Tag Archives: Lauren Bacall

The Cobweb (1955, Vincente Minnelli)

A more appropriate title might be The Trouble with the Drapes, but even with the misleading moniker, The Cobweb is a good Cinemascope drama. Cinemascope dramas went out some time in the mid-1960s. Vincente Minnelli is great at them. In The Cobweb, he turns a little story (I can’t believe it’s from a novel–it must have had a lot more on the characters, since the present action is incredibly limited) into a big movie. Richard Widmark doesn’t hurt. Even as a caring psychiatrist, Widmark amplifies the film. Nothing he does–except for one scene, his performance is understated–but something about his presence. His and Lauren Bacall’s. They signal big Cinemascope drama. So does Leonard Rosenman’s score. Rosenman brings the music up for all the characters’ emotions and, since some of the characters do a lot solo, there’s quite a bit of the music. Only once does it get a little too much, when Gloria Grahame (as Widmark’s wife; Bacall’s the nurse he likes too much) is freaking out. Oddly, the dialogue plays against the omnipresent music. The Cobweb has very delicate–and very good–dialogue. It’s one of the reasons the film succeeds: good dialogue performed by good actors makes even the most banal story involving. Of course, it doesn’t hurt The Cobweb pulls itself out from its third act spiral.

There’s not much going on in the film–it really is all about the fallout of buying new drapes for a psychiatric clinic–and it’s the characters keeping it moving. At the end, there needs to be a resolution and so–I assume it’s from the book, but it’s funny enough it might be a filmic innovation–things get resolved. Cinemascope dramas always resolve nicely at the end, part of the genre requirements. But The Cobweb‘s resolution is too easy. It’s too abbreviated. But at the last moment, in a very nicely timed scene, it pulls off a great close.

John Houseman produced the film, which might account for Mercury Theatre member Paul Stewart’s too small role, and maybe Houseman’s involvement accounts for some of the gentleness in the picture. The scenes with Widmark and his son playing chess or talking are some of the film’s most effective, because they’re–for the majority of the running time–the only real insight we get in to Widmark’s feelings. The rest of the time, until he and Bacall get inappropriate, he’s too busy worrying about his patients. Grahame’s really good in a difficult, unlikable role, and managing to keep the character sympathetic by the end of the film is a real achievement on Grahame’s part. Bacall’s good tog, but her character gets reduced into an “other woman” role (but she has a great exit). Other exceptional performances (they’re all good) are Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. Boyer has a slightly more difficult role, but Gish is more impressive, maybe just because I’m unfamiliar with her work.

There’s a little bit too much going on in The Cobweb. There’s easily material for three films in here–Widmark and Grahame, Bacall’s character needs a whole picture, and John Kerr and Susan Strasberg’s mental patient romance deserves one too (Kerr’s real impressive and it’s he and Grahame who get the film off to its good start). It’s an imperfect Cinemascope drama, though a great example of one, but still a satisfying experience.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by John Paxton, from a novel by William Gibson; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Widmark (Dr. McIver), Lauren Bacall (Meg Rinehart), Gloria Grahame (Karen McIver), Charles Boyer (Dr. Devanal), Lillian Gish (Victoria Inch), John Kerr (Steven Holte), Susan Strasberg (Sue Brett), Oscar Levant (Mr. Capp), Tommy Rettig (Mark), Paul Stewart (Dr. Wolff), Jarma Lewis (Lois Demuth), Adele Jergens (Miss Cobb), Edgar Stehli (Mr. Holcomb), Bert Freed (Ave Irwin) and Fay Wray (Edna Devanal).


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Harper (1966, Jack Smight)

Harper may very well be an anachronism. I’m not quite sure how to use the word. There’s certainly something off about it. It’s based on a novel written in 1949–a detective novel in the vein of Chandler, which explains why it feels like Chandler–but then it’s filmed in 1966 and it’s not a period piece, but that discrepancy isn’t what I’m talking about. Harper was on the cusp between studio-based filming and location filming. A lot of Harper is location work, shot by Conrad L. Hall, who does a beautiful job. Except there’s some studio stuff in there–driving with rear projection–and it just doesn’t work. When the movie started and I realized–around the time Johnny Mandel’s name showed up with the music credit–it was directed by Jack Smight. All I could remember from Smight’s oeuvre was one of the Airport movies, but I knew he wasn’t going to work out. The combination of him and Johnny Mandel doing a detective movie, just wasn’t going to work.

But Harper does work to some degree. It’s incredibly well-written by William Goldman and incredibly well-acted by the entire cast. Except you’ve got a cast and a writer–whether they knew it or not (though I imagine Goldman did know)–working against the director. Smight wasn’t trying to screw up the movie, his background just didn’t provide the tools required to make Harper work to its full potential. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking about Bullitt and how Peter Yates did something different with Bullitt and Jack Smight didn’t do anything different with Harper and Harper was written to be a different kind of movie. There are scenes going on too long for emphasis and these music cues to clue the viewer in on this film being “cool” maybe… I don’t know. It’s not a cool movie. Listen to the searching, sadden dialogue. The scenes between Paul Newman and divorce-in-progress wife Janet Leigh are fantastic. Not even Smight misunderstanding Goldman’s script and Newman and Leigh’s acting can cut down on how wonderful their eventual scene (after they’re in a couple telephone conversation scenes) turns out.

Harper‘s opening credits are a treasure-trove of good actors who’ve become punch lines or just forgotten. Lauren Bacall shows up, playing–to some degree–her character’s father from The Big Sleep. She’s only around for a couple scenes, but she’s good in them and having fun. She’s playing for the camera though, which is sort of what Smight was going for. A laugh. Specifically, those punch line actors are Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner. Wagner’s damn good here. Winters is playing herself, which is funny for a bit, and then it becomes clear she doesn’t have much else to do. In the forgotten department, Robert Webber’s scary good and Strother Martin shows up in a straight role (probably the first time I’ve seen him not being funny). Julie Harris is actually the only disappointing performance. Arthur Hill’s good and I thought it was strange to see Newman share so much of the film with him, but then I looked at Newman’s filmography and realized he doesn’t monopolize. A lot of the friendship between Newman and Hill is verbalized though and maybe it was the unexpected.

I’ve seen Harper before. Maybe seven years ago it aired on AMC, probably letterboxed. I remember not being impressed with it. Seeing it again, I definitely appreciate it more, but there’s a bit of sadness along with it–just because it could have been so much better, if only it had a different director.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by William Goldman, from a novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Stefan Arnsten; music by Johnny Mandel; produced by Jerry Gershwin and Elliot Kastner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson), Robert Wagner (Alan Traggert), Robert Webber (Dwight Troy), Shelley Winters (Fay Estabrook), Harold Gould (Sheriff Spanner), Strother Martin (Claude), Roy Jensen (Puddler), Martin West (Deputy) and Jacqueline de Wit (Mrs. Kronberg).


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