Monday, October 26, 2009

THE COBWEB (1955, Vincente Minnelli)

Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame) - “I’d be grateful to hear any talk at all these days. Talk Big!”

Stevie Holte (John Kerr) – “Red and green…Derain died last fall in a hospital. You wouldn’t know who he was.”

Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame) – “It happens I do!”

Stevie Holte (John Kerr) – “Who?”

Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame) – “A French painter. One of Les Fauves!”

Stevie Holte (John Kerr) - “He died in a hospital…in a white bed, in a white room – doctors in white standing around – the last thing he said was ‘Some red…show me some red. Before dying I want to see some red and some green.’ ”

The Cobweb resembles Meet Me in St. Louis to a greater degree than any other Vincente Minnelli film. It shares with that film the DP George Folsey and like that film it attempts to portray a community en masse rather than a community as reflected from the eyes of the individual. It shares with that film also an examination of childhood anxieties – its fears and touches on the occasional grotesque quality of the naiveté of the experience as in the famous Halloween sequence of that film. Minnelli re-invented the musical with that film which was also his first in colour(three-strip Technicolor on that occasion, Eastman this time). With The Cobweb, he discovers CinemaScope, a crucial addition to his apparatus. The movement of the actors in this film, the fluidity of the tracking shots and the many extended takes also share much in common with the way Minnelli shoots musical numbers in Meet Me in St. Louis. Add that to the plot revolving around who gets to decide the new drapes in the library room and it’s easy to imagine how The Cobweb could be a musical. Minnelli of course plays it straight and serious and the film is all the more audacious for the fact that this serious approach works pretty well and the result is a deeply moving and extremely beautiful film.

Minnelli once stated that he was interested in adapting Maxim Gorky’s classic play The Lower Depths because, in his words, “I think there is beauty in that kind of squalor”. The Gorky play is set in a relief shelter about an underclass maintaining their spirit by falling into illusions of phony escape. The shelter of The Cobweb is considerably better furnished at least from the outside (Stevie says at one point, “you should see it from the inside…like the inside of a dead fish”) but the film reveals an existence just as squalid as the one in Gorky, even more so since it suggests that financial stability, education, knowledge and material comfort don’t provide any escape but simply direct people to more sophisticated traps.

So let’s get to the spoilers – nobody dies in this picture! We expect danger, threat and a sense of panic from the first stirrings of Leonard Rosenman’s score, which plays over the credits which in turn roll over an expressive montage of Stevie running through the fields, escaping from Castlehouse Clinic for Nervous Disorders. This could be the opening of a crime film or a horror film. We might expect a good chase scene as Stevie tries to live a life on the lam. But instead he willingly returns to the clinic – in the very next scene. then, instead of leaving us waiting till the closing moments of the film to get a psychological breakthrough to Stevie’s neurosis, we learn that too at once. His analyst manages to connect with Stevie in a counselling session, casting himself as a figure of trust and dependability to the young man. From this point on, the neurosis of Stevie Holte, his development and regeneration is no longer the focus of the story.

The attention shifts to his analyst, Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), his wife and their relationship with the staff.

A drama that deals with characters that have knowledge and experience of the functioning (or malfunctioning) of human behaviour has to create its own brand of tension. Minnelli plays this tension in the unusual casting of the film. Richard Widmark brings a great amount of pathos and vulnerability to his tough, dependable, and responsible psychiatrist. Charles Boyer who could have easily played the Widmark role in his younger years (a symmetry that was perhaps not lost on Minnelli) plays what seems to be a bloated self-parody of the romantic lothario image projected on him in his movies. Yet he finds the tragic side to Devanal, making this shameless hack shrink and womanizer deeply compelling at the most unexpected of moments.

Douglas Devanal (Charles Boyer), happy and charming until he hears the bad news – he’s getting old and his best days are long gone.

Lauren Bacall plays a character role in the film as Meg Rinehart, an arts-and-crafts teacher at the clinic who recently lost her husband and son in a car accident. It’s one of her best performances bringing a great amount of maturity (and style) to the role.

But if one person merits the term casting coup then it’s Lillian Gish as Victoria Inch. It’s a performance in a class of its own. The toughness, the meanness of the character as played by an actress who embodied chastity and virtue in her silent films with D. W. Griffith carries an almost Brechtian effect. This is especially apparent in what can be called a telephone catfight between Gloria Grahame and Lillian Gish.

The two characters don’t actually share on-screen space with each other once in the film. This is the only time they talk to each other and they don’t mince any words. The conflict is simple – Karen (Grahame) is friends with one of the clinic’s trustees and plans to put muslin drapes in the library common room. The old drapes of the clinic were first chosen by Victoria Inch who has worked at the clinic since the beginning (the clinic was found on land once home to Native Americans). The technology that allows for their interaction allows each woman to remain in their respective spaces. Karen is at a concert hall, dressed in her evening best while Vicky Inch lives alone in her own home built and maintained with her own two hands. The staging and the cutting of the scene heightens the interaction between the two women, creating an interaction as personal and powerful as it would be if they argued bitterly on stage or across the streets or any locale where they fight. The milieu in which they reside when they speak expose their respective class and generational differences to the audience. Karen - an urbane housewife, pampered and spoilt - wishes to contribute creatively in the only centre of activity in her immediate life in the rural community she recently transplanted to with her husband. Victoria Inch is a product of the nineteenth century - stern, rigid and puritanically proud of her work - and so, contemptuous of the arrogance of a naïve woman who wishes to change the drapes that she herself first chose.

Minnelli has some good bit of fun with his mise-en-scene by using the phone booth to perform its exact opposite function. The milieu is supposed to give Karen privacy while she makes a deliberately timed phone call to the woman in charge of the interior décor in the clinic just after working hours. Instead the phone booth compromises her completely. She keeps the door open because there’s no air-conditioning in the booth. And in the midst of the conversation, the concert recital goes into intermission and some of the audience greet her in the midst of her conversation making Inch’s blood boil. Her actions as performed in a space that is inhospitable to her, reveals truths about her behaviour that she is totally unaware of but is entirely clear to Victoria Inch.

When later in the film, Minnelli cuts to an insert of the title of Devanal’s thesis, it amounts to a statement of the film’s aesthetic manifesto.

The general critical approaches to this film deals with how effortlessly it fits in with the auteurist approach to Minnelli’s cinema. The plot about changing the library drapes obviously makes it easy to talk about how it ties into Minnelli’s beginnings as a window display designer, how it ties into the importance of décor and its function in the narrative. Serge Daney mentions the obviousness of this trap in his brief "conversation" with the film(available in Vincente Minnelli : The Art of Entertainment, edited by Joe McElhaney, the article translated by Bill Krohn).

The Cobweb isn’t so much about the use of décor but the way in which the physicality, the tactility of the actors register against it. The décor merely serves as a filter to reveal the truth in the lives of these characters. The milieus in which these characters live, comforts them when their reality conforms to their illusions and when the reality compromises them, the same milieu reverses itself and rebounds on the characters. The key scene that deals with this (the confrontation between Widmark and Gish in her living room) is so detailed and subtle in meaning that it deserves a separate entry to deal with it. More poignant is this striking scene at the midpoint of the film.

The McIvers' elder son Mark (Tommy Retig) listens in to every fight and tunes in to the slightest pitch of uneasy tension between his parents. After one tense moment, Stewart walks his son into his room and tucks him in. At first, the gestures and movements is familiar and comforting. The love displayed by the father is touching and restrained.

Then he turns off the light…

…and the same room becomes ominous and nightmarish. The son’s face is isolated in the very room he sleeps in and in the presence of the very man who he loves and admires more than anyone else in the world. Richard Widmark’s typecasting as a cheap thug in his earlier films while not in any way diminishing his truly remarkable performance in this film is especially useful in this scene, since the associations of that silhouette in the earlier films helps makes the light change very frightening. The image of the father transforms into a figure of discomfiture. In this one moment, Minnelli summons up the whole of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life. (not that it’s a better film as a result)

The Cobweb is in effect an anti-horror film. That is to say, rather than manufacture a frightening milieu that unites a group, a unit or a family to stave off an external threat, the film creates milieus - the clinic, the homes of the staff, a movie theatre, a canal which reveals the horror inside the very unit, group and family that are in need for resolutions to their conflicts. The decor does not express the emotions and tensions of the group, it rebounds and reflects the tensions on to the people who are unaware of their traps.

For a film set in a psychiatric clinic, a clinic of sophistication and humane virtues, it does not find the location of its source of problems from a single errant patient or for that matter from the administrative tussles of its backers (that is to say the conventional occupational hazards) but in the doctors who are supposed to look after their patients. Specifically, it’s the most compassionate, understanding and intelligent doctor of the entire staff – Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark) who is the center of the film's tensions rather than the hack department-head-in-name-only Douglas Devanal (Charles Boyer). Minnelli even makes the point that it is in fact McIver who first cheats on his wife with Meg Rinehart when all along the audience is led to expect this betrayal of marital vows from his wife who flirts with Devanal.

In this way, Minnelli’s film resembles Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus - Another anti-horror film where the change of milieu ruptures an institution and leads to an existential crisis on the part of the nuns who come to provide care and attention to a secluded village and end up needing the care and attention they claim to provide to the village.

And of course Gloria Grahame - clad in black, soaked with sweat right before the key climax when she changes the drapes without warning like a thief in the night – is transparently channelling Kathleen Byron.

“Color can do anything that black-and-white can.” – Vincente Minnelli.


  1. Great underated proto-Altman ensemble film that gets better every time I watch it

  2. Well, A nifty but different take on it, but not mine. I like it tho, the anti-horror label is a clever idea. I said more about this film at Siren's, toward the bottom of the Schulberg posting:

    I had to take a madcap approach, it struck me that way.

  3. Still to watch this one, first I have to get a good WS copy. I have a feeling a Minnelli binge lies ahead for me, there's so much to see.

  4. I remember liking this one a lot, 20 years ago--definitely should give it another look--very interesting write up Arthur!

    Minnelli is a definite favourite--with Some Came Running, The Clock, Madame Bovary, Meet Me in SAt. Louis + Yolanda and the Thief at the top of my list... there's a lot of depth in that oeuvre!

  5. "When Gloria Grahame changes the drapes it's curtains for everyone!"

    Only Vincente Minnelli could make a film about drapes. And Oscar Levant (my role model) is wonderful singing "Mother" in his hydrotherapy vat.

  6. You totally nailed one of the most demented films of all time. Seeing this movie for the first time, in 35mm at the Art Institute / Chicago, I'll never forget the revelatory moment when I realized "This movie is all about WINDOW TREATMENTS!!" God, I love Minnelli...