Rashōmon, set in the Wild West.
I hadn’t heard about this film, let alone seen it, till a few weeks back, when blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man, commenting on my review of Rashōmon, mentioned it.
Rashōmon—and the Rashōmon Effect—fascinates me, to the extent that I will watch just about any film, read just about any book, that uses this potentially gripping style of multiple narratives. From Andha Naal to The Woman in Question: I am game for them all. So The Outrage, starring one of my favourites (Paul Newman), and in a genre for which I have a soft spot (Western) was immediately bookmarked.
The Outrage begins on the edge of a town named Silver Gulch. Amidst pouring rain, a young preacher (a very young William Shatner, well before Star Trek) sits unhappily in a broken shed beside a train track. This is the local train station, deserted and falling apart, with even the signboard bearing the town’s name hanging askew. Another man (Howard da Silva), a prospector who has had no luck, also takes shelter in the shed and begins talking to the preacher.
… who says, in a bitter voice, that he’s leaving town. The prospector seems to understand, and to sympathize. Yes, the way things have been, the young preacher’s disillusionment is understandable.
These two are joined by a third man (Edward G Robinson), whom the prospector recognizes as a swindler, a man who goes about selling no-good patents.
Since the rain shows no sign of letting up, and since there’s no other way to while away the time before a train arrives at this godforsaken station, the prospector starts to tell the swindler why the preacher is so bitter. There has been a murder in town, and both he (the prospector) and the preacher were subpoenaed. The culprit—a notorious Mexican bandit named Carasco—was being tried for the murder.
The prospector explains why he was called to testify at the trial: because he was the one who found the corpse. As he was making his way through the bushes and cacti, he had found various odds and ends scattered about: a glittering bit of chain lying on the ground, a woman’s hat and veil caught on a protruding branch.
And, finally, what made him run to the sheriff’s. A man, lying dead.
The sheriff, as we discover from a scene a few minutes further on, quickly got together a posse and set off to find the culprit—and Carasco was run to earth shortly after, beside a river.
The preacher explains why he was subpoenaed: because, as he rode through the cacti, he had passed a man and a woman riding in a horse cart. The man (Laurence Harvey) had struck the preacher with his dignity; the woman had been veiled. This man, though the preacher did not know it then, was the one whom Carasco killed shortly after. The woman, who was the man’s wife, Carasco raped.
We now move on to a flashback of the trial itself, with an uncouth-looking (and uncouth-sounding) Carasco (Paul Newman) recounting his version of events. Carasco makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s a thief, murderer, rapist and whatnot. Even in his narration of this latest crime, he doesn’t try to portray himself as innocent.
Far from it; Carasco says that he had been sitting in the shade of a cactus when the couple had passed by in their cart. A stray breath of wind had lifted the woman’s veil momentarily, allowing Carasco a glimpse of a striking face (Claire Bloom’s). There and then, Carasco knew he had to have this woman.
Quickly improvising, Carasco had gone running after the cart, stopping the couple by holding out a dagger which he offered to sell. Although they were inclined to continue, the woman nervous and the man brusque and suspicious, Carasco’s persistence paid. The man, taking a closer look at the dagger, guessed that it was of ancient Aztec provenance. Carasco said that he had a caveful of these knickknacks just on the other side of the hill, and if the man would only come within him…
Greed won, and the man, leaving the dagger with his wife, followed Carasco into the brush. Carasco, speaking at the trial, admits that it would have been easy to kill the man and then rape his wife. But Carasco didn’t do that; he gagged the man (whose papers showed him to be a former Confederate colonel) and tied him to a tree. Carasco then went off to fetch the wife, giving her the excuse that her husband was hurt and had sent Carasco to bring his wife.
The woman, anxious, hurried behind Carasco, in the process getting her hat torn off by a branch—she did not even seem to notice it. In the clearing where he had tied up her husband, Carasco proceeded to attack her. The woman was not easily cowed; she tried to fight back, using the dagger, but Carasco was able to overpower her—and, it seems (from the way we see her hands relaxing on his shoulders, and the low moan we hear from her) that she submitted quickly enough.
He raped her, in full view of her husband, and when he was leaving, the woman came after him, asking him to not leave like this. At least give my husband a chance to avenge his lost honour, she said, so Carasco, after some hesitation, agreed.
He untied the man, and the two of them fought it out with hands, with Carasco’s gun, and with the dagger. Carasco eventually won, and stabbed the man dead. The woman, in the meantime, ran off.
Back to the present, beside the train tracks, the swindler says that’s that, then. If Carasco confessed, the case is closed.
But no. Because, say the other two, the woman’s version of the story was different. She had been found, looking shell-shocked, and had been brought to be a witness at the trial.
The preacher, thinking back to the trial, remarks that she looked so very different from the sensuous creature Carasco had described. She looked, instead, so fragile, so delicate and gentle. “Like a bird with a broken wing,” says the preacher.
And her testimony, while it matched Carasco’s up to the point where he raped her, did not have anything about her submitting willingly to Carasco. Or begging him to let her husband have a chance at vengeance. No; the woman said that Carasco, after having raped her, left the grove. The woman, crying, rushed to her husband and used the dagger to cut the rope from around one of his hands. We will leave this behind us, she had said. We will forget this, we will put it out of our memories forever.
At the trial, looking wistful, the woman explains her past, and her husband’s. He was from one of the most aristocratic families of the south; she had been the daughter of the family’s seamstress. There had been a yawning chasm between them, not one she could ever have hoped to bridge—but after he married her, she had changed herself, adapted herself to behave as a lady would. She had become a wife worthy of him.
And there in the clearing, as she clung to him, urging him to let them move on with their lives, her husband had looked at her with contempt. She had realized, then, that she was back to being the seamstress’s daughter, far below him in every way. In her anger and frustration, she had lifted the dagger high above her head… and had blacked out. When she came to, it was to find that her husband lay dead, the dagger in his chest. She must have killed him without knowing it, she murmurs.
That wasn’t all, says the prospector to the swindler. Because the husband’s testimony was different, too, from either Carasco’s or the wife’s. The husband? asks the swindler. Yes, because he spoke from beyond the grave—through an Indian shaman. And what he said was not what either Carasco or his wife claimed as the truth.
So who was telling the truth? Carasco? The wife? The husband? None of them?
What I liked about this film, what I didn’t like, and some comparisons:
The Outrage is, barring some departures, a pretty faithful copy of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, so the virtues as well as the flaws of this film are also to a large extent a reflection of Rashōmon.
Besides the fact that the setting is very different—half a world away, many years later—The Outrage is clearly the same story as Rashōmon (and, interestingly, Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, not Akutagawa’s original story). The woodcutter may have been changed to a prospector, the monk to a preacher and the samurai to an ex-Confederate officer, but the dynamics between these characters (and with the others) remain the same. The story plays out in the same way, down to the ‘bookends stories’ of the prospector, the preacher, and the third man’s interactions at the place they shelter from the rain.
While at first glance, this may seem like a whodunit, it’s really a story of human nature. Of the hypocrisy of people, who (as the swindler succinctly puts it) “see what they want to see”. People who will lie in order to show themselves in a good light, to show that they were the victims, that they were brave and honourable, or put upon and downtrodden—because that is what each story, each perspective in this tale is really all about. Our opinions of ourselves, and how we want others to see us.
The differences are subtle, the most obvious being that in The Outrage, the woman’s past (and therefore its effect on her present) are explained. We do not get to know much about the samurai’s wife in Rashōmon, beyond the character traits that emerge from the story. In The Outrage, however, the woman’s admission that she was a seamstress’s daughter, and that she changed herself to become a ‘lady’ after she got married, has a bearing on how the stories play out. Her husband’s contempt for her after Carasco’s rape of her is not based merely on her being now ‘tainted’ (which is, in itself, an outrageously inhuman and unfair allegation). Instead, he accuses her of being white trash, a slut (his words), a woman always flirting and ready for anyone who wore pants. In other words, not a lady.
This—and the fact that the woman’s somewhat humble origins show themselves in her changed speech when she gets emotional—colours the narrative(s), the way people perceive her and her interactions with others. Director Martin Ritt uses this technique to make The Outrage a little less subtle than Rashōmon (the Japanese film also, by the way, uses far less dialogue than does The Outrage).
Which film did I like more? Even though The Outrage is quite a faithful copy of Rashōmon, enough to seem an almost-replica, I’d still say I liked Rashōmon more. Mostly because Rashōmon is subtler, with more conveyed through expressions and silences than through dialogue. But there’s another reason, too: the presence of the medium/shaman. In medieval Japan, a land where communication with the spirit world was taken in one’s stride, the fact that a ‘testimony’ from a spirit through a medium is admissible in court becomes acceptable.
In 1870s America, in a court of law (no matter how rural), I found it a bit hard to believe that a spirit, speaking through an Indian shaman, would be considered admissible as a witness. Nobody questions that, nobody wonders if the shaman is a crook pulling a fast one, nobody—not even the preacher or the prospector or the swindler, later discussing the case—is sceptical.
Barring that, though, a good remake of Rashōmon. If you like Rashōmon and you like Westerns, give this a try.