdrawn all hopes and efforts from her nice-guy husband and centred them upon Florence. But, in that transfer from husband to daughter, the vicarious and the exploitative have become strangely mingled, until, cut off from all direct action, she loses all knowledge of where her own life, her own dreams begin and end. This confusion is at the heart of Hard, Fast and Beautiful, in the form of Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration, addressed alternately to Florence as apology and explanation (“From the very moment you were born I knew you were different. . . .I always wanted something better for you and I made up my mind to get it, no matter what I had to do”) and to the audience as proud mother’s biography (“I remember how beautiful and happy she looked when she came off the court. . . .Oh yes, Florence was living in a wonderful new world, and I was happy – so happy”). The strange shift in person, the mid-film disappearance of the voice-over when she can no longer read what is happening to her or to Florence, eloquently attest to an alienation and near-schizophrenia which render her as much victim as victimiser.

Florence, however, is serenely unaware of her mother’s ambition. Indeed Florence, thanks to her protective middle-class upbringing, is serenely unaware of just about everything around her – including the failure of her beloved parents’ marriage. Their bedroom is an encampment with lines firmly drawn, lines her father, still wistfully in love with his dissatisfied wife, is helpless, though tempted, to cross, the single beds back-to-back forming a double barrier, insuring total isolation. Later the family battle-lines extend to the living room where the arrival of a fourth party, herald of a new stage in Florence’s tennis career, touches off a complicated series of chess-moves: Claire Trevor maneuvering herself a comfortable and commanding position on the soon-to-be-launched bandwagon, drawing the head of the country club (or Florence’s promoter) into her corner while her husband, perfectly conscious of what’s happening, but outflanked by his desire to encourage Florence’s career and by his desire to conceal the manipulation he seeks to prevent, can only stand alone in his corner, left with the polite wrap-up of negotiations in his patently titular role as head of the family. Yet Florence (at once the family’s unifying principle and its bone of contention) glides through the polarised space understanding and seeing nothing – as unworldlywise as an eighteenth-century demoiselle fresh from the convent.

Her father’s passivity, however, is ultimately more powerful than her mother’s active manipulation. The quiet intimacy between father and daughter, as she perches on his bed or shares a moonlit window-seat, constitutes by far the deepest emotional bond in the movie. Her father’s undemanding back-off support is, however, not entirely beneficial. His abdication of power within the family leaves Florence at her mother’s tender mercy, while his shielding of her from the reality of her situation leaves her unable to make conscious choices. Florence’s boyfriend – a pale, callow, humourless version of her father – also abdicates explanations: he is disappointed and angry at her “wrong” choices, but unable or unwilling to lay out the situation in a way that would predicate the “right” ones.

At the centre of all these conflicting loves, expectations, and spoken or unspoken demands is Florence. Her concerted energy dominates the brilliantly edited tennis sequences (as the tennis sequences dominate the film), so that the cross-cut convergence of the hopes and fears of others hang suspended on her forceful drives and hard-line serves. From the opening scene of Florence determinedly thwacking balls in sequence at the numbered squares of the garage door to the grandstand finals, the entire film revolves around the contrast between the coordinated meshing of will and action, mind and body on the tennis court and the total inability to relate (indeed the total unconsciousness of any need to relate) this to the world outside which she perceives as an unproblematic supportive whole – while all those around her concur through misguided love or calculation, to make it appear so.

In her mother’s somewhat sinister cohort-promoter she sees only her tennis coach, although when she is led to the finals like an unwilling lamb to the slaughter (her mother and her promoter on either side looming over her in various low-angle shots as she kneels to lace her shoes then taking either arm to forcibly propel her onto the court), some dream sense of the distorted, malevolent family unit they form filters through. Florence accepts $50 to make a rich kid look good, and cannot understand her fiancé’s disgust, nor his later refusal to trail along on Florence’s tour-cum-honeymoon in nepotistic splendour. For Florence honestly has no conception of economic reality; she is, significantly, the only Lupino heroine who does not work for a living. Amateur tennis, Florence’s one link to the world, is itself a social lie, a rich man’s game, above the “sordid” consideration of money yet completely dependent on it. And in Florence’s eminently respectable world (complete with priggish fiancé), the possibility of turning pro can only come up as a somehow degrading and unthinkable alternative. It is perhaps not so surprising that it takes Florence most of the film to discover that her mother and her promoter have exploited her position for large sums of money.

As the conflicting demands and contradictory meanings placed upon her playing tennis become more polarized (between her mother’s waxing enthusiasm for greater and greater glory and her fiancé’s waning indulgence for her last pre-marital fling), Florence, in the absence of any personal stake beyond mastery of the game for its own sake, begins to feel a pressure which visually overlays the built-in tensions of the tennis matches. For the matches are not merely pretexts, semi-documentary recreations or loose fields of victory and defeat, but rich, many-stranded, intensely dramatic events. The immediate consequences of each move are multiply recorded by the linemen’s call, the cheering or ohhing spectators, the announcer’s appreciative running commentary (carried via radio to her listening convalescent father), and her mother’s lip-chewing reactions in the stands. And the perfectly orchestrated balance of all elements (the ever-changing relationship between audience, announcer, heroine, and opponent; the multiple logic of the contest; the constant shifting of scale, objectivity, control or imprisonment within the frame) seem to both enlarge and constrict the field of play, converging in the high-angled shots of Florence energised and trapped by the narrow rectangular confines of the court, where everything and nothing are endlessly at stake.

Thus, when her eyes are finally opened to her exploitation, it retrospectively defines a stress she has acutely felt but never localised or admitted. Florence’s reaction to the discovery is a conscious articulation of the passive-active role reversals most of Lupino’s characters unconsciously undergo. In a powerfully corrosive showdown between mother and daughter, Florence – almost unrecognisably transformed both by a drunken bitterness at her own blindness (toying with a curly-haired wind-up dog-doll as a cynically reductive self-image) and by her newfound psychological and physical control of space (angrily and aggressively driving her mother into some highly untenable defensive corners) – forces her mother into the thankless role of impotent straight-man in a cruel double-edged parody of their former relationship. Florence, with sweetly venomous hypocrisy, drapes her arm around an uneasy, too-smiling Claire Trevor as she expounds to a magazine interviewer the importance of clean sport and a loving mother.

Florence is “saved” from her self-negating act by her father. From his hospital bed he reaffirms the value of love while banishing the forces of ambition, dismissing his lifetime spouse with a weary “Get lost, Millie.” Florence, her old nice-girl self again, then returns to Forest Hills to successfully defend her championship for her father and renounce tennis forevermore for her husband-to-be. Florence’s fate is fairly well summed up by the latter when he announces that after the marriage she will only play tennis on Sundays-with him.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful closes not on Sally Forrest but on Claire Trevor, abandoned by all on a wind-swept tennis court at night – the fulfilment and explanation of the film’s opening under-the-credit images. For, as Francine Parker has suggested [2] in many ways Claire Trevor and Sally Forrest portray two aspects of the same woman. Separated by profound generational and class differences, their complementary incompleteness both mirrors and analyzes the good-bad, rich-poor, blond-brunette oppositional pairs of the traditional Hollywood film (including the two very different Ida Lupino-Joan Leslie pairings in High Sierra and The Hard Way). As Hard, Fast and Beautiful eloquently reveals, the either/or absolutism of these pairings comes not from any inherent incompatability of “opposites,” but from socially-imposed feminine role-models. Lupino affords a glimpse of what a synthesis of mother and daughter might be during the tennis tour, the one and only time Florence takes control over her own life. Despite the brittle cynicism of the hand-me-down role, Florence is truly magnificent, playing her mother’s game but for herself and through herself, with an assurance, decisiveness, and breadth quite beyond the latter. She contemptuously flings a cheap tennis racket bearing her name into the fire as she denounces the con with newborn social consciousness. She leaves Forrest Hills the day before the finals to fly to her sick father in California and returns to battle fatigue and a hard-hitting younger opponent to win. This Florence, a logical and inspired extension of the girl on the tennis court – and by far the most vital and exciting woman in the film – appears only to be repressed, to disappear into her “happy ending,” as Ann in The Outrage has disappeared into the resolution of her problem. Both fade into the unsketched grayness of social integration.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful is a pivotal film in Lupino’s work, mid-point between the more subjectively charged, single-focus early films and the colder, more detached, multiple-viewpoint late films. As her films move away from subjectivity, they also move away from women and from adolescence, although never from passivity and its curious coloration, its dream-walking eternal present. But passivity in a young girl and in a middle-aged man are two very different states. In Edmond O’Brien, the perpetually pressured everyman of the Fifties, Lupino found the perfect embodiment of another kind of passivity: a helpless entrapment between two modes of life, of action.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953), considered by many, including Lupino herself, to be her best film, is a classic, tension-packed, tour-de-force thriller about two men (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) in Mexico on a long-awaited, first-weekend-away-from-the-wife-in-years fishing trip whose car and lives are suddenly and irreparably commandeered by a psychopathic killer (William Taiman). The technical brilliance Lupino displays in every one of her films seems to have been more visible to all when no longer in the service of her own very original and perhaps disorientingly “odd” perspective.

The striking compositions (two blanketed figures like shrouded corpses separated by a narrow stream from a gun-cradling madman whose eye cannot close even in sleep), the on-pulse kinetic editing as heightened-consciousness flow (the alternation of dramatically linear action sequences and frozen, impossible nervous waiting-time), the spatial integrity of a determined and determining terrain (the pitless topography of a rock-bound, horizonless Mexico over which hovers an ever-present death), the gritty but never “degrading” physicality of undécorized, unsymbolic milieus (a haphazard, surprisingly well-stocked Mexican grocery store, a dusty little filling station), and the full utilisation of contrasts between night and day, inside and outside (the constantly revitalised and restructured tension between the three men in their fixed car positions and the even more fearful range of possibilities outside the car, the stillness and pregnancy of the night and the terrible clarity of the day) – these are elements very hard at work in all of Lupino’s films, and very much responsible for the mysterious “feelings” critics are willing to ascribe to her films while denying to her the means of creating it. But here, in the familiar framework of a suspense actioner, these elements magically regain their “legitimate” functionality.

This is not to say The Hitch-Hiker is an untypical film for Lupino. Like many tour-de-force performances, it incorporates in an abstract, diagrammatic, and condensed form many of the underlying concerns of the earlier films. The symbolic director-actor relationship – positive in the symbiotic choreographer-dancer couple of Never Fear, ambivalent in the rather complex role-reversals of the mother-daughter vs. father-daughter combos of Hard, Fast and Beautiful – becomes downright sadomasochistic in The Hitch-Hiker, with its director figure as pathological drill-master, driving his actors to their death once they have outlived their usefulness.

The precarious security of the petit bourgeoisie, menaced by the dark sexual forces of the lower classes, which is hinted at in The Outrage, surfaces fully here. The locale already reflects the gradual shift in Hollywood’s symbolic use of Mexico from place of escape or exile, to the other side of suburbia, the soft underbelly of the American Dream; see Man in the Shadow, Border Incident, Bottom of the Bottle, and Touch of Evil, among others. As in these films, The Hitch-Hiker’s focus is less on the paranoid portrayal of the tic-laden brutality of the lower-class menacing figures than on the impact of that menace.

One of the most fascinating elements of The Hitch-Hiker is the subtle, class-related differentiation of the two men’s reactions to imposed passivity. Lovejoy, a skilled, precision white-collar worker (a draftsman), used to working to others’ specifications, endures patiently Talman’s sadistic needling and jumpy hair-trigger precautionary rituals barked out at each move, carefully awaiting his chance, following the laws of dependent social survival: “As long as he needs us we’re safe. When he tries to get us we’ll get him.” O’Brien, a mechanic who owns his own garage and controls his own labour, goes almost mad under another’s power. His need for direct, immediate action is continually thwarted by Lovejoy’s phlegmatic practicality, as he is caught between the compromising caution of the petit bourgeoisie and the petty vengeance of the dispossessed.

The Bigamist (1953) finds O’Brien caught between two complementary spouses: Joan Fontaine, sterile wife of eight years, who has sublimated her desire for children into a full-time career in her husband’s business (freezers); and Ida Lupino, a lonely woman whom he meets, has a child by, and marries. As in Hard, Fast and Beautiful the opposition between the two women in firmly rooted in class. Fontaine is a “lady” from an upper-crust family, reverently attached to her dying father and all he represents, who had obviously never worked before her marriage. Lupino, on the other hand, is a working woman from way back, waitressing in a joke Chinese restaurant and wryly enjoying the joke, with a directness and lived-in self-possession none of the child-women directed by Lupino could hope to attain. Fontaine is seen in multi-room, large, open, light-filled spaces; Lupino in much smaller, darkly intimate, and somewhat shabby surroundings. Lupino reputedly used two different cameramen for the two different women.

Lupino’s films may seem decidedly non-feminist (and The Bigamist provides a classic example, with its career as alienating substitute for a more “natural” desire for children), but they are far less endorsements of the status quo than thoroughgoing analyses of it. It is fine to applaud Arzner for showing a daring young aviatrix in Christopher Strong; but it would help if Katharine Hepburn didn’t waltz around palatial sitting rooms in a gold-lamé art-deco number complete with antennae. Arzner’s feminism is so disconnected both from the image and from any social reality that it banishes itself to some other planet, in a strange alliance with the very structures – both filmic and societal – responsible for women’s oppression.

The Joan Fontaine character in The Bigamist may be an unfashioned version of the “career women,” but it works well as a demystification of the whole class-based concept of careerism, distinguishing between independence and economic self-sufficiency. Of the two women in The Bigamist, Lupino is obviously far better equipped to go it alone. Indeed the film questions why selling freezers is or isn’t self-fulfilling not only for a woman, but also for a man. For, despite the definite interest in the two spouses, The Bigamist is no more “about” two women than Daisy Kenyon is “about” two men. It is O’Brien’s indecision that dominates the film, the two women representing his former driving, future-oriented ambition vs. the relaxed, unassuming, take-it-as-it-comes intimacy that tempts him in middle-age.

The self-reflective heroine is a device which novelists, at least, have used for centuries to trace the process of consciousness, and of which Hollywood has, at times availed itself (albeit more as lucid complement to male action). But it is quite rare to find films structured around a self-reflective hero. What is extraordinary in The Bigamist, as in all Lupino’s films, is the depiction of passivity not as a state but as a process of consciousness. O’Brien’s position of passivity not as a state but as a process of consciousness. O’Brien’s position is one of total clarity in terms of his feelings for and understanding of the two women, but of utter befuddlement at how to reconcile the largely incompatible actions requisite in each case, except by a complicated and disaster-threatened juggling act. And this position gives him a peculiar relationship to his own role; it is not as pure device that The Bigamist, like Not Wanted, is narrated in flashback. It is the bigamists’s deepening awareness of the complexities, values, ironies, and contradictions inherent in his situation – the literal coexistence of so many possible yet impossible alternatives – that the film traces far more than his reaction to the situation itself.

Yet what one misses, less in the claustrophobic self-definition of The Hitch-Hiker than in the polarised see-saw of The Bigamist, is the unique excitement generated by the passage of a strong existential subjectivity, like some vacuum-powered negative force-field of resistance, through a clearly delineated social framework that totters, shifts and reforms in its wake. Lupino’s late films, although technically very accomplished, lack the intense emotional vibrancy of her earlier work.

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After thirteen years spent directing more than 100 TV series entries, Lupino returned to features with The Trouble With Angels (1966) for Columbia. Beneath its somewhat unfetching-seemed subject matter – nuns – Angels is a study of a young girl’s sexual awakening, but this time in a purely feminine context. The obsessional fascination Rosalind Russell exerts over Hayley Mills has as little to do with the vocational identification to which it is officially ascribed as the deep sense of betrayal her partner-in-rebellion feels at her capitulation has to do with childhood friendship pacts. Few films have so unproblematically and so unsensationally depicted love between women as a natural stage in a woman’s life, or confounded the physical and the metaphysical so completely in the emotional experience of that love. Hayley Mills watches on – hidden behind a pillar in the chapel, sexual and religious curiosity mingled in a kind of all-absorbing awe – as Rosalind Russell collapses on the coffin of her dead friend, the slow-arcing descent of the camera somehow beyond and within the watcher’s vision, at once transcendent and painfully earthbound.

Unfortunately, few films have had so fatally innocuous a frame. Despite Lupino’s fine directorial control of the near-screwball comic timing and tone that had eluded her as an actress (if Pillow to Post is any indication), she can do little to relate the true subject of her film to its fake script-bound opposition between mischievous prankishness as “comic” adolescent rebellion and Mother-Superior-Knows-Best quaintness as moral profundity.

Lupino’s weaknesses are not those of an actress-turned-director, but of an independent writer-producer-director trying to work with a hierarchically rigid studio system. It is not the least of the accomplishments of Lupino’s last film that all-but-moated isolation of the castle-cum-convent in which all of Angels takes place simultaneously reflects the innermost cloistered recesses of Hayley Mill’s self absorption, the womb-space of woman’s sequestration, and the anachronistic gargoyle-gated glories of the big Hollywood studio, as the season-changing nature that surrounds it reflects at once the limpid, saturated tranquility of pubescent adolescence and the hothouse artificiality of an expensive, everything-in-its-place Hollywood location (six swans a-swimming, five pools reflecting, four nuns a-praying, and a sparrow atop Saint Francis).

The garishly-coloured odds and ends the two girls bring back, magpie-like, from the outside summer-vacation world cannot compete with the cool blue and rich brown closed-off homogeneity of the convent, eons away from the black-and-white city streets of Lupino’s Filmmakers work. And the brightly-chatting schoolgirls who will go on to their rounds of bridge parties, or live as perpetual virgins in the confines of a cloister, seem but distant relations of the destitute sleepwalkers who wandered those streets

Endnotes:

[1] Ida Lupino took no directorial credit on Not Wanted. The film is entirely credited to Elmer Clifton who was to have directed and did in fact begin, only to suffer a heart attack three days into shooting. Lupino, who had co-written the screenplay, took over as director.
[2] “Discovering Ida Lupino”, Action, July-August 1973; by far the best article to date on Lupino’s films.

Originally published in Film Comment, Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1980), pp. 54-64, 80.
Republished with permission from the estate of Ronnie Scheib.

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

About the Author


Ronnie Scheib

Ronnie Scheib (1944-1971) was a film critic who wrote for Film Comment, Framework, American Film, 24 Images, Variety and Chicago Reader. She also wrote dialogue for Warner Bros cartoons.View all posts by Ronnie Scheib →