The Cobweb Reviews
The patients just aren't convincing enough and are reduced to big name extras. The administrative staff are given cliched storylines to follow. If there are any central characters it's Widmark and Grahame, a bickering married couple. Bacall is completely wasted in a throwaway role as a chain-smoking activities director. Levant is perfectly cast as an inmate but doesn't get enough screen time to exploit his melancholy persona.
Perhaps the movie would have fared better had it been made twenty years later. With it's sprawling cast it resembles the films of Altman but Minnelli couldn't call on the technology that allowed Altman his famous overlapping dialogue. Considering the subject matter the movie is far too sane. A seventies version would have allowed a lot more freedom to explore the issues.
At one point, young inmates Kerr and Strasberg leave the clinic for a night at the cinema. A metaphor perhaps for Minnelli's plunging himself into his work to escape the grim reality of life with Judy?
There have been some great movies set on psychiatric wards, "One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest", "Shock Corridor", but I wouldn't bother booking yourself in for treatment here.
The psychiatric environment embodies a disparaging enthrallment for Minnelli, after years of shepherding Judy through myriad institutions. The curious scenario, and some of the characters, strike a unity, playing to the inner pretentious aesthete in us all. The animosity between the clinic's patients and the bickering personnel detonates over a presumably frivolous decorative issue, the choice of new drapes for the lounge. Though for an epicure like Minnelli, the matter is invariably not frivolous but crucial. Furnishings express not only ornamental but more deep-seated conscientious matters as well.
Richard Widmark plays a clinical psychiatrist stuck between his household family of his wife Karen and their two children, and the makeshift family that he propagates in his clinic with self-motivated staff worker Lauren Bacall, and agitated teenage artisan John Kerr. Widmark and Bacall ask Kerr to create new drapes for the clinic's library as a healing activity, not knowing that Gloria Grahame, Widmark's frustrated wife, and a stately administrator at the clinic played with bureaucratic bustle by Lilian Gish, have already taken charge of doing it. This unfolding intrigue conveys considerable labyrinthine kindred, civil, and administrative warfare. Reproach flourishes in the forms of the artist as refugee, profession as rectification for private disenchantment, the grind between cultivating one's identity at the cost of solitude and the compulsion to follow and synthesize into a comprehensive society.
The clinic on screen doesn't parallel any specific or incidentally real institution. The group scenes play out like Minnelli's usual party scenes, a neurotic congregation of loose-lipped free-thinkers and recoiling self-observers, boldly highlighted by Charles Boyer's admirably self-effacing performance. He is an actor utterly sure of himself and needs no abstract means of support. And no matter how many times one has heard thoughts expressed by however many people, Lauren Bacall always makes them sound original. Thus The Cobweb is not impaired by a lack of realism but embellished by a uniquely expressionistic blend of tones.
The movie's household scenes are more horrific than those at the clinic. Many couples will identify strongly with the arguments between Grahame, who believes her husband is implying malicious affronts, and Widmark, who never says anything to his wife that means anything but exactly what he's saying. Widmark is not giving a wooden portrayal of a sensitive man but a sensitive portrayal of a man who is not bothered by much. Conversely, Grahame famously said, "It's not how I looked at a man; it was the thought behind it." I believe her, because she plays Widmark's wife as someone unhappy with who she is and what she has because her mind is scattered and she is not content with thinking.
It's a nugget of blackly hilarious, embroidered reality that indicates the immediate misanthropy about family life in the flush 1950s, and how many American marriages persist in self-insulated conditions to this day with similar results. Note this bit between a patient and his psychiatrist: "Your'e supposed to be making me fit for normal life. What's normal? Yours? If its a question of values, your values stink. Lousy, middle-class, well-fed smug existence. All you care about is a paycheck you didn't earn and a beautiful thing to go home to every night." Or the fleeting brush between Grahame and Kerr, in which they consider the connotations of flowers.
This film has to be released on DVD! It is right up there with Peyton Place and those small-town melodramas. A favorite of mine. Catch it on TCM -- but you can find copies on Ebay.