Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Caught in The Cobweb: Vincente Minnelli’s Widescreen Masterpieces

August 14 2019

Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb begins in a flurry of motion and dissonance. Stevie (John Kerr) bolts through the gates of a stately hospital tucked away in some countryside, andhe books it through the surrounding fields of tall grass, accompanied by Leonard Rosenman’s twelve-tone score. When he makes it to the bridge that passes over the river, he flags down a passing car driven by Gloria Grahame’s Karen McIver. She’s driving toward the hospital, a psychiatric institution where Stevie is a patient. We enter a movie that’s about to burst at the seams with melodrama, infidelity, nervous breakdowns, and sexual repression. The Cobweb is preceded by a scrawl of type: “The trouble began…”

The Cobweb is almost too generous, heaping attention all of its countless characters: nurses, board members, patients. Minnelli pits his enormous ensemble cast against one another: Karen’s husband, Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), pays more attention to his patients than her, though he begins to fall for recently widowed Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall), and then the two butt heads with parsimonious overseer Vicky Inch (Lillian Gish), who’s having her own issues with the boozy, once-respected Dr. Devanal (Charles Boyer). The new drapes only exacerbate the web of tensions and betrayals. It’s a miracle that it manages to hold itself together, especially considering the dramatic catalyst of the film is the installation of new drapes in the hospital’s common room. The bookending title cards (at the end: “The trouble was over…”) are absolutely necessary to house everything in between, lest it topple over.

The anamorphic, Metrocolor drama that bursts forth from The Cobweb makes it arguably the Minnelli film; not necessarily the most perfect, but the most abundant synthesis of all the Minnelli motifs and stylistic tics, missing only the musicality that dominated some of his more popular works. The Cobweb eludes easy categorization, its confluence of images, sensations, character, psychology delivered in one overwhelming wave. At first blush, it’s a barnstorming melodrama begging for soap opera serialization: in Stevie’s first therapy session with Dr. McIver, he yells about Karen, “What is she, a nymphomaniac or something?” But when it comes to Bacall’s Meg, it’s suddenly an earnest portrait of an independent woman claiming a new stake in unfamiliar territory following unspeakable tragedy. There’s also the budding and touching romance between Stevie and fellow patient, agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg), the domestic unraveling of Karen and Dr. McIver, the bureaucratic red tape of the institution, and the maddening game of telephone about the drapes that pushes everything in all directions at once. And of course, there’s the ever present neuroses and psychoses of the motley crew of the hospital’s patients.

Only Minnelli’s second film in both CinemaScope and color, The Cobweb stands roughly midway through an impressively and almost impossibly varied filmography, and it is effectively an omnibus for his various preoccupations. Its imperfections don’t necessarily diminish its intoxicating visual and dramatic power, but it does prove that by the end of certain films, Minnelli would have to pick and choose the characters he’d provide with appropriate closure, and those he’d leave by the wayside. Karen is initially the most deserving of sympathy, sequestered all by her lonesome in her giant house, either neglected or insulted: “I’d be home more, Karen, if there were more to come home to.” Somewhere in between, however, the script flips, and Dr. McIver is the one who’s hurting most, but his self-loathing doesn’t exactly make his verbal abuse any easier to stomach. Though not suffering her twin brutalisation at the hands of Fritz Lang in The Big Heat and Human Desire, Grahame is still stuck with the short end of the stick in a film she truly dominates. Still, it’s not entirely fair to designate an outsized fascination with unpredictable characters as a flaw in Minnelli’s work. Rather, it’s a virtue too great to fit snugly within a Hollywood product.

It makes sense then that Minnelli, already quick to embrace and explore the possibilities of color, treated the widescreen format as an even more liberating tool. In widescreen, Minnelli could flex his choreographic chops even more, giving his stacked ensemble casts grand setpieces to inhabit. He was able to imbue images with a wide-reaching menace, such as the sight of Robert Mitchum’s Capt. Wade Hunicutt in Home From the Hill, reposed in his sanguine easychair, surrounded by guard dogs and hunting trophies. The widescreen dwarfs the characters, conveying the gravity of their Minnellian isolation in ways he couldn’t before Cinemascope. He could place infinite lonely space around his characters, leaving us alone with a recovering alcoholic or two adults about to embark on an infidelitous tryst. The perfect example comes at the end of Some Came Running, when Dave (Frank Sinatra) and Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine) walk silently through a boisterous carnival. Ginnie, enamored with Dave, and Dave, enamored with another woman, strike a tragic pair, making their way through the ebullient townsfolk and flashing lights of the amusement park, their mismatched romantic intentions impossible to ignore when contrasted with the abundance of life and joyousness that fills the screen.

Minnelli further underlined his newfound narrative and technical expansion on past themes with his spiritual successor to his Hollywood-as-poison portrait The Bad and the Beautiful, 1962’s Two Weeks In Another Town. Though both films are equally multifaceted works, Minnelli swaps the tidy, trifurcated flashback structure of The Bad and the Beautiful for the unsettling sprawl of The Cobweb, ramping up his attack on the trappings of show business from all angles. In The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas plays a producer whose movie empire bottoms out, but we learn this in flashbacks guided by the narration of three former collaborators, and he never appears on screen during the present day passages. In Two Weeks In Another Town, we are once again post-burnout, but any reference to the past appears only in dialogue. The black-and-white of The Bad and the Beautiful heightened that film’s storybook progression, given that it was a story about the past told from the present; for Two Weeks In Another Town, the technicolor and widescreen situates us firmly in the toxic here-and-now.

On this go-round, Douglas is Jack Andrus, an alcoholic, washed-up star detoxing at a sanitorium after a suicide attempt. Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), Jack’s old friend and director, flies him out to Rome to dub his most recent picture, which is plagued with numerous production troubles. The chips fall where they may, and Jack ends up in control of the film, though he’s hounded by his dangerously conniving ex-wife Carlotta (literally portrayed as the Black Swan, in a dress of ruffled black feathers, by Cyd Charisse), a shallow pretty-boy leading man, and even Kruger himself. For a man still prone to violent shakes, this toxic situation doesn’t exactly promise a new lease on life.

In a wildly meta turn, Jack and Kruger host a screening of The Bad and the Beautiful for cast and crew, as proof of their past “work” together. The past and the present literally face one another, and Minnelli transcends the monochrome milieu The Bad and the Beautiful, imbuing the scene with an otherworldly eye to color and composition, the beam of the projector flashing like lightning and cigarette smoke curling like fog. It’s the kind of gauziness that dominated musical works like The Pirate or An American In Paris, now supplanted to a barrelling indictment of the film industry that extends itself far beyond studio backlots and the Hollywood sign. Minnelli here cribs inspiration equally from Antonioni and Fellini, but it’s an Italian producer who claims to not even care for the artistry of Kruger’s film. As his screen grew, so did Minnelli’s ire and mistrust.

Nevertheless, Minnelli remained enamored of the possibilities of romance: love still cuts through all the psychoses and Roman debauchery, as Jack is left with the possibility of a healthy-relationship-to-be: The film’s conventional Hollywood ending sees Jack bidding his new love goodbye and setting off to resituate himself in the film industry. Regardless, the scene still speaks to Minnelli’s compulsion to tease out the oscillating sensations of romance, which was apparent in his early works. Think of this heartbreaking moment in The Clock, his 1945 romantic melodrama. Following a whirlwind night and a slapdash City Hall wedding, the two lovers sit at some New York City greasy spoon acting as if it’s the ceremony they both imagined. It proves too much for Judy Garland though, who, in tears, eventually lets out: “It was so ugly, wasn’t it?”

In his most devastating film, Tea and Sympathy, Minnelli reached the pinnacle of such exquisitely gutting longing. He dismantles heternormative ideals of masculinity against the backdrop of an impossible romance, with the fey, artistic, and brutally victimized Tom Lee (Kerr) falling for his prep school’s coach’s wife, Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr). Though the brave implications of Tom’s queerness dissolve by the film’s last act, Tea and Sympathy is still fashioned in attack mode like The Cobweb, with a similarly beating heart underneath. Tom practically drowns in his machismo classmates’ aggression, and this is pushed to a discomfiting extreme by the widescreen – he is literally surrounded on all sides, across the whole width of the wide screen – but then suddenly, it will only be Tom and Laura in the frame, and we deeply feel the impossible distance between them.

Whether stirring up palpable sensations of loneliness, or conjuring the suggestion of dread, Minnelli’s widescreen films all announce themselves with a proud sense of purpose. Minnelli was able to reach the meat of the story within just the first few minutes, introducing fully formed narrative threads and characters with equal aplomb, and then carrying them throughout their respective films. But Minnelli was placing trust in the viewer, assuming they could follow multiple intricate storylines and character arcs from the get-go, and promising that his complex climaxes would land with precision, even when he wrapped up several storylines in a single wide image. In The Cobweb, Stevie bolts once again, thinking his designs for the drapes have been rejected, though this time, local law enforcement fears suicide and dredges the river from the opening scene. On the wide screen, all at once we watch Dr. McIver and Meg have a tearful parting of ways, their conversation overwhelmed by police sirens, the pouring rain, and a fender hoisted up from the river. These Minnelli films can send the viewer reeling, delirious but delightfully so, and perhaps that’s why so many of these films end in moments of rumination and respite. Home From the Hill and Some Came Running end in cemetaries, where we can accept the finality of the situations; Tea and Sympathy finds Tom sitting alone in Laura’s former garden, folding up a letter she’d addressed to him, coming to an understanding with his trauma. And finally, Stevie is wrapped up in a pair of drapes on the McIvers’ couch, falling asleep as Karen and Dr. McIver place a glass of warm milk beside him. And although we’re told the trouble is over in The Cobweb, there’s always another film waiting: A Minnelli film full of restlessness and emotional urgency, of compositional beauty and ecstatic performances. The trouble was never truly over for Minnelli.