A Woman's Touch

Last night I had the interesting experience of watching two films directed by Ida Lupino, The Bigamist and Outrage, on TCM. I'm surprised that no one has talked about Lupino and her ex-husband/producing partner Collier Young as pioneers of American independent cinema. Here are two films that essentially were made at the fringes of the studio system, dealing with issues that were largely taboo in Hollywood. They aren't great films -- Sarris is rather uncharitable in his assessment of Lupino in The American Cinema, she isn't a fluid director -- but they are interesting and, for the very early '50s, quite courageous.

What struck me about the two films is that Lupino's ostensible feminism, while thematically quite real, is not focussed on the empowerment of her female characters. The mere fact that she could make films about a rape victim (Outrage), out-of-wedlock children (Not Wanted and The Bigamist) speaks volumes about her concerns, but what is interesting about the two films I saw last night is that the real political subtexts are not about strong woman characters but about surprisingly tender males. Neither film ever gets inside the heads of the three principal females, the two wives (Joan Fontaine and Lupino herself) or the young woman who is raped (a rather florid performance from Mala Powers). Perhaps that is the inevitable product of the strictures of the studio system and the Production Office code, but it seems to me Lupino is more interested in how her male leads are affected by the suffering of the women. And the result is a couple of strikingly vulnerable, complex performances by Edmond O'Brien and Tod Andrews.

What makes this all the more fascinating is that, having seen several of her Have Gun, Will Travel episodes, I had previously noted to myself that her touch was strong and sure, and her interests seemed to lie elsewhere than in the gunplay and self-defining codes of conduct that are at the center of many of that show's episodes. Lupino takes the assumptions of her time about masculinity then works around the edges to subvert them in subtle but telling ways.

Comments

Steven said…
george:You are right about the paradoxical pleasures of Lupino which also include Indy pleasures such as location shooting and lower Middle class or is it upper working class American fifties life. Hard, Fast and Beautiful are about the crisis of a conlicted tennis mother and tennis protegy daughter during amateur tennis's Stranger on a Train heyday.
The Hitchhiker is a critique/celebration of 50's masculinity with no women characters.
A film that she co wrote and produced and starred in with another husband, Howard Duff, directed by Don Siegel, Private Hell 36 is also interesting in its take on representation of masculinity.
Steve Elworth
Ronnie Scheib wrote a really interesting piece on Lupino in Film Comment around 25 years ago.
Steve Elworth