Vincente Minnelli’s dynamite melodrama sees an outbreak of curtain-fuelled lunacy in a high-end psychiatric clinic.
As Sir Walter Scott once wrote, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!" This suitably fraught and fabulous 1955 melodrama from Vincente Minnelli goes behind the doors of the Castle House psychiatric clinic, delving into the lives of its perilous patients and squabbling staff. And with a plot that revolves around the battle to choose the library’s drapes it could equally be called The Curtains.
In this elegant but combustible madhouse, tempers flare and passions burn. As the film begins, we see the incomparably sultry Gloria Grahame pull over to offer a lift (and very nearly herself) to a handsome young chap who has darted out of Castle House. Her arrival fittingly heralds the appearance of the words, "The trouble began" which snake wittily across the screen.
The glorious Grahame (who took home at an Oscar for her performance in another superb Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful) plays Karen McIver, the wife of the clinic’s Dr Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), a progressive psychiatrist who encourages the patients to self-govern. His sometimes uncompromising leadership causes friction with colleagues Victoria Inch (Lillian Gish) and Dr Douglas N Devanal (Charles Boyer), while his slavish devotion to the clinic sparks trouble at home – as does his attraction to glamorous widow and art therapist, Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall).
Things move dangerously toward showdown when a number of conflicting proposals for the new library drapes emerge. The miserly Victoria Inch has a low-cost plan, whereas fashionista Karen McIver – with the encouragement of the Chairman of the Board – has something more stylish in mind. Meanwhile, the patients are given permission from Dr McIver to make and design them themselves. This strange, curtain-based conflict reveals a power struggle amongst the staff and the intense vulnerability of one patient in particular, Stevie Holte (John Kerr), the escapee from the opener, who is a troubled young artist, or – as Karen would have it – a "wild fawn".
Adapted by John Paxton from William Gibson’s novel (Gibson also provided additional dialogue), The Cobweb boasts a scintillating screenplay. For instance, here’s Dr Devanal on marriage: "It’s a great institution but, like all institutions, something of the individual gets lost." Then there’s Victoria Inch’s catty description of the clinic’s Chairman, Regina Mitchell-Smythe (Mabel Albertson), who she claims has, "sprung up like a toadstool!"
Minnelli ups the dramatic ante with lashings of colour and an occasionally striking use of lighting. One sequence has Grahame laid out on a bed before us in a full face of makeup – the very picture of a siren; however, she’s cast into a lattice of conflicted shadow and rejected rather tragically by her husband who appears fleetingly in the doorway behind. Karen sends out romantic signals to all and sundry, though it’s a clear manifestation of her sexual frustrations at home.
The Cobweb is psychologically rich, stylish and occasionally risqué. Minnelli is assisted in his depiction of towering turmoil by a superlative ensemble and by Leonard Rosenman, whose anxious, avant-garde score is a seminal series of compositions and the first predominantly twelve-tone score ever used on film.
The film’s original trailer promises, "startlingly different drama" and it most certainly delivers that. From its sizzling, knowing opening to its terrific tongue-in-cheek ending, The Cobweb is a fine mesh of a movie. Soapy and sophisticated, wild and wise, it’s a marvellous monument to madness.