The librarian in ‘The Attic’

Continuing our October list of scary films featuring reel librarians… next up is The Attic (1980), starring Carrie Snodgress as jilted librarian Louise Elmore. The film is tagged in IMDB.com as a thriller or horror film, but it’s really more of a suspenseful drama. The original trailer makes it seem waaaaaay scarier than it actually is:

It’s a strange film, in more ways than one. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS throughout.)

This plot summary from IMDB.com hints at the crazy:

Woman librarian devotes life to caring for wheelchair-bound tyrannical father after being stood up at altar. She fantasizes his death and finds joy only with her pet monkey.

This film also extends the storyline of the librarian and her father, two characters featured in The Killing Kind (1973), written by the same screenwriters as The Attic (1980). Neither film was a hit at the box office, and the roles in the earlier film were played by different actors.

The attic — the title of the whole shebang — is also never actually mentioned in the film, and not even seen until the last few minutes. Decidedly odd.

Even though the main character, Louise, is a librarian, the ultimate message is NOT uplifting. Like I said, SPOILER! After watching the film, my husband’s reaction summed it up perfectly:

That was depressing as hell. Based on this film, being a librarian must suck.

Let’s break it down as the reel librarian also breaks down:

The film opens with Louise crying over old home movies of her ex-fiance, and the camera pans over an overflowing collection of stuffed animal monkeys before settling on a closeup of her slashed, bloody wrists. Carrie Snodgress, nominated for Best Actress for 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, really gives it her all in a pretty thankless role.

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

The next shot provides another closeup of her wrists, this time bandaged and back to stamping books in the library. This extended scene set in the library introduces several more reel librarians, including a young female librarian, Emily (Ruth Cox), and a male library assistant, Donald (Terry Troutt), who is shelving books as they close up for the day. The scene also uses two older, gossipy ladies to provide background to the plot. One older lady is checking out books from the front counter and notices the bandages on Louise’s hands.

The other lady is busy gossiping to Emily by the card catalog — in full earshot of Louise! — and we learn that Emily has been hired to replace Louise as the head librarian. Louise is retiring, and the older lady insinuates that they’re pushing her out because of a recent, accidental fire in the library. She also links this current fire to a past fire that caused the paralysis of Louise’s father. Hmmmmm…..

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

Emily, as seen above on the left, is definitely a Spirited Young Girl character type — young, stylish, intelligent, and views working in the library as just a job. Her reaction to her new position?

I like it here. Beats being a college librarian.

Being a head librarian is not my idea of a lifetime career.

As Louise, Carrie Snodgress — only 33 herself at the time of filming! — is playing a character who can’t be more than 40 years old. We learn that she has worked in the library for 19 years, which is how long ago her fiance disappeared. Louise is also quite attractive and wears modern, stylish clothing. She also wears her long hair in different styles current for that time period, but her hair seems artificially greyed-out. Being that young an age for retiring does seem suspicious. We also hear the older lady gossip about Louise “in her intoxicated condition.” That is definitely one thing the older lady was right on target about:

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

The friendship between Louise and Emily is also evident early on, as Louise remarks, “I was prepared to hate you, replacing me and all. Instead, you have become my friend.”

And they do become friends, and enjoy several scenes together in the film. Louise and Emily bond over respective, overbearing parents:  Louise’s father vs. Emily’s mother. Emily invites Louise over for dinner as well as for a bike ride to talk over personal issues; Emily wants to go to California to be with her boyfriend, but feels guilty about leaving her younger brother alone with her overbearing mother. Louise keeps urging Emily to seek happiness when she can, to avoid the fate she herself has endured. The film directors, George Edwards and Gary Graver, enjoy visually contrasting the two librarians, including shots that reflect similar wardrobe choices or body positions:

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

Due to a lifetime of criticism from her wheelchair-bound father (Ray Milland in a deliciously cheesy role), Louise has no sense of herself — or doesn’t want to face the truth about herself. She says she’s not much of a drinker, yet is shown drinking in repeated shots throughout the film. She talks about her fiance, Robert, as if he just left — and that was over 19 years ago! She professes to dislike her job — more on that below — yet obviously takes pride in being thorough, as seen when she straightens up the library at the end of the day.

Her account of the library fire, however, is quite disturbing, as is her state of mind leading up to the fire:

Have you ever been seized by a mood of despondency? Sometimes, I feel that I’m in the grip of a huge vise that seems to render me incapable of thought, of movement … Wouldn’t you [feel like that]? If they put you out to pasture, like an old mare.

The books were my enemy. Destroy them, before they destroy you, a voice whispered to me. It felt so wonderful, to see all those books going up in flames. I’d won the battle!

I would do it all over again.

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

It was interesting that I found myself reminded of so many other films while watching The Attic, including:

  • A scene in which Louise fantasizes about taking a trip, her reflected image superimposed on a poster for Hawaii. This reminded me of the 1932 film Forbidden, in which a spinster librarian (Barbara Stanwyck) quits her job and heads off to Havana with her life savings.
  • The library fire scene made me think of Storm Center (1956), starring another aging librarian (Bette Davis) that others are trying to force out — but because she’s defending the right to keep the books on the shelves rather than burning the library down.
  • In the scene in which Louise and Emily stop outside the pet shop, I was reminded of the pet shop scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Emily buys a chimp for Louise — huh? — while in The Birds, Tippi Hedren makes a similar impulse purchase on a pair of lovebirds.
  • In the scene where Louise goes to the movies, the character on screen makes a reference to “Norman Bates,” the main character in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho — another film featuring a lead character who has psychological problems due to a domineering parent.
  • Also in the movie scene, Louise meets a sailor and goes to his hotel room, pretending he’s her ex-fiance while they have sex. I was reminded of the scenes in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), in which Marnie’s adolescent psyche is severely damaged by her domineering mother’s tryst with a sailor.

As Louise is the main character of this film, we are treated to several scenes outside the library, including scenes of home life, a rarity for reel librarians. For example, we see Louise masturbating in bed; having dinner with her father (and then fantasizing about poisoning his drink!); getting dressed in the morning; and brushing her teeth.

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

Two major scenes later in the film also reveal a lot about Louise’s character and her relationship with Emily. The first is the dinner scene with Emily and her mother, who asks about Louise’s job:

Mrs. Fowler:  I understand you’ve been a librarian for … 19 years?

Louise:  Yes. You make it sound so dreadfully long.

Mrs. Fowler:  I wish Emily would settle down to a steady job like that. She’s had three employers since she left college. … Maybe you can hold on to this new position.

Louise:  I wish that I had had the good sense to try some other jobs when I was young. I might not have been a librarian.

Mrs. Fowler:  It’s a perfectly respectable job.

Louise:  Respectable, yes. And often boring.

Mrs. Fowler:  A job is what you make of it.

I know that Mrs. Fowler, Emily’s mother, is described repeatedly as domineering and overbearing. But I have to say, from my personal perspective of being a librarian, I think Mrs. Fowler makes a lot of sense here! If you love being a librarian, then it is NEVER boring.

The other major scene is Louise’s retirement party, in which we meet a fourth, and final, reel librarian:  an older lady librarian played by actress Frances Bay. The four are toasting Louise with champagne — which is ok, because they’ve locked the doors. No one will see they’re — GASP! — drinking in the library. The older librarian, focusing on the rules, fulfills the Spinster Librarian role, whereas the socially awkward male library worker rounds out the group as the Anti-Social Male Librarian character type.

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

They have bought her a corsage, as well as a cake featuring a woman heading off with a suitcase, as seen below. As the older lady librarian states, “You’ve always wanted to travel, Louise. Nothing to hold you back now. Free as a bird.”

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

This visually demonstrates how Louise’s main role in the film is as a Liberated Librarian, a trapped/naïve woman who discovers herself — and what she’s capable of — under extreme circumstances. The “liberation” can be positive or negative, and Liberated Librarians are usually major characters with their “liberation” often supplying the main plot. This is all true of Louise’s role in this film. As my husband quipped:

That’s a Liberated Librarian on a cake!

As Louise forges a friendship with Emily — and after, in her own words, “getting laid” by the sailor — Louise begins to assert her independence, in different ways, and defying her father’s influence by putting on lipstick (in public!); keeping the chimp that Emily bought her; visiting her friend — twice! — instead of spending time with her father; and spending her severance pay to buy Emily a plane ticket to California.

This later scene, in which Louise buys Emily the plane ticket, is quite sweet — and unintentionally hiLARious. The older lady librarian delivers the letter (and enclosed plane ticket) to Emily at the library, and after reading it, Emily literally runs out the door — unlike Louise, another contrast between the two. Louise gets a cake with a picture of someone going on an adventure; Emily actually does it.

Older librarian:  Emily? Where are you going?

Emily:  To get married!

The older lady librarian looks up and smiles, with a hopeful (or wistful?) look on her face, as seen below. Ahhhhh, the ghosts of the spinster librarian Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Obviously, being a spinster librarian is the ONLY option if you don’t get married. I’m so glad films like these are here to teach us these valuable life lessons. 😉

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

We also get treated to this gem after Louise’s retirement party, as she straightens her bow tie and shouts out a farewell speech to the books in the library:

Well, goodbye all you bastards! If I never see you again, it’ll be too soon. It’s time.

And on that uplifting (?!#@!) note, perhaps it’s time to wrap up this post. Here’s a look at the many different sides we see of Louise, a Class I reel librarian:

Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot
Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot Reel Librarians  |  'The Attic' screenshot

I won’t give the ending away completely, but let’s just say that the final five minutes finally do reveal the attic referred to in the title. We learn the secrets her father has been keeping all these years, which force Louise to finally face her own fears. The ending is a bit open-ended, but Louise does seem to be spiritually liberated, if not literally liberated. Her final words are, “I loved you, Robert.” Finally, she uses the past tense of the verb, “loved,” a recognition of the past itself.

But what does her future hold?

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4 comments on “The librarian in ‘The Attic’

  1. ejrunyon says:

    Another great one, Jennifer. I never get tired of your ‘break-downs’!

  2. Such a great film, and a great overview by you. Thanks!

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