'Let Me See You Smile': Ida Lupino’s Outrage And The Horrors Of Rape Culture

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‘Let Me See You Smile’: Ida Lupino’s Outrage And The Horrors Of Rape Culture

TIFF Lightbox retrospective on the remarkable career of the actor/director runs August 4 to September 2.

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We open on a woman. Disheveled, terrified, she stumbles through yawning streaks of black and pools of too-bright silver: a film-noir labyrinth, the dreadful minotaur somewhere in the darkness behind her. No one helps. No one sees. And, worst of all, no one speaks.

Outrage (1950) is a searing condemnation of patriarchal complicities and failures of rape culture. The film is screening August 24 as part of TIFF Bell Lightbox’s retrospective on the remarkable career of actress and director Ida Lupino (August 4 to September 2) and presents a rare chance to reevaluate a neglected and marginalized master of film noir. The screening and retrospective are part of a summer of spotlights on female filmmakers at TIFF (joining a recent series on Kathryn Bigelow), and while the collection of films is entitled “Independent Woman,” taken together they make the case for Lupino (whose director’s chair was famously embossed with Mother Of Us All) as one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever seen, full stop.  

Outrage>is the story of a rape survivor Ann Walton. Working in an office and planning her life with a kind but broke fiancé, Ann is polite to the men that catcall her; she smiles when she’s told to “smile!”; she is friendly even when the barista’s flirtation takes on an aggressive cast, and does not notice how long his eye follows her or how his smile turns into a leer. Under Lupino’s shrewd eye, we watch Ann while Ann is watched: trapped by her attacker but also trapped in the impossible gaze of a society that insists she make herself polite and available, and which then tacitly and swiftly blames her for her own victimization.

Ann’s trauma is aggravated and rendered unbearably suffocating by the well-meaning people around her who smother her in platitudes and simpering kindnesses. Because the film was made at the height of the Hays Code (the strict moralizing dictums that governed good taste and ethical hygiene in studio movies—no mixed-race couples, no loose women, no toilets) it is literally impossible for anyone to talk to Ann about what happened; the word “rape” is forbidden. Lupino (an expert at telling stark morality tales—she was both director and actress in TV’s The Twilight Zone) turns this limitation into the film’s razor’s edge, as character after character refuses to engage with Ann’s distress and instead tries to impress upon her the need to return to normalcy, to the comforts of her parents’ home and white-picket-fence promise of her engagement.

But instead, the violences of these institutions blossom for Ann. A barrage of too-friendly “hellos!” greet her from behind newspapers broadcasting details of her assault, her father’s well-meaning bromides expose his belief that his daughter is ruined, and Ann’s fiancé’s attempt to rush their marriage explodes into a violent physical outburst that Ann recognizes is, writ small, the same violence that followed her into an alley and took from her what it wanted. And so Ann runs—only to find the structures that abused her are everywhere and that she carries her trauma with her. The Hays Code intervenes again as the film’s script peppers in unconvincing and half-meant vague references to finding her “faith,” but Lupino uses this interlude (and its quasi-romantic developments) to take seriously what it means to move in the world in the aftermath of such an attack. Ann knows her attacker only by the scar on his neck, but in the film’s climax—at a sun-dappled country fair, surrounded by laughter and lemonade—Ann too finds she is scarred and that the evil that men do can be found everywhere.

The film is saturated with a sense of a society left badly broken by World War II—a characteristic both of post-war noir in general and Lupino’s work in particular. “We need to turn human scrap back into useful human beings!” a character exclaims in desperation toward film’s end, and this desperate search for something to redeem pervades a body of work that is often unflinchingly ruthless in its outlook and ekes out its measure of salvation only amid the utmost fear and trembling.

Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), for example, screening August 22, is easily one of the greatest film noirs ever made. It follows two men whose briefest of moral lapses (a fleeting deviation from their fishing expedition to a Mexican dive to visit a pre-war lady “friend”) delivers them into the nightmarish hands of an almost inhuman captor. Dragging them through a physically and psychologically gruelling endurance test across the desert, their sadistic tormentor laughs at their attempts to escape, their kindness to one another, and watches them always with one eye that never sleeps.

Road House (1948), screening August 4, sees Lupino on the other end of the camera, starring as a down-on-her-luck nightclub singer (despite her character’s voice being somehow “damaged,” Lupino performs several jarringly beautiful songs, her half-remembered cigarette casually blistering the wood of the piano). She is lured to a backwater club in the middle of nowhere by a wealthy, lascivious patron and quickly embroiled in a dangerous love triangle and a thrilling cat-and-mouse game as each party dares the other to murder. Though the film was directed by Jean Negulesco, the motifs of Lupino’s career are again tangible, as post-war disillusionment and trauma sparks against the powder keg of patriarchal violence: the terrible danger of a man who has decided what he deserves.

Along with several other classics (among them Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, Fritz Lang’s Moontide, and Lupino’s own The Bigamist), TIFF’s retrospective is a chance to meet or reconsider an artist of singular vision and tremendous precision (she saved budget expense by meticulously pre-planning every shot, and so became a master of the claustrophobic). The Lupino we find here is a filmmaker who might have found a peer in Flannery O’Connor: a crafter of stories of hard-bit people surviving in a world that has disappointed them and whose compromises they resent, a world devoid of larger meaning, which nevertheless seems to hover over them with terrifying, malefic intent.

In this space of unreasoning brutality, lost in a labyrinth of shadows, Lupino risks unabashed pathos and insists above all that neither to be scarred nor to be damaged is to be altogether ruined. Hers is a cinema of survivors.

For a full schedule of Lupino’s films, click here.

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