THE COBWEB, overwrought as drama and enjoyable as camp, is another of 1955’s What’s Wrong With Us? exposes—this time the mid-century stress fractures occur in an exclusive psychiatric facility, where the staff is at least as entangled by imagined spiders as the patients. The script, by John Paxton, was taken from a novel by William Gibson. This is the William Gibson who later wrote the play and screenplay for The Miracle Worker, not the now-esteemed William Gibson of science-fiction fame. Some of the cosmic hyper-reality here seems more suited to that genre–with perhaps a touch of William S. Burroughs crossed with “Mad Magazines” William Gaines. *
“Out of human needs and compassion a cobweb was formed.”
An estimable cast and the visual boost of director Vincente Minnelli keep you watching, to see who gets the next Big Emotional Moment—and to find out what will happen with those damned drapes, the mundane furnishing used as a centerpiece of contention and hidden meaning in a swirl (okay, cobweb) of dueling egos, desperate flings and anguished acting-out (in every sense) over 124 minutes. This one is a talkathon. And a whole lot of it about drapes. One hilarious and apropos comment I saw on another site was a write-in from a fan, saying “None of us had any idea what was coming. A spontaneous drinking game erupted about 40 minutes in– “Every time somebody mentions drapes…” I had to suspend play well before the end of the movie to prevent blindness or death.”
“They said Van Gogh was crazy because he killed himself. He couldn’t sell a painting while he was alive, and now they’re worth twenty million dollars. They weren’t that bad then and they’re not that good now, so who’s crazy?“
Workaholic head doctor Richard Widmark has to battle dipso-lothario Charles Boyer and imperious sourpuss Lillian Gish for control of the institution, and finds solace in the relative calm of therapist Lauren Bacall (she has her issues, too), since sexually frustrated wife Gloria Grahame does her level best to make him miserable at home.
Showcase patients are John Kerr and Susan Strasberg, both “introduced” here, and Oscar Levant, in his last film role. Kerr is saddled with some of the most absurd dialogue and wildest mood swings: it looks like he was directed to channel James Dean (who had been considered for the role) complete with tics, rambling and a way of running-in-disheveled-panic that more resembles lurching (does psychic overload make you lurch? Ask the director.) Levant does his usual trying, obvious shtick, and is allowed a guffaw-weird scene where he sings “Mother” while lying sedated in a hydro-tub.
Widmark is his typical steady self, Boyer does what he can with some more over-the-top writing, Gish and Bacall (poorly used) are fine. Gish was back after a 22-year absence, also adding grit to The Night Of The Hunter. Bacall’s thankless part was matched that year by her wastage in the John Wayne turkey Blood Alley. Grahame, all over the vixen map in ’55 with temptress roles in Oklahoma! and Not As A Stranger, is mostly ridiculous, vamping like mad (meantime, her personal life was a scandalous mess equal to any case in this plot).
Leonard Rosenman did the atonal score. At a cost of $1,976,000, the gross of $$4,290,000 still left MGM with a loss of $1,141,000 and put it 81st place for the year. With Tommy Rettig, Adele Jurgens, Olive Carey, Mabel Albertson, Fay Wray, Bert Freed (playing a happy guy for once), Paul Stewart, Virginia Christine, Jarma Lewis, James Westerfield and Sandy Descher.
* Along with many celebrate-America films, 1955 also played dark host to Rebel Without A Cause, The Night Of The Hunter, Blackboard Jungle, Not As A Stranger, Bad Day At Black Rock, All That Heaven Allows, Kiss Me Deadly, The Man With The Golden Arm and Trial, all of them examining pieces of the prosperous Eisenhower era that didn’t fit with contentment.
To give writer Gibson his due, his 1954 novel (a well-reviewed, 369-page bestseller) was based partly on his wife’s experiences as a psychotherapist. In his work (like The Miracle Worker and Two For The See-Saw) he showed a forgiving regard for human frailty and emotional pain. He did contribute some dialogue to this script, while scenarist John Paxton can also be credited with good work adapting Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, Fourteen Hours, The Wild One and On The Beach. More than the writing, the main flaw with The Cobweb more likely stems from Minnelli’s florid direction and his mixed handling of his cast, either in a lack of reining them in or by coaxing them to go too ‘big’. It’s fun to watch, at any rate.