Friday, May 20, 2011

My 10 Favourite Things About Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb

**Spoilers ahead, for those who worry about such things**

1) Since it is a visual medium, I suppose one should begin with the look of the film.  Minnelli, always known for vivid filmmaking, directs no differently here.  With a fluid, never pushy but always provocative camera, Minnelli makes the lurid goings-on in The Cobweb, as they say, sing with a cinematic beauty all its own.  Combine Minnelli with long-time collaborators such as Art Directors Preston Ames (An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Gigi) and Cedric Gibbons (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Band Wagon) and cinematographer George Folsey (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, uncredited on The Band Wagon) and you have an elaborately stylized (though unobtrusively so) delectable motion picture.

2) The fact that The Cobweb is basically a melodrama about the miscommunication of buying curtains for a mental hospital is quite the plot line.  Not only is such a story intriguingly convoluted in execution,  but also surprisingly fluid in outcome.  I cannot say how close this is to William Gibson's novel, but it is almost as if Minnelli took a screwball comedy plot and twisted it into serious melodrama.

3) Gloria Grahame.  Never really considered a great beauty (even though she was) Grahame nonetheless exuded sexuality in many of her roles.  Sultry and vixenish, with an alluring come-hither pout, Grahame seemed like the kind of girl who would go batshitcrazy at any moment - and often did in her roles (even in Oklahoma! she was the wildchild) - but the kind of girl you would be okay dealing with such antics as long as those voluptuous lips kept pursing in your direction.  This is exactly what the actress does in The Cobweb.  Provocative and steamy, her full hips swiveling like a fertility goddess on ecstasy (the kind of girl no one wants to take home to mother), Grahame's unfulfilled hospital administrator's wife is the very guts of Minnelli's movie.  She may not be the lead (she received fourth billing officially) but it is she that either holds the film together or tears it apart - or holds it together then tears it apart.  Grahame would move on to more wholesome roles later in her career (after divorcing hubby Nick Ray when he found her in bed with his thirteen year old son from a previous marriage - the same thirteen year old she would nine years later make her fourth and final husband) but I definitely prefer her as the sexy, potentially batshitcrazy wife in The Cobweb.

4) The dialogue in this film, adapted from the novel by John Paxton who also wrote the screenplays for Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, Pickup Alley and The Wild One, is pure melodrama - and thus pure trash, but trash in the most positive way.  Full of double entendre and juicy, campesque dialogue, The Cobweb is brilliantly subversive and convoluted to a delightful delirium.

5) John Kerr (playing the part originally meant for James Dean - and playing it in a manner that one might expect from Dean himself) makes a stunning debut as patient Stevie Holte.  We first meet him during the opening credits as he is seen running across fields and streams until he is picked up by Gloria Grahame.  He is obviously an escapee from the hospital run by Grahame's husband (Richard Widmark) and plays it aloof, while at the same time concocting a fantasy that Grahame's petulant, neglected wife is actually hitting on him - a story he proudly (or defiantly) boasts to Widmark in their next session..  Kerr's sudden outbursts and manic cries of desperation at his own mental instability give the film a vibrant, dangerous centerpiece, where all the other characters can spoke off from - whether they know it or not.  Kerr's Stevie is grounded though by fellow patient and extreme introvert and agoraphobic Sue Brett, played (also in her film debut) by the intense and lovely Susan Strasberg.  It is Stevie who is there at the beginning and it is his image that Minnelli ends his film with.

6) Those eyes.  That voice.  That look that can destroy a man where he stands.  Lauren Bacall.  In one of her finest performances (possibly even her best), Bacall plays Dr. Meg Rinehart, an idealistic caregiver and art therapist who has just recently lost her husband and son in a car accident.  Standoffish, as only Bacall can play it, Meg becomes the love interest of Widmark's character and thus the enemy of Grahame's.  Probably the most stable character in the bunch (and she treads along the precipice as well) Bacall sort of stabilizes the group dynamic as it were.  Pauline Kael said of the movie "By the mid-50's, nobody was surprised that the new variant of Grand Hotel was an expensive, exclusive looney bin."  It is Bacall's Meg Rinehart (though other characters may claim it is they who do such) that keeps this loony bin from falling into shambles.  And did I mention that voice?  Those eyes?

7) Since he keeps getting mentioned, I suppose we should discuss Richard Widmark.   He is the lead after all.       Widmark, who has always been more of an on-the-edge kind of character actor (his performance in one of my all-time favourites, Pickup on South Street is one for the ages) who has played some rather less-than-scrupulous characters.  I suppose here he is just as on-edge as elsewhere, but here he is also the supposed voice of reason behind it all.  The man who must figure everything out before it comes crashing down on him and everyone around him.  Probably a strange casting choice, but Widmark works here as the man in way way way over his head.  Yet he has, as they say, a heart made of gold.  Still there are some moments of a sense of creeping dread laid out on the actor's face that makes the already anti-horror thing Minnelli has going, a deeper despairing creature.  Yeah, that's right, Widmark does that!

8) As the opening credits end and we see Gloria Grahame's car slow down to pick up the wandering John Kerr, a title comes up on the screen.  It scrawls across the screen as a cursive warning.  "The trouble began" it reads - and that it does.  The fact that Minnelli puts this warning there is a bit odd, but more than a bit tantalizing.  Then, as the film ends and everything is alright again (for the most part) , we are given the antidote to this first warning.  Scrawling its cursiveness across the screen we now get "The trouble was over." - and indeed it is.

9) Oscar Levant, actor and composer (and great in both An American in Paris and The Band Wagon), plays the charmingly crazy Mr. Capp in The Cobweb.  The fact that this would be the great Levant's final performance combined with the fact that he is basically playing himself (the role was styled toward Levant's own real-life psychosis that would come to take over his life) his performance is that much more resonating to watch.  He is the comic relief of the film but at the same time he is one of the saddest, most tragic figures floating around the set.  Farewell Mr. Levant.

10) Saving the best for last.  It had been twenty-two years since the great Lillian Gish had graced the MGM sound stages.  Making her triumphant return, Gish plays Victoria Inch, the cold-hearted, no-nonsense financial officer of the institute.   Her fights with Widmark, Bacall, Grahame and Charles Boyer (sadly left off this top ten list) are loud and boisterous and always from the heart of the character (perhaps it isn't nearly as cold as I alluded to earlier).  Gish would follow this film up with her spectacular mother hen role in The Night of the Hunter.  Kael said Gish was the closest The Cobweb had to a star performance, and no matter who it is she is up against in the film - even Widmark's metaphorical muzzling of her character or Grahame's explosive phone conversation (the two actresses, though both integral to the crosscutting plot and strange curtain calling, never actually share screen time) - it is Gish, and her everlasting power as an actress that wins the day.
Since I left him out of the post (for the most part) here is one last image, via a lobby card costarring Miss Grahame, of Mr. Charles Boyer, playing the inevitable aged rapscallion in The Cobweb.  Think of it as number eleven.

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