The Siren posts another excerpt from another Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, this one on Vincente Minnelli's mad, mad, mad, mad Cobweb, with a cast that includes another eternal favorite around these parts, Oscar Levant.
The Cobweb has all of Minnelli’s dazzling acuity of vision, with every bit of the lush color and striking compositions you find in something like Gigi. It has good performances, with standout work from John Kerr, Oscar Levant, Susan Strasberg, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and, above all, Gloria Grahame. What it doesn’t have is a huge emotional hook. The patients at Castlehouse, the aptly named mansion where wealthy people go for what they used to call “rest cures,” just don’t seem that sick. Sure, Sue (Strasberg) is agoraphobic, Mr. Capp (Levant) is depressed and mother-fixated, and Steven (Kerr) is depressed and father-fixated, but they and the other patients have no problem sitting down in the library and conducting a meeting according to proper parliamentary procedure. They help each other, they take turns, they go back to their rooms and have little parties with a phonograph playing and everybody laughing. One old woman can even handle her own wheelchair.
The staff, on the other hand, can’t even order a set of drapes without causing a chain of catastrophes.
And of course, there is Oscar Levant, in his last film role, singing “Mother” while sprawling in a hydrotherapy bath and waiting for his sedatives to take effect. When he looks at the nurse and tells her, “you remind me of my mother,” the line is so funny, and so sinister, that the audience may have a fleeting fear that the movie is going to go very Hitchcock. It doesn’t, of course; the next morning, it’s back to the library and fabric selection.
The fact that the plot hinges on those drapes has come in for a lot of head-scratching over the years. I wonder, do they show this one in interior design class at a place like the Fashion Institute of Technology? They should, they should. Drapes — good lord, did even Cecil Beaton get this worked up over window coverings? Wouldn’t furniture be, well, weightier? The battiness of this MacGuffin has its own internal logic, though. The Cobweb is a movie about a clinic staffed by people who are (with the exception of Lauren Bacall’s too-good-to-be-true art therapist) way, way too self-absorbed, so much so that paisley versus floral versus silkscreen becomes an existential life crisis. Thus does the movie slyly suggest that the patients are picking up on the staff’s narcissism, and not the other way around.
The Cobweb’s original running time was two and a half hours, and producer John Houseman convinced Minnelli to cut it down. Despite the fact that The Cobweb is in no way boring, that was probably a good choice; at its present length, the film’s beauty and roiling, neurotic cast retain a headlong charm. Toward the end, Widmark’s character tries to make the case that the fuss about the drapes was a metaphor for all the human passions unleashed, but he convinces no one. Levant, who spent a lifetime in and out of psychiatric treatment, came much closer to the heart of the matter in a quip he made on set. Director and actor quarreled a lot during the shoot, and Levant muttered to the assistant producer after one spat with Minnelli, “Who’s crazy, anyway — him or me?”
From the keenly observant Arthur S. over at This Pig's Alley, a more in-depth look at The Cobweb, with beautiful screen caps.