US / 124 minutes / color / MGM Dir: Vincente Minnelli Pr: John Houseman Scr: John Paxton, William Gibson Story: The Cobweb (1954) by William Gibson Cine: George Folsey Cast: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, John Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Tommy Rettig, Paul Stewart, Dayton Lummis, Jarma Lewis, Adele Jergens, Edgar Stehli, Sandra Descher, Bert Freed, Mabel Albertson, Fay Wray, Oliver Blake, Olive Carey, Eve McVeagh, Virginia Christine, Jan Arvan, Ruth Clifford, Myra Marsh, Marjorie Bennett.
By the mid-1950s the studios were becoming seriously worried over losing their audience to the new kid on the block, TV. One stratagem they tried in response to this threat was the star-studded ensemble movie, of which The Cobweb is a prime example. This blackly comedic soap opera isn’t of much direct noir interest, if any, save for its astonishing cast, with noir icons like Widmark, Grahame and Bacall at the top but others like Jergens and Stewart further down as well as actors better known outside noir but who nevertheless made noir contributions, such as Boyer, Wray, Christine and even Bennett.
Dr. Stewart “Mac” McIver (Widmark) is the de facto chief of a psychiatric clinic, although the physician who ran it for many years, the boozy, philandering Dr. Douglas N. “Dev” Devanal (Boyer), is still formally its Medical Director. Mac has instituted a self-government policy for the patients as part of their therapy; in fact, the place seems more like a posh country hotel with psychotherapy laid on than a grim sanitarium.
All are agreed that the clinic’s library requires new curtains. Victoria “Vicky” Inch (Gish), in charge of administration, assumes she should order something bland from the usual local supplier, Petlee & Sons. Before she can do so, however, two things happen. First, Mac’s seemingly spoilt, shrewish wife Karen (Grahame), visiting the clinic and discovering the situation, decides to take matters into her own hands and, with the connivance by telephone of the Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, the formidable Regina Mitchell-Smythe (Albertson), orders the most expensive drapes money could buy—to be delivered by special airmail, no less! Second, the extraordinarily repressed patient Sue Brett (Strasberg) suggests the patients should design the new drapes themselves, an idea picked up by the suicidal but artistically talented patient Stevie Holte (Kerr) and supported by the clinic’s art therapist, the widowed Meg Faversen Rinehart (Bacall).
Stevie produces his designs for the drapes, and they’re applauded by Meg, Mac and, more importantly, the patients. Local artist Abe Irwin (Freed) undertakes the task of screenprinting them onto muslin for the drapes. Hearing of this, Karen has a dinner with Dev at which she makes her opinions clear. Taking advantage of the fact that most of those involved in the day-to-day operations of the clinic assume he’s still in charge, Dev issues a memo to the effect that Karen’s drapes will be the ones used.
The backbiting and bickering among the clinic’s senior staff obviously begins to impact upon the patients, most noticeably—despite his attempts to deny the fact—upon Mr. Capp (Levant), who has spent a lifetime shaking off the specter of his domineering mother (the level-headed Meg once had the same problem, but she managed to work through it, just as she’s working through the loss in a car crash of her husband and son). Trying but mostly failing to act as buffers are nurses like Mrs. O’Brien (Carey) and the staff psychiatrists Otto Wolff (Stewart) and Tim Carmody (Lummis).
Further yeasts added to the ferment are that Dev believes he’s had the green light from Karen to seduce her—she rebuffs him brusquely—while Mac and Meg are three-quarters of the way to having a fling with each other, not for reasons of idle adultery but because, each for their quite different reason, they feel isolated.
Discovering what she thinks is evidence of an affair, Karen spitefully hangs the drapes she ordered. Stevie discovers what he assumes is a fait accompli, and goes on the lam. The whole county becomes involved in the hunt for him, with Mac blaming himself while at the same time coping with the fact that Vicky wants to present to the Board of Trustees the full evidence of Dev’s many malfeasances, not least the number of times he and his secretary Cobby Cobb (Jergens) have shared a motel room . . .
The Cobweb wasn’t well received at the time, and the bad reputation it gained has haunted it ever since; it’s the movie that tends to get missed out of filmographies—even of John Kerr, whose Hollywood breakout this essentially was. Yet, watched today, it has worn exceptionally well. The pacing is superb, with no scene being any longer than it needs to be (and quite a few leaving the viewer with a pleasing sense of their having been too short). Those scenes are often filled with masterful detail, as the business of the clinic proceeds behind and around the protagonists upon whom Minnelli is currently focusing our attention.
Necessarily, The Cobweb has Widmark as its pivot, yet it’s not unreasonable to feel that its dynamic really centers on Gish, who delivers a powerhouse performance as the spinsterish termagant who terrifies all those around her . . . except that, as Mac at one point observes to her, the person she most terrifies with her theatrics is herself. Bacall is fine as the attractive widow whose libido is at last reawakening (as a minor technical note, on one occasion it seems she’s able somehow to change her clothes between work and getting home); Kerr (who died not so many months ago) copes with his part adequately, although in the early stages has a tendency to overact—a tendency that seems oddly not out-of-place, because dialogue and staging often give us the impression that this is an adaptation from a stage play rather than from a novel. (Gibson was in fact more of a playwright than a novelist, so this characteristic of the movie may have been inherited from his book.) Like Gish’s, Grahame’s rendition—as the spoilt wife whose behavior we at first regard as deplorable self-indulgent petulance and then come to understand (especially when Mac tells her “I’d be home more, Karen, if there were more to come home to” and we realize this can’t be the first time he’s done so)—hammers itself into our memory, and yet for very different reasons: blowzy, pouting, she’s the ultimate available girl except for the fact that, as Dev discovers to his great disillusion, she isn’t. At the end of the movie we’re left with the circumstance that, while Mac might be happier—and certainly more comfortable—with Meg, it’s really to Karen that he belongs.
The movie’s riddled with other fine performances among the smaller roles; one of the best comes from Rettig as Mac’s intelligent, ever-tolerant son Mark.
The Cobweb was released in CinemaScope, a process invented to allow for wider-screen movies than would be possible otherwise. Essentially, special (anamorphic) lenses were used to record a “tall and thin” image on the film; when the movie was shown, an anamorphic lens in the projector stretched the image out again. The movies were projected onto a curved screen, to the give the audience the illusion (so it was hoped) of being immersed in the action. Modern DVD or TV incarnations obviously use a flat screen; the effect can be really quite odd when we watch a movie like The Cobweb today, because sometimes people seem shorter and squatter than they should be, other times taller and thinner.