by Julie Grossman and Therese Grisham
This essay aims to unlock gender from specific genre types by way of Ida Lupino’s melonoir films of the 1950s. The strong associations critics and viewers have forged between genres and gender categories have marginalized Lupino’s contributions, which are only now coming into critical view. Merging film noir and women’s melodrama brought her tough noir vision more fully into the domestic sphere, establishing an intriguing blend of what Therese Grisham identifies more particularly as “home noir.”
Part I. Mothers, Daughters, and Melonoir: Female Ambition in Hard, Fast and Beautiful (Julie Grossman)
Feminist criticism has tracked the history of genres in Hollywood film as deeply gendered for the sake of understanding the cultural work these films do; however, the “matching game” that strongly affiliates gender with genre (male “hardboiled” noir1; women’s melodrama) has functioned to oversimplify such associations and to marginalize films that don’t fit neatly into the categories fabricated by critics. The gendering of classic genre types has greatly limited our understanding of the complicated workings of gender in films widely viewed and, also, films that should be more widely viewed, with those directed by Ida Lupino serving as a case in point. Film noir has only recently been explored as a series of films and a tone equally invested in men’s and women’s experience, not simply the exclusively male sphere it has conventionally been tagged as. Critical works by Elizabeth Cowie, Jans Wager, Philippa Gates, Julie Grossman, and Helen Hanson, among others have unearthed female subjectivity and the feminist critique embedded within film noir.2 So, too, film melodrama is now being addressed as a critical crux for feminist criticism and theory, given its popular and critical identification as a “women’s genre.” Gender Meets Genre in Postwar Cinemas (ed. Christine Gledhill, 2012) seeks, for example, to revisit many of the assumptions that have carried feminist film criticism and theory through a generation of studying the cultural work and psycho-social underpinnings of Hollywood film. As exemplified by many of the essays in Gledhill’s collection, genre studies are now exploring the limits of the categories that have defined classical Hollywood films.
Long before film critics and theorists came to a broader understanding of the intersections of gender and genre, however, director Ida Lupino was forging generically hybrid films that delved deeply into the naturalist workings of gender in determining the lives of men and women in modern America. One of Lupino’s most important contributions to film and cultural history was her unique cross-pollination of film noir and women’s melodrama, categories fused to gender labels in the former case since the 1940s, when Nino Frank first coined the phrase “film noir.” In the immediate postwar period, French critics observed the “hardboiled” precursors of film noir in the American novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. While the work film noir movies do in shoring up conventional masculinity may seem obvious (one thinks here of Chandler’s ideal detective: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid”), critics have over time observed the more complicated questions these movies pose in connection with masculinity, such as their portrait of a teetering postwar male identity in the face of historical change and cultural shifts in gender roles. The knee-jerk association between film noir and the centrality of hardboiled male experience–a bolstering of male gender identities–has been questioned by many feminist critics, such as Elizabeth Cowie, who notes on the contrary that film noir movies “afforded women roles which are active, adventurous and driven by sexual desire” (135). Critical studies now explore female subjectivity as a central concern of film noir.
In the case of women’s melodrama, it was 1973 when, in her groundbreaking From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell identified the “woman’s picture” as a subset of film melodrama. The sometimes arbitrary-seeming associations between film melodrama and women are nicely documented by Rick Altman’s “post-mortem for a phantom genre” in his 1999 book, Film/Genre (70-77). In the context of arguing for a more “process”-oriented (less “fixed”) approach to genre and generic evolution, Altman recounts attempts by feminist critics in the 1980s and 90s, led by Mary Ann Doane’s influential The Desire to Desire, to establish a generic “room of one’s own” in “the woman’s picture” for female viewing pleasure and practice. In her 1984 essay “The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address,” Doane asserts that “Because the ‘woman’s film’ obsessively centres and recentres a female protagonist, placing her in a position of agency, it offers some resistance to an analysis which stresses the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ of the woman, her objectification as spectacle according to the masculine structure of the gaze” (286). In the same year, Linda Williams writes, “But melodrama is a form that does not pretend to speak universally. It is clearly addressed to a particular bourgeois class and often—in works as diverse as Pamela, Uncle Tom’s Cabin , or the ‘woman’s film’—to the particular gender of women” (301). Williams goes on to analyse another subset of women’s melodrama, the “maternal melodrama,” of particular interest in connection with Lupino’s mother/daughter story, Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951). Williams sees the subversive potential of “maternal melodrama” to expose the contradictory position of women under patriarchy. And yet, while seeing the maternal melodrama as more “progressive” than can be seen in E. Ann Kaplan’s analysis of this subset of the women’s melodrama (for Kaplan, “maternal melodrama” enacts a male oedipal fantasy where “the male spectator [is given] the vicarious satisfaction of having the Mother sacrifice all for his needs” ), Williams’s analysis is also tethered to a gendered spectator.
These “engendered” associations with melodrama and its subsets have, however, also come under interrogation. For example, Pam Cook wonders recently about John Ford’s westerns and how “the expressive use of music and mise-en-scene to heighten emotional affect can only be described as melodramatic” (31). In a rejoinder to feminist theoretical claims that women’s melodrama and its subsets look mainly to a gendered audience, Cook’s essay “No Fixed Address” questions the wisdom of defining genre exclusively in terms of gender, arguing for “processes of identification more fluid than has previously been imagined” (33).
I, too, wish to reconsider the identification of melodrama in terms of female production, consumption, or viewing habits—the fundamental ways feminist theory has understood women’s melodrama and its subsets “woman’s picture” and “domestic” and “maternal” melodramas—because I believe that the gender/genre assignment results less in promoting female creativity and independence from patriarchy and more in segregating, thus marginalizing, women’s work in making films and women’s pleasure and interest in viewing films.
Lupino’s films thus become an important model for the ungendering of genre. Her films establish a hybrid melonoir, depicting gender trauma in modern America that foregrounds the experience of women in society while maintaining sympathy for men who struggle equally with oppressive gender roles. Lupino’s films pursue a bitter vision of alienated men and women in postwar America, just as one sees in the most celebrated of film noirs. And they employed an expressionist visual style that links their mise-en-scène with the work of Preminger, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and other significant noir directors. But Lupino’s films are also deeply connected to melodramas in their analytical mining of enclosed and gendered spaces that extend from modern living rooms into the country landscape, “fixed” as they are “by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the bourgeois home and/or the small-town setting” (Elsaesser, 508). Lupino’s films reveal the destructive suppression of creative energy in Lupino’s portrayal of domestic institutions—marriage and family relations—and so participate in the critique of modern social life so widely associated with women’s melodrama, “the trials and discontents of maternity, threatened and disintegrating familial relations, the abuses of patriarchal power, marriage fatigue, class misalliance, and physical and psychic illness” (Landy, 230).
The five films Lupino directed between 1949-1953 are remarkable for having been made by The Filmakers, an independent production unit forged by Lupino and then-husband Collier Young to bring to the screen socially important topics, such as rape (Outrage, 1950), unwed motherhood (Not Wanted, 1949), and the psycho-social costs of debilitating illness and disease (Never Fear, 1949). Using young unknown actors, Lupino stepped willfully outside of the machinery of the Hollywood star system. The films that make up Lupino’s Filmakers’ melonoir explore crises in gender and transpose themes central to film noir–the threat of corruption and psycho-social challenges to self-sufficiency in modern America–into portraits of gender breakdown and a deeply feminist rendering of modernist loss.
Lupino’s films also raise important questions, as I’ve been suggesting, about the wisdom of cordoning off melodrama as a women’s sphere. The “room of their own” that women reside in as filmmakers or film viewers may be a collective, but it’s an isolated one. In unlocking genre work from gender, Lupino seems in her melonoir films to have moved the room of her own into the main living area, offering to viewers, then and now, a uniquely feminist set of windows onto the world.
In 1951, Lupino directed Hard, Fast and Beautiful, a film based on a short story called “Mother of a Champion,” written by John Tunis and published in 1929 in The Harpers Monthly Magazine, about a young tennis prodigy, Florence Farley (Sally Forrest), whose mother Millie (Claire Trevor) is obsessed with her daughter’s fame and success. As a film about the limitations of prospects for ambitious women, a fundamental noir theme that provides a crucial postwar context for the so-called femme fatale, Hard, Fast and Beautiful illustrates Janey Place’s description of the noir female figure, the “independent, ambitious woman who feels confined within a marriage.” Like Mildred Pierce, Millie Farley expresses her desire and ambition vicariously, through her daughter. Just as the film Mildred Pierce crosses between noir and “maternal melodrama,” so too Hard, Fast and Beautiful shows the work of melonoir to expose the desperate position of women in postwar America wanting more than conventional gender roles allow for. However, Hard, Fast and Beautiful does not merely “punish” the bad mother figure. Writing about late 40s and 50s maternal melodrama, E. Ann Kaplan says that “Mothers in these films are blatantly monstrous, deliberately victimizing their children for sadistic and narcissistic ends, and thereby producing criminals” (134). While it may be tempting to read Millie Farley in this context, I believe that Lupino’s tone is more sympathetic in her rendering of the traps laid for ambitious women. Their stories, tracked through Lupino’s brilliant mise-en-scène, reveal a strongly feminist critique of failed social institutions: marriage, in particular, but also “playing” in sports, in Hard, Fast and Beautiful, which is appropriated by an exploitative capitalism.
Lupino’s naturalist tale of the fallen hopes for the talented daughter and the desiring mother is established from the beginning of the film. One of the most memorable scenes in Hard, Fast and Beautiful portrays Millie as the bored wife in a failed marriage. Here the mise-en-scène represents Millie’s and Will’s dysfunctional relationship in bed headboards facing opposite one another. Millie taunts Will with freshly painted nails but rejects intimacy with him, his disappointment represented beautifully in this shot.
Uninterested in Will, Millie has turned her attention to Florence’s prospects: “From the very moment you were born, I knew you were different. I could see things in you that no one else could and I knew that somehow,” she says in her initial voiceover, “I was going to get the very best out of life for you.” Millie married young; disappointed in marriage to Will (whose passivity is ironically denoted in his given name, which differs from that of the character in Tunis’s source text), Millie usurps masculine dominance in the family and manipulates everyone to ensure that Florence becomes a tennis star. Millie is the stage mom translated into the sports arena: Our “Queen of the B’s,” Ida Lupino, here anticipates the Queen Bee Mom syndrome. I should note that Millie’s obsession with Florence becoming “somebody” is, of course, a central noir theme, one that applies to female experience, as well as male. From Laura’s enterprising appeal to Waldo Lydecker to endorse a product for her advertising agency in Laura; to Mildred Pierce building an empire from the humble beginnings of baking pies in her home; to Cora Smith’s hopes for expanding the diner on a dusty road in modern California (“I want to be somebody,” Cora tells Frank Chambers): film noir’s strong women aren’t merely deadly seductresses. They are representations of wartime and postwar female desire and ambition. Both Millie and Florence resonate in this context, seeking fulfillment in venues beyond a dull bedroom and suburban backyard garage.
Millie’s role as manipulative stage mother thus only barely covers a wellspring of loss and desire central to Lupino’s melonoir. Lupino’s modernist sensibility interprets postwar American social and family roles as damaging and traumatic, in which individuals struggle to escape their entrapment. While ambition with little outlet in an unresponsive social network fuels the noir “darkness,” Lupino’s mise en scène also reveals the claustrophobia of the small psycho-social space of the domestic sphere, as in Millie’s and Will’s home. For example, below Will watches the predatory agent Fletcher looking off frame at Florence. While Will stands ineffectually behind the threatening figure of Fletcher, Millie is in her own world of desire and longing.
By the time this movie was made, sports writers and enthusiasts were decrying what they called “shamateurism,” tennis amateurs living well, taking in-kind gifts—travel and stays at ritzy hotels– instead of cash for playing tournaments, since the top players weren’t supposed to make money from playing tennis until the Open era in the late 60s. As Millie and Florence come to rely on the glamour of “shamateurism,” their world darkens. A noir vision of corruption permeates sports “play,” and Florence herself grows cynical. Infected by the exploitative landscape of a corrupt tennis world and angry at her mother for embracing that world, Florence psychologically abandons her mother. Millie’s alienation as her daughter retreats is depicted in the noir-styled play of light and dark here in a European hotel room.
Florence having turned away from her, Millie is now vulnerable, her own hopes for controlling the terms of Florence’s success dashed by her daughter’s withdrawal. At the same time, the heretofore passive Will has mustered the energy from his hospital bed to reject Millie for her narcissism and contempt for their marriage. Will, sick nearly “to death” of Millie’s domination, tells her in tough-speak, “beat it, Millie. “ As seen below, Millie slinks off, shoulders down, in defeat.
In the final scenes of the film, Florence wins the Forest Hills tournament. Despairing at the emptiness of her life of “success,” she abandons the court and reunites with “good-guy” Gordon, while Millie is handed the trophy, now a vacant symbol of her and Florence’s failure to obtain happiness.
Wrapped around the pole with an ironized object symbolizing failed ambition, Millie is left alone in the stands, with Lupino moving in succession to longer and longer shots of her sitting by herself in the darkening stadium. Papers and tournament programs laid to waste represent the detritus of the women’s ambitions. While some have argued that the film shows Millie’s isolation as the just deserts of her ambition,3 the film on the contrary presents a sympathetic view of her downfall, tracking her increasingly desperate isolation with pathos clear in Lupino’s mise-en-scène. Conventionally, that sympathy is associated with melodrama. I want to suggest, however, that melodrama and film noir, when viewed as dynamic genres attending to ambitious and desiring individuals trapped within social institutions, are equally invested in such viewer sympathy.
Florence’s traumatic journey can also be traced through Lupino’s mise-en-scène. Looking at screen shots from this film goes a long way toward showing Lupino’s stylistic virtuosity (that belies her status as a B filmmaker, Pam Cook having called her “technically unsophisticated” [in Kuhn, 58]). Though Lupino’s role in film history has been limited to her identification as a B stylist, shot analysis reveals her rather amazing acumen as a director who created visual metaphors and mise en scène to suggest melonoir themes of privation, postwar alienation, and a gender trauma born of changing conceptions of male and female social power and roleplaying.
From the beginning of the film, Florence is seen as an energetic tennis player, who pushes herself to improve her skills in the back yard of her middle-class household. Florence’s limited prospects are symbolized in her playing tennis with herself within the confines of her garage driveway. Florence has painted large numbers in side-by-side squares on the garage door. She calls out the numbers as she hits the proper box with her forehand, symbolizing the special focus, a kind of OCD here, required of women for whom venues for expression and empowerment are limited, boxed in.
Below, Florence is not boxed but fenced in, the mise-en-scène showing the frames of her experience; she looks to Gordon, her love interest and liaison to the neighborhood tennis club. Interestingly, while most viewers focus on the obsessive ambitions of Millie as the exploitative Queen Bee Mom, it’s the plucky Florence who thinks when she’s invited to play with Gordon at the club, “Maybe I can beat him.” Florence herself is ambitious and competitive.
Below is tough, ambitious Florence; one observes her gritty determination. She is often shot playing matches from low-angle perspectives.
As the film progresses and Florence is transformed into a diva, she moves from idealism to cynicism. It is, of course, the great insight of film noir that idealism and cynicism are flip sides of the same social-psychological coin—what are cynics but disappointed idealists? As Florence’s life is lived increasingly in the shadows, one of Lupino’s most intriguing shots is a noir image of the young woman practicing her backhand under the nasty tutelage of the exploitative agent Fletcher.4 Lupino’s mise-en-scène seems to borrow from the horror genre in the figure below, as Florence’s shadow has her wielding her tennis racket as a weapon aimed at bludgeoning Fletcher.
Florence’s, as well as Millie’s, American dream has turned into a nightmare, the shadow world enveloping these two women, as their fates close in on them.
In Hard, Fast and Beautiful, desiring women are shown two bitter paths: one is to succumb in the end to conventional roles, as when Florence, having given up her tennis, is folded into the arms of her future husband Gordon. Florence is less relieved than she seems confused and unhappy, and given the profound inadequacy portrayed in the failed relationship of Millie and Will, Lupino’s conclusion clearly underscores her abiding theme of the brutality of conventional marriage as a purported means of fulfillment. Depressed and disoriented, Florence is presented in Lupino’s mise-en-scène as entering yet another socially-sanctioned prison, the face of tennis racket providing a symbolic view of the next frame that will determine Florence’s life and future: marriage. Given the bleak view of marriage Lupino delineates in connection with Millie and Will, it would be strange to argue that this conclusion to Florence’s story is anything but ominous.
Even bleaker, however, is Millie’s ambition rendered as a state of nothingness. After Florence bids her mother goodbye, Millie is portrayed, as seen earlier, as alone and isolated in the desolately drawn space of the empty tennis stadium. In the end, Lupino positions the viewer to identify with both Florence’s and Millie’s entrapment. As Mandy Merck notes, “far from representing some happy domesticity, the film’s final shots stay in the stadium, where the abandoned Millie sits in the gathering darkness” (83-84). While some have read Millie’s acquisitiveness as a warning against female ambition (Dozoretz focuses, for example, on the film’s portrait of women as “greedy” and “deceitful” ), I believe, on the contrary, that the film shows the tragedy of limited possibilities for women who want more than gender conventions allow them to have and who wish to break apart the social institutions that constrain them, as Ida Lupino herself surely tried to do. Millie’s ambition is portrayed in the context of failed gender roles and a desperation born of painful desire and a powerful sense of loss, and Millie’s forlornness, as is clear in Lupino’s mise-en-scène, works on us to align us with the character.
Like Mildred Pierce, Millie expresses her desire in the only venue imaginable, within her fixed role as wife and mother. She says in her voiceover to Florence that she “always wanted something better for you, and I made up my mind to get it no matter what I had to do.” While the dark family portrait seems in keeping with the maternal melodrama’s portrait of obsessive or self-sacrificing mothers, Lupino’s Hard, Fast and Beautiful is, more important, a searing portrait of gender trauma especially concerned with the noir theme of failed ambition. The film’s pathos and mise-en-scène reveal a feminist melonoir tale of modern alienation.
Part II. Home is Where the Noir is: Outrage (1950)1 (Therese Grisham)
In 1989, Kathryn Bigelow engaged in an experiment. In making Blue Steel, she asked initially what would happen if she substituted a female protagonist for the male cop-protagonist in a police-action thriller. What would change; what would not? If a director asks such questions and follows through, she runs right smack up against patriarchal narratives and their social contexts. How will she negotiate these in her film?
Bigelow’s earliest works are often radical experiments with genres—combinatory, subtractive, subversive, offering a tool for crafting a mode of vital self-reflexive cinema in which the spectator becomes a thrill junkie, like the restless characters in Bigelow’s films. Ultimately, however, the raw exhilaration experienced by Bigelow’s characters must end so they can come to terms with reality and the laws—be they legal or gravitational—that anchor them to society. (From “Kathryn Bigelow: Filmmaking at the Dark Edge of Exhilaration,” Harvard Film Archive, 2009.)
Four decades earlier, Ida Lupino, who has surely been a model for Bigelow, directed her first film. By the time she made Outrage, in 1950, her experiments with female protagonists and women’s social issues inserted into masculine narratives were well underway. What if, she seems to be asking in Outrage, I were to put a young woman, a victim of rape in her home town, into a narrative about men wounded and traumatized by war who have returned home when the war is over? What would change? What are the limits on my story imposed by gender, domestic ground, and American myths and realities? Like Bigelow’s film so many years later, what emerged is a film which, of necessity, merges at least two categories of film–what critics were already calling “film noir,” and what feminist critics would call, beginning in the 1970s and 80s, the “woman’s picture” or “women’s melodrama.” As amalgams of these two categories, Lupino’s early films erase the critical division between them. Nowhere are her films more unsettling to two now generally accepted and embraced styles, genres, movements–call them what you like–than when they center on home (and leaving home, since home turns out to be intolerable). In her early films, made between 1949 and 1953, Lupino investigates the double-bind of individuals who escape their antagonistic homes, driven also by American myths of the new freedom of the road, only to be forced back into the “real world” of home–or suffer the realities of the road. Lupino’s films offer critical, even bitter, perspectives on the dislocations, quandaries, and uncertainties of gender at a time when the American Dream and related myths were once again ascendant.
Ida Lupino has taught me what it means to bring an inclusive vision of gender to bear on film genre/category, in which, while women are most frequently her central characters, and women’s issues the subjects of her films, male characters are not stereotypical and men’s issues are understood non-judgmentally, sensitively, and comprehensively. Even if they victimize women, Lupino’s men are shown to have been victims themselves—or at least not helped to recover from what ails them by existing social institutions–loosening the stranglehold of our certainty that they are simply villains. This dimension of Lupino’s early films makes her narratives richer and more complex than critics have granted them. In what follows, I will still make reference to some of the staple definitions of the categories of film noir and women’s melodrama in order to demonstrate the nature of Lupino’s project to expose the gender trauma and gender constraints—the shared heart of film noir and women’s melodrama–in the post-War era. Until we have a better and more equitable classification of noir/women’s melodrama, this needs to be the case. In the meantime, I use the term “melonoir” to give an overall sense of the inclusive visions of Lupino’s early films.
I call a particular way of understanding domestic melodramas in the 1940s “home noir.” I purposefully use the term “domestic melodrama” rather than “melodrama,” “women’s melodrama,” or “the woman’s film” in order to indicate that the field of my inquiry is the melonoir, which at times focuses on home spaces. A couple of years ago, I considered domestic melodrama of the 1940s to be an analogue of film noir, in which I saw the home as a space gendered as female, the concomitant of city streets for men. I expected that women’s relationships to the home would tell me something about their relationships to American modernity. I revised my thoughts after teaching a course on home noir at Facets Multimedia’s Film School in Chicago. Facets provided me with a kind of experimental laboratory for distilling my thoughts on film, aided greatly by screenings and discussions with students.2 As we watched 1940s’ domestic melodramas, I became convinced that the relationship of the domestic melodrama to film noir is much closer, and that the two categories are more radically aligned, than I had thought before. Home noir is one of the many focal points of the melonoir. It tells us about women’s and men’s relationships to the modern. It is a way of viewing the home spheres in these films as indices, expressions, and revisions of wider sociocultural transformations and meanings. From the perspective of its relationship with discourses and practices outside film, home noir becomes a much larger field than that of film’s formal structures, particularly its mise en scene. In Lupino’s early films, in the context of the uneasy relations of gender to post-War American modernity, “home” requires an expansive definition, which I hope to make clear in my discussion of Outrage.
The modern American home in film–in this instance of the immediate post-World War Two era–exists in a reciprocal relationship with the modern home in American life. Developments in architecture, interior design, interior decoration, and the spread of household commodities were popularized in Hollywood movies, and in discourses on the home in magazines and advertising. They were also influenced by the movies. Home, with reference to films of the late 1940s and early 1950s, is usually thought of as a woman’s extension of herself, her domain, her power, and her ability to act on the world of gendered space; however, it is often through the home that the seamy, dysfunctional underside of the American Dream is exposed. The home sphere is heavily inflected by the burgeoning technological and commodity culture belonging to late capitalism, as well as being laden with patriarchal values and myths. It is in this way that the home concerns men as much as women. In fact, our commonly held idea that the domestic sphere is exclusively “feminine” (private, etc.) is a relatively new one. Kathleen Anne McHugh’s study of two centuries of discourses on the home sphere in the United States, American Domesticity: From How-to Manual to Hollywood Melodrama, demonstrates that domestic discourse established the terms within which the most crucial national issues, such as the market economy, consumerism, spectatorship, and desire, were conceived, assimilated, and understood. Thus, the domestic is hardly the antithesis of the public, economic, and political. The image we have of it became so in the 19th century with the various discourses that sentimentalized women and domestic space.
The “home” in home noir involves taking domestic architecture, interior design (its spaces and the movements it facilitates or prevents), and decorative and utilitarian objects as indicators of the relationships of gender and the modern. After World War Two, with the ideology of the American Dream more firmly in place than during the Depression and World War Two, the domestic arena takes on certain relationships to late capitalism and a Fordist economy of assembly-line production: the stepped-up production of modern mass-produced consumer and household items such as furniture, appliances, and knick-knacks; cars for the expanding highway system; and homes themselves. Reinforced by what was then held to be ubiquitous advertising (on radio and television, often incorporated into the content of programs, and in magazines for both men and women that extended their feature stories through advertisements), the household is of central importance generally in post-War Hollywood cinema.
The modern home, as opposed to the Victorian one, shares in the American Dream in part through its industrialized construction. The shift in concepts of home architecture began in the 1890s. It involved envisioning a home which opened out immediately into nature, opposing the private, walled garden of the Victorian home and promoting new doctrines of health. It envisioned a “plain,” streamlined house without servants, whose design made the housewife’s tasks easier by drawing the kitchen and dining room closer together. In the Progressive Era affordable commodities such as the vacuum-cleaner and washing machine became available. The modern home rejected the ornate, mass-produced ornamentation of the Victorian home. It did away with the parlor and the library, replacing them with the living-room and built-in bookshelves on which knick-knacks could be displayed.
For those with more modest incomes, bungalows were built, beginning in the ‘teens, and kit houses became available from Sears beginning in 1908. A Sears kit house arrived with plans and a 75-page instruction booklet for do-it-yourselfers. Kit homes spread from the East Coast to the West Coast, designed by a number of different companies.
2. Home Noir
In the “noir” in home noir, falling along a continuum with the gothic and horror film, the home and its objects rapidly become destabilizing forces. They imprison, create chaos, intimate danger, and sometimes act of their own accord. (Here, I think of the anchor at the boathouse in Ophuls’s home noir, The Reckless Moment, which defends Lucia by stabbing and killing her blackmailer, only to initiate the multiple dangers from the outside world that attack her at home). .
In some films of the direct post-War period, home noir involves the refusal to confront, engage with, or enter into the new. This is demonstrated first by the house itself, which clings to retrograde Victorian styles. It involves men and women who refuse to work and build careers as much as it does men and women who refuse to marry. In The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (Robert Siodmak, 1946), for example, while even the infantile Harry can be coaxed from his Victorian family house by a career woman who wants to marry him, his sister Letty is unwilling to leave home. When encouraged to work or marry, she refuses both. To demonstrate her predicament–of being stuck in the past of her childhood and unwilling to confront a world passing her by–shadows cast on the walls of her bedroom appear, from the first shot of her in bed with one of her “sick headaches,” as prison bars. In Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948), Leona’s father, James Cottrell, inhabits the only Victorian space in the film–a large library packed with hunting and other trophies. He wants Leona to divorce her husband, Henry. When Henry has a chance to interview for a position, Cottrell sabotages the interview. There is more than a hint of Cottrell’s incestuous desire for his daughter present in the film–among his many trophies is a portrait of his daughter, sitting prominently on the mantelpiece. Moreover, Leona suffers from “heart-attacks,” psychosomatic symptoms of her felt knowledge that her father desires her sexually, as well as her inability to separate from him. These symptoms are similar to Letty’s contrived illnesses, which stay her confrontation with her desire for Harry. In both films, the Victorian signals not just the inability to confront the modern, but a degenerate sickness at the heart of the old order.
By contradistinction, in Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1946), the beach house (which belonged to Anatole Litvak) is the site of Monte and Veda’s affair, elongated shadows, and murder. Its architecture and interior space are too modern, too sleek, and too refined. A Victorian space may signal a recalcitrant patriarchy and a refusal to enter into post-War modernity, but an ultra-modern space signals a modernist style as a façade concealing a heart of corruption.
Written by Ida Lupino, Malvin Wald and Collier Young, Outrage was the second Hollywood film after 1933 to deal with the issue of rape. Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco, 1948) was the other. Harry Horner, who had recently won an Academy Award for his art direction of William Wyler’s 1949 film, The Heiress (which can also be thought of in terms of home noir), is credited as the art director for Outrage. Unfortunately, there is little information available about Horner’s role in the production of the film, but I suspect that his influence was great, even if he only advised production designers. He and Lupino seem to have put the full force of their combined knowledge and experience into making Outrage. The claustrophobic qualities of “home” extend from the protagonist Ann Walton’s home, workplace at a sawmill, and her home town of Capitol City, to America’s highway system and interstate bus routes, southern California and its “healing” landscape amid citrus groves, and all of the United States as domestic ground. In a brilliant interplay between Ann’s subjective aural and visual experiences and their confirmation in objective sounds and shots, the film moves between an expressionist style, location shooting à la Italian Neorealism, and elaborate interiors and exteriors which evoke prisons and boxes, specifically for Ann, without losing sight of the uniquely American contexts of the immediate post-War economic boom and the resurgence in myth, particularly about California as “the promised land.”
In nearly all of Ida Lupino’s early films, home is a prison. It cannot accommodate unwanted pregnancy, illness, unhappiness in marriage, a failed marriage, the aftermath of rape, or female ambition. Leaving home is, therefore, a motif across these films. In The Bigamist, Harry Graham leaves home to escape his sense of his own inadequacy as a man in the face of his wife’s success in business, only to find himself caring for his child and doing housework while his other wife goes to work. In The Hitch-Hiker, two men, Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen, take a holiday from what they perceive as the emasculating prison of domesticity, having lied to their wives by announcing that they are going on a fishing trip. They end up driving the highways and roads of California and Mexico with disastrous results. They meet a hitchhiker, Emmett Myers, who embodies their secret desires, and what they are out to prove to themselves and each other about their masculinity. Myers is, not coincidentally, a dangerous sociopath. “You guys are soft,” he says. “You know what makes you that way? You’re up to your neck in IOU’s. You’re suckers! You’re scared to get out on your own. You’ve always had it good, so you’re soft. Well, not me!” Myers expresses the men’s desires to be independent, tough, unafraid, and unburdened of family and economic responsibilities. In Outrage, Ann Walton flees her parents’ home and Capitol City because, unlike war trauma for veterans, trauma for women is met with ignorance, judgment, gossip, and at the very least, good intentions but a complete lack of understanding.
If the act of leaving home results in disaster in these films, the home itself provides the impetus for flight. In Outrage, in particular, the home is the vehicle by which Ann internalizes guilt and shame for having been raped. After Ann is raped, her parents think only of themselves (she overhears her father saying how he is now scrutinized and gossiped about at the school where he teaches). Soon, Ann is made to feel unwelcome, guilty, boxed in.
The Waltons’ home, like the other homes in their neighborhood, resembles an American Foursquare kit house, called this (like the Sears house #52, above) because it was designed as two-and-a-half stories of square boxes built on top of each other. The Foursquare usually contains four large, boxy rooms on each floor and a large front porch with wide stairs. The first floor typically has a living room and dining room on one side that open onto each other through an archway.
While the Waltons’ house indicates the industrialization of home building, the interior of the house itself is a throwback to the Victorian home, stuffed with ornate furniture, doilies, oval paintings framed in gilded wood, and mementos. Although the Waltons’ is a Foursquare house, it negates its modernity through its Victorian interior. Details beyond those of interior decoration support the idea that the Waltons have not engaged with post-War modernity. Ann’s father, Eric Walton, is a patriarch, though seemingly benign. He gently decides everything for his family. Jim and Ann plan a dinner at the Waltons’ so that Jim can ask for Ann’s hand in marriage. Mr. Walton is at first opposed to the idea, since he wants Ann to follow in his footsteps and become a math teacher. However, with prompting from Jim who says, “There isn’t just work these days for a woman; there’s marriage,” he relents.
Observing the division of space in the Waltons’ home also tells us that the family is divided by gendered activity. Jim and Eric sit together on the couch near the bookcase. The women sit apart, Ann’s mother on her rocking chair and Ann on the floor helping her mother wind yarn for knitting and crocheting. Ann’s mother also wears a removable Victorian lace collar on her dark dress. In other words, the division of after-dinner space in this modern house is the same as that after dinner in a Victorian household, when men retire to the library to smoke and discuss matters of importance, and women move to the sitting room to engage in domestic activities and to chat. Ultimately, the contrast between house and the family life within it sets the stage for the rest of the narrative, in which, while appearing gentle, understanding, and benign, men at best speak for Ann and decide her fate, and at worst, physically assault her. While rape and attempted rape are overtly violent acts toward women, which leave emotional and physical wounds, the kindness and false benignity of men expose the overarching patriarchal structure of the society shown in Outrage, leaving women no place at all within it to speak or act for themselves. Ann’s is the story of a woman without ambition–unlike the women in some of Lupino’s other films–who has been spoken for, in all senses, her whole life by men, beginning with her father. In the web woven around her by well-meaning men, she is trapped. Around her are the signs and symbols of post-War modernity: the economy of the immediate post-War period is booming; bus culture promises freedom; and Los Angeles beckons. Yet, beginning with her noir family home, Ann is and will be boxed in–scrutinized, pigeonholed, excluded, spoken for, imprisoned. The mise en scene reinforces the idea that Ann is trapped throughout.
Beginning with the stalking and rape scene, boxes and prison bars become ubiquitous, as if emerging into reality from a nightmare of the safety of the workplace, home, everyday activities, and the nuclear family. After the rape, they appear at her parents’ home and at her bookkeeping job at the sawmill. As Ann enters the gate to her parents’ yard, the pickets of the fence and the lattice on the porch effectively reduplicate prison bars and boxes. When she enters the house, her mother goes downstairs to meet her. But this time, the figure of her mother casts a shadow on the wall where the identical elements of bars and boxes are revealed, as if her shadow-self, or unacknowledged self, is trapped, briefly suggesting a link between mother and daughter, which is reiterated in other of Lupino’s films, such as Hard, Fast, and Beautiful. Moreover, her “real” figure becomes menacing, as if she were Ann’s warden, not her mother, moving along the bars of prison cells toward her daughter.
In terms of home noir, an important object displayed on the mantelpiece is Ann’s confirmation photograph, introduced to us cornered between the detective and Mr. Walton. In this photograph, Ann is smiling, radiant, wearing white. After the rape, the photo becomes a reminder of her lost innocence. But more than this, it becomes her double, or put another way, she becomes its dark double: she looks at it as if into a mirror and finds another self there, one she can no longer identify with let alone abide. As she gazes at the photo, she experiences a profound dissociation of her present with her past. Proof that she has internalized a sense of culpability for her rape and its attending feelings of defilement and unworthiness is that she angrily knocks the photo from the mantelpiece, and it shatters on the floor. Even though she is the victim of rape, her self-image has changed to become everything the photo was not. Here, in effect, she breaks, or kills, her own innocence, her self. She can no longer accept that she is innocent of anything that happens to her.
Connected to the idea of home are the ideas of the road and the countryside–pointedly, here, in Southern California and its citrus groves. In film noir, drifters are almost always men. The expanding highway system belongs to men and their cars, which Lupino, a few years later, exploited in The Hitch-Hiker. The road signifies to Ann freedom from her prison at home. However, her flight is not a well thought-out plan. She walks by the bus station, and the idea of leaving occurs to her after she reads a bus destination, “Denver.” Subsequently, Jim gives her an ultimatum, during which he grabs her and shakes her violently after she refuses to marry him. And finally, she says goodbye to her mother by touching her rocking-chair and skein of yarn lying in a basket. (She does not, importantly, say goodbye to her father). She heads for Los Angeles, the capital city of of the mythic land of opportunity. Though Ann is unaware of it, flight is her attempt to escape all contact with men, as well as with her internalized image of herself. So far, every space in the film has been defined patriarchally: her home, job, the town’s streets, the police investigation, interrogation, and line-up. Ann’s perception of men merges with the viewer’s perception in shots such as these, rendered from the back of Ann’s head, in long shots, or two-shots.
At a roadside diner at night, Ann learns from a radio report that the police are searching for her. Instead of re-boarding the bus, she walks along the highway and eventually collapses by the side of a dirt road. A “lost soul,” wandering in the windy forests and hilly terrain of Southern California, Ann is “saved” by the minister, Rev. Bob Ferguson, who is driving by. The second half of the film, which takes place among Southern California’s citrus orchards, fruit-packing and shipping plants, ranches, and “healing” landscape, almost exactly reduplicates the first half. Bruce, a veteran of World War Two, shows her his favorite spot on a hill overlooking a bucolic terrain. He tells Ann that in this spot he was able to heal from the emotional trauma he suffered as a consequence of witnessing war, which threatened to ruin his faith in God.
But, if the California countryside is the last promised land in the United States, it is notable that it is so only for men. At a country dance, stylized to replicate any city or town nightclub or dancehall, Ann is sexually assaulted by a “decent guy” known by everyone in the community. At the sawmill, she was stalked by a rapist; here, from almost the very moment of her arrival, when she is given a job as a citrus-fruit packer, we see the continuing motif of Ann being “boxed in.”
The first and second parts of the film are punctuated by Ann’s bus journeys. At the end of the film, she is shown boarding a Continental Trailways bus moving in the same direction as the bus she took on her way to California. This suggests that she is not returning to her family, her home town, and Jim. Lupino leaves open the question of what it means for a young woman to take off on her own on America’s highway system and bus routes. We have seen elsewhere, in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945), to give but one example, that it takes a determined and ambitious women to survive in these male spaces–for time enough to steal from men, blackmail them, and murder them for money and revenge. It is a windy day when Ann catches her bus, just as it was when she arrived. She blows into and out of town, lost in a menacing landscape that offers her nothing. Outrage details the traps set for women in a world which refuses to grapple with the modernity of the post-War period. Recognizing war trauma for veterans, this world does not recognize, much less deal with, women’s trauma, nor does it see a need to empower women to speak for themselves, make decisions about their lives that may fall outside the “box” of the choice between marriage and work, and to act on their own behalf. The stubborn recalcitrance of patriarchy, which has simply been refigured after the War as kindly and well meaning, Lupino shows to have its roots in an abiding Victorianism.
It was sixteen years later when Lupino directed her, arguably, most feminist film, The Trouble With Angels, even today a girls’ cult film passed from hand to hand on DVD. A narrative about girls coming of age, The Trouble With Angels is notable for the relays of female gazes which mark Mary’s development into a mature young woman with a purpose and direction in life. The film takes place in a fictionalized convent, criticized at the time by some Catholics for having removed all religion and religious ritual from the story. Absent too are any patriarchs of the Church. The only men present are Mary and her comrade Rachel’s dysfunctional fathers, glimpsed briefly waiting for conferences with the Mother Superior. Therefore, what is more notable to me is that Mary’s coming of age takes place (and judging from Lupino’s other films, can only take place) in a world without men. Regardless of Lupino’s styling herself as nurturing (on the set, she was called “Mother”), and her disingenuous denials of her own feminism, her last theatrical film draws her close to the radical feminists of the era.
Notes (Part I)
1For an intriguingly systematic disavowal of the “hardboiled paradigm” as a basis for understanding film noir, see Daniel Hodges’s website “filmnoirfile.com.”
2See, for example, Elizabeth Cowie, “Film Noir and Women; Philippa Gates, Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film; Julie Grossman, Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up; Helen Hanson, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film; Ann E. Kaplan, Women in Film Noir; and Jans B. Wager, Dames in the Driver’s Seat: Rereading Film Noir.
3See, in particular, Barbara Koenig Quart’s harsh judgment on Lupino’s representation of women: “Far more viciously than in Mildred Pierce, the ambitious mother here, associated with career, must be denounced as a selfish schemer from start to finish” (27).
4In Tunis’s story, Fletcher is described as a “suave young mucker.” Tunis attacks the appropriation of sports by modern capitalism in his portrait of Fletcher, whose “one ambition in school and college had been to become a champion; early in his career it became evident that he had neither the persistence nor the patience” (278). Lupino grafts this critique of American capitalism to a portrait of failed gender and family roles.
Notes (Part II)
1. This essay is the beginning of a work in progress.
2. Hillary Plemons, a student in both my home noir and Ida Lupino courses at Facets, first suggested to me the uncanny similarities between M and Outrage. These similarities (and many contrasts too) make Outrage a much fuller and richer film than has been suggested previously. I am currently writing about Lupino’s visual and narrative references to M. Thank you, Hillary.
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