2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

Tár (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Todd Field

By Roderick Heath

Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.

His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.

Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.

Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.

The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”

Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.

More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.

Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. It bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.

Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.

Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out purposefully to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.

Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender,” and it could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.

Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.

By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, like the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother: the woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.

Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.

What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.

Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.

Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with its antiheroine recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian, making the connection more explicit in choosing a German setting, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.

Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.

Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.

By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.

The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, begins trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.

Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to Bangkok, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.

This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.

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1930s, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

The Old Dark House (1932)

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Director: James Whale
Screenwriters: Benn W. Levy, R. C. Sherriff (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror genre was given form and definition in the silent film era. A handful of great filmmakers, starting with the likes of F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, and Tod Browning, did much of their best work in the style and plainly had an affinity for it, and their classic stand with a raft of powerful and important works by filmmakers who made brief visits to the genre, including Fritz Lang, Victor Sjöstrom, and Rex Ingram. Most of that vital Horror cinema was made in Europe, whereas in Hollywood, apart from Browning’s films and starring vehicles for Lon Chaney, Horror films tended to be tinged with comedy and lampooning, expressing a breezily dismissive contempt for spooky shenanigans in the optimistic mood of the Jazz Age: funny tales debunking supernatural menace, like the much-filmed theatrical hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, were all the rage. But as the genre emerged into the sound era, coinciding with the dark pall of the descending Depression, Browning’s Dracula (1931) suddenly made it a big box office genre for Hollywood. With due speed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced a follow-up in the form of an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s storied prototype for much fantastical literature and filmmaking, Frankenstein. The director hired for that film was the English stage maestro turned film director James Whale, and Whale, at least for the next thirty years or so, perhaps did more to codify Horror as a genre than any other director. The irony there was he wasn’t particularly fond of being associated with it, and much of his impact came in the way he tangled with its already enshrined clichés to create new ones.

Whale was a working class boy from Dudley, Worcestershire, deep in the “Black Country” of coal mining regional England. Forced to stop going to school because of his family’s lack of money and not strong enough to become a miner, Whale found work as a cobbler and also, with his emerging artistic talents, earned extra money painting signs and advertisements for local businesses, and used the cash he earned that way to pay for lessons at a local art school. Volunteering for service in World War I, Whale gained a commission as a second lieutenant and served in the trenches until he was captured by the Germans in 1917. Waiting out the war in a POW camp, Whale became heavily involved in staging theatre with his fellow prisoners, and found his great passion. After the war’s end he spent a brief stint as a cartoonist but soon found work in the theatre in multiple guises including as an actor, stage manager, and finally director. Like Murnau, Whale was homosexual and didn’t care much who knew it, and whilst he was briefly engaged to a woman in the early 1920s, Whale’s boldness in that regard is sometimes presumed to have ultimately foiled his career, although for the time being it seemed nothing could hold him back.

Whale’s big break came when he was hired to direct R.C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End for a theatre group that specialised in staging new works for private audiences. Journey’s End explored the fatalistic mood of the men fighting in the trenches, in a drama that touched upon questions of the worth of hero worship as a potentially beneficial example but also one that could both lure people into a deadly situation. Whale’s personal investment in the material as a former soldier was plain enough, and the material proved to have the same appeal to a vast number of people. Whale initially talked an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier into playing the lead role of Stanhope, but he was replaced by Colin Clive when, encouraged by the impact the lay had for its private audience, Whale took it to the West End. The play became an instant smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when the war, which people had been trying so vigorously to forget, suddenly became a matter of interest again. This gave Whale a shot at Hollywood, as the burgeoning age of Talkies saw the film industry desperate for directors who knew how to handle dialogue: as a “dialogue director” Whale made The Love Doctor (1929) and worked on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). He debuted as fully credited director when he helmed the movie adaptation of Journey’s End. After following that up with the popular romantic melodrama Waterloo Road (1931), Whale was assigned to Frankenstein.

With Frankenstein, Whale inadvertently made his name permanently associated with Horror movies. By some accounts Whale wasn’t terribly thrilled by that, but he did nonetheless become a singularly important influence on the way Horror evolved in the sound era and as a fully-fledged movie genre. Most obviously, the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster created a perpetual pop culture image, thanks to the confluence of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s iconic look for the monster, actor Boris Karloff’s performance, and Whale’s conceptual take on the creature’s existence and symbolic import for the audience. More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the way Whale helped Horror as an aesthetic adapt to the more intense gaze of the 24-frame-a-second era and the attendant vividness of sound. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) carefully negotiated frames of the dreamlike and the psychological, birthing the stylised, purposefully unrealistic approach of the endlessly influential Expressionist style, and that remained for a long time the predominant influence on the genre, although some of Browning’s works like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1926) tended more to posit morbid and perverse psychology in otherwise realistic settings.

One key to Whale’s vitality lay in his florid ease in moving between tones and artistic postures, the way he fused stylisation and realism, theatricality and cinema. He made Frankenstein’s looming, Expressionist-influenced but three-dimensional sets, coexist with location photography and knead them all into a peculiar kind of whole, just as he was later to become known for easily pivoting between humour and straight-faced thrills. The poetic-metaphorical airiness and pathos of Mary Shelley’s twisted but articulate creation was swapped out for something more concrete, more essential. The desperate, mute Monster came more fully and coherently the image of just about anything rendered Other in a social context. He embodied poles of attitude, at once childlike and brutish, victim and cold avenger, misshapen and powerful, and his eventual end in a burning windmill evoked at once righteous action by a community and the spectre of mob rule, the punishment of the transgressor blurring with the cleaning of the hive of deviance.

Whale’s four fantastical films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), present perhaps the greatest directorial body of work in the genre, rivalled only by the likes of Terence Fisher and Mario Bava in the 1960s and George Romero in the 1970s. But they’re defined in part by the way Whale’s tension with the genre manifested. Whale’s dark, sometimes overtly strange and camp sense of humour, mostly held in check on Frankenstein, came seething out with the next three, all of which were big popular successes: Whale’s unease with being pigeonholed as a maker of scary movies again connected with the audience’s simultaneous ardour and scepticism for such fare. The Old Dark House, which was for a long time lost only to be rediscovered by Horror director and Whale acolyte Curtis Harrington, was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, whose second work it was. Priestley, who would later become extremely popular and regarded in Britain, commented sardonically after the book’s release that the American publishers retitled it The Old Dark House in a determined effort to turn a profit, and it worked. The title was kept for the film, and it served to felicitously announce Whale’s mordant blend of attitudes, summoning up both an essentialist evocation of a classic genre trope reaching back to the Gothic Romances of Hugh Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, and also its puckish deflation, close in spirit to the debunking comedies of the ‘20s.

What Whale managed however was more sophisticated, and it laid down the blueprint he’d follow for The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, provoking with a gleeful humour and semi-satiric slant, whilst steadily invoking the absurdity its characters face and sometimes embody, setting the scene for when the truly strange and disturbing busts out. Priestley’s novel hinged on a similar conceit to his later, perhaps best-known work in its own right, the play An Inspector Calls, in conjuring the house filled with eccentrics loaded down with their own private and shared transgressions. Whale merrily grasps onto The Old Dark House’s edition, the family Femm, comprising most immediately the spindly Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their 103-year-old father Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), and the mysterious sibling who resides in a room on the top floor. The Femms are the perverse and degenerating end of an ancient line, their house a looming pile of stonework that contains the ages of English society. Into their strange little world stumbles a gaggle of visitors representing modernity, desperately seeking shelter from the storm. The bickering young married couple  Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margeret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), and their tagalong pal, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The Manchester magnate Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer date Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).

The opening scenes present a classic story set-up as the Wavertons and Penderel travel in Philip’s chugging motor car through a buffeting rainstorm, banks of earth collapsing in their wake and tyres grinding desperately at the muddy ruts of the road. A classic Horror movie opening, reaching back to days of travelling coaches and forward to kids in Volkswagen vans in the genre, but contrasted with the rude liveliness of the characters who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a Horror tale. The Wavertons, plainly out on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon, locked together instead Philip unleashes epic, vicious sarcasm: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life. I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!” Penderel’s cheeriness, project from the backseat, is counterpoint and further goad to Whale’s portrayal of marital bother raised to epic pitch by the situation. “Perhaps you’d like me to drive for a bit,” Margaret suggests: “Yes, I was expecting that!” Philip retorts before continuing to try to get traction , and Penderel roars out a version of “Singin’ In The Rain.”

The frayed-nerved comedy here is both funny and mortifying in portraying a familiar kind of hell. The Wavertons and their tagalong friend are trying to drive out of the Welsh hills down to Shrewsbury, but the ferocious storm that’s descended is causing landslides and flooding, and they look for the closest convenient shelter. Margaret spots lights and encourages Philip to make for them, but when he catches sight of the craggy, crooked, ancient manse of the Femms her husband comments, “It’s probably wisest to push on.” But the as the storm seems to have cut off the roads all around they’re left with no recourse. Whale interpolates an ingenious model shot recreating the driver’s viewpoint in pulling into the muddy and desolate yard of the old dark house. Out the hapless travellers jump from the car and bang on the front door, and Penderel for a moment takes excited refuge in the notion the people in the house are all dead, “all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them,” writing his own draft Horror tale whilst waiting for a response within, and in a moment he seems to just about get his wish as a hatch in the door swing open, revealing the gnarled, hirsute face of Morgan (Karloff), the Femm’s servant/warden, who responds to Penderel’s request for shelter with an incomprehensible, guttural mutter. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” Penderel comments.

Granted entry by the grunting, damaged manservant, the trio are soon confronted by Horace, descending the wooden staircase like someone gene-spliced man, praying mantis, horse, and living skeleton. After sniffing his way through introductions and angular politeness, Horace escorts his guests over the blazing fireplace, and picks up a bundle of flowers, which, he tells them, his sister was about to arrange, before tossing the blooms on the fire. And Horace is the closest thing to a fully functioning human in the house, compared to the mute Morgan and his largely deaf sister, at least on the level of faculties, although he completely lacks a spine, in the metaphorical sense. Thesiger was destined to gain an odd kind of immortality specifically from his collaborations with Whale here and on Bride of Frankenstein, which might have surprised him, given he was a respected and experienced stage actor who had played roles for George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and he kept acting in films into his eighties. A wounded veteran of the trenches, Thesiger was as blue-blooded as they come, related to the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and nephew of Lord Chelmsford, leader of the infamous military expedition against the Zulus – the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift went down a week after Ernest’s birth. Which sounds just like the kind of character he usually played. Looking much older than his 53 years, Thesiger presented Whale with his ideal interlocutor in portraying a simultaneously scornful and joyous caricature of the British aristocracy, devolved and waspish, wasted but invested with a deceptive strength, charged with disdain but at the mercy of its servile class, represented by Morgan, who meanwhile is sliding towards Morlock-like barbarity.

Another contrast is provided by Rebecca, whose piousness is chiefly a vehicle for expressing unvarnished contempt, and the way she offsets her brother’s atheistic and pagan mores. Moore’s performance anticipates Una O’Connor’s wild and flailing brand of absurdism for Whale, but with a different physical presence, as rotund and porcine as Horace is thin and equine, bearing a strong resemblance to the portrait of Queen Victoria she keeps on her bedroom wall. When Margaret asks Rebecca to show her a place where she can change from her wet clothes, Rebecca takes her to her own bedroom which, she explains, once belonged to her beautiful sister Rachel, who died after breaking her back in a riding accident aged 20: “A wicked one – handsome and wild as a hawk,” she cries, and eagerly looks over Margaret’s young, pretty form and anticipates its inevitable decay. Rebecca lustily regales her guest with Rachel’s agonised end and how she ignored Rebecca’s entreaties to turn to God. Rebecca’s bedroom is separated from the main hall by a gloriously decrepit corridor with a billowing white curtain at an open window and rain splashing on the stonework floor. Rachel’s old room proves a refuge of gentility save for the warped overlooking mirror.

Rebecca monologues about Rachel to the increasingly agitated Margaret whilst conjuring charged impressions of feminine beauty in her obsessive noting of red lips, long straight legs, and white bodies. Morgan’s knock at the door gives the lurking manservant a chance to ogle Margaret in her underwear, whilst Rebecca herself, for all her deploring, seems to be hiding a fascination for Margaret, thrusting her splayed hand upon Margaret’s chest. After Rebecca leaves Margaret can’t shake off her mocking words, as if she’s still in the room. Whale offers one of his most striking and peculiar cinematic phrases here, as he cuts jaggedly between shots from different angles of Rebecca’s face, reflected in the warped mirror and lit by guttering candles, all her savage perversity and mocking delight in mutability emerging as an array of perverted Gothic images. Margaret’s own face, as she tries to put on earrings, is also warped into strange and alien form by the mirror, as if she’s being claimed by Rebecca’s curse of the flesh. Margaret freaks out and, after opening to window but failing to push it close again for the powerful wind, she flees the bedroom and returns to the others in the hall. The punch-line for this is that she returns to the hall and looks every inch the resplendent lady about to dine in the finest restaurant.

This gaudy, layered, hysteria-laden scene is a perfect miniature representation of Whale’s jaggedly original approach to filmmaking and capacity to create a vivid, near-surreal context for his dark fantasies, turning what would have been a very minor episode in the movie into a vignette charged with undercurrents of sexuality and boding violence. The urge to transgression and its eternal partner, ironclad moralism, are in the mix, nodding to the distorted effects of what would soon be called “decadent art,” and winding up to a peak of delirium evinced by Margaret’s panic and despair. Whale’s camerawork is actually, generally more restrained in The Old Dark House than in his other films, like the long, devastating tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter in Frankenstein, and his shots passing carelessly through and over walls in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, as Whale readily showed off the roots of his visual imagination in the theatrical zone, but was able to leave behind any hint of the stagy, instead delighting in the way his camera could capture space and people within it. Instead, The Old Dark House shows more delight in his shot composition and cutting.

The dinner sequence that follows is another brilliant set-piece, albeit a more subtle one, where that delight is fully in evidence. The characters settle around the Femms’ dining table and try to enjoy a meal together, the flicker from the fire casting their shadows on the wall and the hulking, glowering Morgan playing waiter. Margaret, with a scowl, gets Philip to sit between her and Rebecca, who scoffs down pickled onions with righteous appetite. Meanwhile Horace brandishes carving utensils like small weapons of war, and when Rebecca chides him for not saying grace, retorts, “Oh, I had forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits – the beef will seem less tough when she as invoked a blessing upon it,” and his initially playful sarcasm quickly spirals into a dark and spiteful meditation on the many blessings the family hasn’t received over the years. Rebecca’s hearty Christian appetite is balanced by Horace’s modest delight in gin – “I like gin.” He keeps trying to foist gnarled and soggy boiled potatoes on his dinner guests, each proffered with the inimitable Thesiger voice prompting, “Have a po-ta-to.” “Thank you, I should love a potato,” the practical Penderel answers, whilst Philip picks the eyes out of his. The electric light flickers and nearly dies, as Horace explains the house’s generator isn’t reliable. Finally, the agonised ritual of the dinner is interrupted by another knock at the door, which proves to be Sir William and Gladys, also seeking refuge.

Priestley’s design in the book emerges in the film as the characters represent different aspects of British society and history, and what’s particularly important here is the way Whale tweaks the material into offering the cast of characters as a succession of self-portraits – world war veteran, angry pleb on the rise, biting camp aesthete and wicked sceptic. The Old Dark House itself represents the closest Whale ever came to unifying the two artistic postures he was well-known for – the portrayer of Great War angst and the maker of Gothic fantasias, finding a dramatic landscape where those two things could coexist and feed each-other. They also converge on Penderel, a survivor of the trenches who readily acknowledges that he exemplifies a type, rattling off evocative self-descriptions that have become close to parodic clichés for him: “War Generation, slightly soiled – a study in the bittersweet – the man with the twisted smile – and this Mr Femm is exceedingly good gin.” Where the Wavertons are a sturdy middle-class couple, inheritors of the future, Penderel is a perpetual misfit and ironic party animal, seeing ridiculousness in everything. At least until he claps eyes on Gladys, who swiftly shifts the weights on the Eros-Thanatos scale in Penderel.

Sir William represents another corner of interwar British society, a self-made, nouveau riche businessman with a strong Yorkshire accent and a surface attitude of bonhomie. That barely conceals a seething motive in his working class roots and a telling lack of any sense of noblesse oblige. He’s easily drawn in the course of chatting with the other guests after dinner into recounting his tragic past, how his wife died, he believes, from heartache after being cold-shouldered by snooty society wives when Sir William first began to rise helped, convincing her she was holding them back. Sir William avenged her by breaking and bankrupting the husbands of those women, and yet remains a figure of pathos: now he’s got a fortune and a knighthood and no human connection, except for playing sexless sugar daddy to Gladys. Sir William’s narrative is coherent as both a depiction of Whale’s experience of class anger, and it can also be argued a coded metaphor for the agonies of coming out in Whale’s time, in registering a specifically intimate and human cost to social prejudice. Sir William and Penderel butt heads at first, with Sir William assuming the urbane Penderel looks down his nose at him for being such a go-get-‘em operator, and Penderel telling the magnate off for speaking disrespectfully to Glady when he outs her – that is, tells everyone her real last name, which is Perkins. “I envy you, I admire you,” Penderel tells Sir William, in comparison to his own unmoored and lethargic state, to the magnate’s retort, “Oh yes, you envy me, but you don’t admire me.”

Meanwhile the Femms represent a particularly eccentric and ingenious collective twist on an essential motif of Gothic fiction, the aristocratic clan cut off from the tides of modern life and subsisting on decaying pretensions and trapped within a house that once expressed their exceptionalism but now only exhibits their decay. Nonetheless, as Rebecca triumphantly tells her brother as he frets over the fear that the rains could bust a nearby dam and wash the house away, Femm Manor is built on solid rock – the roots of the Femms are planted so deep in the soil of the country they can’t be dug out even if they wish it. Rebecca and Horace have divergent expressions of their intense neurosis in embodying a disparity of godless sensualism and religiose intensity, but both are the same degree of crazy. The ancient Sir Roderick, when the Wavertons seek him out, is found ensconced in his bedroom which looks fit for Tudor monarch and barely altered since that epoch, whilst Rebecca’s bedroom is candlelit – “I’ll have none of this electric light!” she declares – and festooned with musty Victoriana. We never see Horace’s room, but the mind boggles. And at the top of the house, the locked door, hiding the last Femm, Saul, a brooding, superficially ingratiating pyromaniac. The flood below, madness and fire above, and points on the compass in between.

The great storm that falls upon the Shropshire Hills doesn’t just sever the Femms and their interlopers from the outside world but also cordons them within the subliminal space made solid. But the motif of the house as an encompassing expression of such ingrained neurosis and entrapping identity also feeds into the subtler dynamic that fees both humour and horror. Whale suggests there are few more disquieting and disturbing things than being obliged to have a meal with strangers, enabled by strained manners and a grotesque conventional politeness that ignores for a set period of time the strangeness that occurs off in the margins, like Margaret’s encounter with Rebecca. Indeed, this is essentially Whale’s entire thesis about social life, a constant game of facades and unveilings, and fusing a particular brand of comedy of manners with its darker doppelganger in Horror, which is a genre precisely preoccupied with the breakdown of civilised pretences and engagement with the primal. It keeps in mind the impression I’ve often had that something like Howard’s End or The Age of Innocence contains more real and discomforting violence than any number of slasher movies.

Karloff’s presence in the film sees Whale again with the actor he boosted from character actor to a peculiar brand of stardom, in a role that partly burlesques the characterisation of the Frankenstein’s Monster. Morgan is another shambling, towering, unspeaking creature, but one that’s been semi-domesticated: the Femms need him to keep food on their table and keep the electric light working. He’s an upper class idea of the lower class taken to an extreme, useful as a mass of obedient muscle until he gets liquored up and becomes insensately dangerous, casting a lascivious eye on Margaret. But Morgan has another function, as Saul’s warden, a bulwark of violence required to keep a less immediately intimidating but even more dangerous force in check. At one point, as Gladys follows Penderel out into the storm, she looks in through the barred kitchen window and sees Morgan, now thoroughly soused: the servant lurches to the window and punches his hand through the glass in a perfunctory attempt to grab one of the tempting morsels about him. It’s not a part that requires much of Karloff, in the first of his major post-Frankenstein genre roles when he’d soon be appearing in the likes of The Mummy (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which let him unleash his voice. But it does gain everything from his presence regardless, as Karloff wrings pathos from Morgan’s attempts to speak which inevitably fail and instead expression comes through physical chaos as he drinks.

After her squall of hysteria in Rebecca’s room Margaret quickly becomes the most sanguine person in the house, calmly and coolly shepherding the conversation as the various camps in the house try to communicate. Meanwhile Penderel and Gladys’ crackle of attraction combusts when the two venture out to the Wavertons’ car, stashed to wait out the storm in the barn, to fetch a bottle of whiskey Penderel left there. They quickly fall in love and taking refuge in the back seat of the car, with all that implies thoroughly implied. Priestley intended his novel as a tragic character study of Penderel masquerading as a thriller, although quite a few critics over the years have said the book didn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless Penderel emerges as the closest thing the film has to a central character and hero as he shifts from alcoholic gadabout to a man in love and has to quickly improvise in fending off danger. Douglas, honing his suave and worldly persona, is quite excellent in the role. Indeed, one arresting element of The Old Dark House is the quality of its cast, packed as it is with heavyweight actors on the cusp of major stardom, in Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Massey. Stuart on the other hand, after also appearing in The Invisible Man for Whale, never really gained star traction but, in one of those marvels of Hollywood fate, would record a commentary track for this film’s laserdisc release sixty years later which would bring her to James Cameron’s attention and help win her role in Titanic (1997).

And yet it’s Thesiger who owns the film, walking the finest line between creepiness and ridiculousness, seeming to most immediately embody the perversity of the Femms but also the most timorous in the face of it. When the necessity arises to fetch a large kerosene lamp from the top floor landing when the lights fail and Rebecca gloatingly prods him to help Philip bring it down, Horace keeps anxiously trying to avoid the errand, and when they hear peculiar laughter echoing down from above, Horace finally flees to his bedroom, leaving Philip to fetch the lamp alone. Philip takes up the lamp but notices the telling signs there, the padlocked door, the remains of a meal on a plate on the table with the lamp, whilst wind whistles in the crannies high in the roof. Meanwhile, down below, Margaret, in an interlude of playfulness, starts making shadow animals on the wall in the firelight, her silhouette and her gestures thrown against the wall of the dining room, only for Rebecca’s silhouette to lurch into view as she repeats the some gesture of touching Margaret’s chest, sending Margaret into a panicky flurry again. As she opens the front door and shouts into the night, begging Penderel to come back, a hand reaches behind and over her head to grasp the door and slam it shut. An iconic Horror image, this time arriving without a mocking codicil. The hand belongs to the soused and randy Morgan, who chases Margaret around the dining room, upturning the dining table in a gesture of pointed symbolism. Philip returns from aloft, and seeing what’s happening, does battle with Morgan, until he wallops him with the lamp, causing Morgan to plunge down the stairs, knocked unconscious. Later, when he awakens, Morgan gains his revenge by heading upstairs and releasing Saul.

These scenes illustrate Whale’s unique skill in mediating tone shifts, as menace emerges from the comic and absurd, and moments of playfulness segue into an eruption of actual danger. The fact that The Old Dark House was missing for a long time prevented it from becoming as much of an immediate influence as Whale’s other films, and the legendary schlock artiste William Castle was able to get away with directing a wayward remake in 1963. Whale likely had seen Paul Leni’s stylish film version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), replete as it with brilliant cinema, and some of Whale’s imagery echoes it. But Leni’s film has rather less sophisticated comedy than The Old Dark House, which is far more exactly aimed at the nexus of social anxiety and psychological angst in tapping both horror and humour. Whale would become bolder and stranger in his blendings with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein – the catatonic-seeming Mr Plod policemen in the former and the shrieking, inflated melodrama cues in the latter. The Old Dark House therefore stands as an essential ancestor for just about all comedy-horror crossbreeds, and what most of the best of such films wisely follow Whale in doing was in infiltrating comedy via the characters and playing core genre elements essentially straight, a presumption that’s essential to the success of, say, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) or Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Indeed, Craven, with his penchant for inserting a brand of anarchic, cartoonish humour into his Horror films, in many ways came closest of subsequent Horror auteurs to building upon Whale’s sensibility. On the other hand, the film was also a direct influence on the far more indiscriminately lampooning attitude of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Moreover, Whale picks out a thread here that was to prove important in terms of where Horror cinema was headed, in general. Whilst The Old Dark House makes sport of the trappings of gothic horror, the real source of horror then moves away from the supernatural, conveying metaphor and oneiric imagery, and emerges as human and immediate, and embodied by different forms – the hulking brutishness of Morgan and the impishly homicidal Saul. The essence of the drama becomes this imminent physical danger. Mad killers on the loose were already a well-lodged genre convention, but there’s something that feels particularly pertinent in the way Whale plays one genre frame against the other. In short, Whale grasped where the Horror movie was going, although it would take another few decades to get there. What Alfred Hitchcock would do to the genre with Psycho (1960), with its own old dark house and lurking, devolved murderer, is essentially a reiteration of this intelligible shift in focus and meaning. One can look on past that to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is built of the same basic ideas as The Old Dark House – the searching, displaced travellers, the degenerated family, the crumbling old house, the hulking, monstrous force of threat, the preoccupation with perverse social ritual, only by that time monochrome gothic has been replaced by the spacy, sunstruck American brand.

The Wavertons, trying to understand the enigmatic threat lurking in the Femm house, venture upstairs together and enter Sir Roderick’s room, where the find the ancient knight lying in his bed. Whale has Sir Roderick played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon (credited for the film as John), covered in aging makeup and a false beard. This conceit has a sly brilliance to it, recognising the quality of androgyny that very old age confers, and feeding Whale’s underground river of destabilisation, the one remnant of the Femms of old now happy in his prostrate, post-gender state, calmly awaiting mortality’s edge: “When you’re as old as I am, at any minute you might just die,” he comments, and gives a chuckle. “Madness came,” he says of his family, “We have all been touched with it a little you see, except for me – at least I – I don’t think I am.” Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons about Saul and the possibility of Morgan unleashing him, before falling asleep. Philip dashes out to see if Morgan is still unconscious, only to find he’s arisen, and Horace pokes his head out of his bedroom door to tell him he heard Morgan going upstairs, and instructs with punitive directness, “Wait for him downstairs and kill him,” before hiding again.

Whale’s peeling of this particular onion reaches sees inevitable combustion as a single hand appearing on the staircase railing announces Saul’s lurking presence, and Morgan lurches into sight with the sickly smile of a man with a trump, before trying to launch at Margaret again. It takes the combined efforts of Penderal, Philip, and Sir William to wrestle Morgan into the kitchen and lock him in there, and Penderal dashes back to Margaret and Gladys and gets them to hide in a closet whilst he sets about distracting Saul. Saul, when he finally shows his face, proves disarmingly innocent and scared-looking, like an anthropomorphic hamster. He descends to Penderel, begging him to prevent his relatives locking him away again. Saul claims to not be mad, but has instead been imprisoned to keep secret the fact Horace and Rebecca killed Rachel, and often beaten by Morgan. Penderel is initially credulous of Saul’s claims, but Saul quickly begins to reveal his madness, picking up the carving knife from dinner and insisting on recounting the biblical tale of Saul and David.

Penderel instead begins stringing him out by affecting interest in a story he wants to tell, and the two settle at the dinner table: the earlier, strained dinner conversation gives way to more of the same tense, dissembling playacting, but this time the game is immediate, desperate, the barrier between civility and lunacy only as thick as Penderel’s improvisation. Penderel then is a solider once more, albeit this time actually fighting for something – trying to keep the madman away from Margaret and Gladys. When finally Saul explodes it comes with astonishing ferocity, hurling the knife at Penderel and then bashing him with a chair, before dashing up the stairs and setting fire to a curtain in cackling delight. Penderel, despite having a broken arm, ascends to fight the loony again, and this time Saul tries to rip Penderel’s throat out with his teeth, only for them both to fall over the balcony to the floor below. The movie softened the novel’s ending slightly, as Penderel dies in the fall in the book: after test audience didn’t like this, the ending was reshot, it does feel more in keeping with the movie’s totality.

As if by compensation for the loss of one tragedy, Whale inserted another. Morgan breaks out into the dining room again, ready to resume chasing Margaret, only for her to get him to look to the fallen Penderel and Saul: Morgan, utterly heartbroken by the death of his charge, cradling Saul’s body, weeps over his fractured body and carries it back up to his room. This crowning vignette resonates on several levels, most obviously in anticipating the encounter of the Monster and the Blind Hermit in Bride of Frankenstein in its depiction of the symbiosis of the misshapen, as well as sneaking in a moment of undisguised love between men, and echoing the fraternal grief of the war veterans, which needed some echo, some acknowledgement, to pass before the night of the storm can end. Penderel’s proposal of marriage to Gladys, which she accepts by giving him a passionate kiss as she too cradles her injured lover, suggests a spiritual economy of love at work: something can’t die without something being born. The morning comes, finally, the sun shining and beginning to dry the ocean of mud without, Horace emerging to politely wave the Wavertons away as they head off to fetch help, whilst Gladys cradles her wounded gallant, and Rebecca scoffs at the lot of these bent, buckled, bruised, but still upright humans.

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