How did King Vidor get to be called King? Did he have a son called Prince?
On regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider’s recommendation I ran LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE, a slightly gothic noir with a western ranch setting — something of an oddity. But Ruth Roman is excellent in it, fun and relaxed in a way she doesn’t get to be in the other films I’ve seen her in, like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN or BITTER VICTORY.
Ruth plays an actress — no jokes about this being a stretch, please — taking a rest cure after a chest infection. If there’s anything wrong with her perf it’s that she seems healthy as a horse (there are frequent shots of horses so we can compare with ease) but she’s such a lively, humorous, modest and intelligent character we overlook that — the supposed ill health is just plot.
Merecedes McCambridge: Greater Emotion Through Postural Strangeness.
Ruth gets mixed up in a more interesting plot involving Richard Todd (Irish actor, successful in England, never quite made it in America) recently acquitted of murdering his wife: there’s just enough vulnerability in Ruth to make you believe she might fall for this piece of surly damaged goods. Mercedes McCambridge is also in the cast, so it’s not a whodunnit. Her crippled brother is played by Darryl “But he’s a cripple!” Hickman, who was also disabled in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN — what’s with that type-casting? Hickman’s character is called String McStringer, which one would have thought was disability enough.
Zachary Scott — the Thin White Tube.
Generally all is compelling, with a welcome late appearance by Zachary Scott to thicken the plot (Zachary Scott = corn starch?) and add a light drizzle of man-sleaze. Todd does brooding quite well, but Roman is the heart and soul. This was the first film where I really got a sense of the hysterical emotionalism everybody singles out in Vidor’s work, but apart from McCambridge and Hickman, who are both extremely clear conduits for shrill frenzy, it only comes into play in one Ruth Roman bit where she starts to suspect that Todd is really guilty, and we get the full voices-echoing-in-her-head bit, complete with thunderstorm and furniture chewing. Jolly good!
THE FOUNTAINHEAD’s quarry scene: CALIGARI in marble.
THE FOUNTAINHEAD is a different matter — Ayn Rand’s putrid writing gives King plenty of scope for serious expressionistic bombast and flash. He turns everything up to eleven and all his knobs falls off. The compositions he slams onto the screen like a light-headed gambler wielding foot-long brass playing cards, are hyper-emphatic and triumphalist, and they just keep coming. It’s visually spectacular and beautiful enough to make the film very watchable, although creeping dismay and contemptuous laughter are its companions throughout. It’s supreme macho camp, but Vidor apparently took it quite seriously (he was, by this time, apparently, a concentrated wingnut, who would go on to approve of the blacklist). It’s beautiful, but on the level of a David Fincher video for a Madonna track: immaculate style with dubious taste; elegantly dynamic cheese; hysterically butch camp.
Drilling is so thrilling!
I’m not sure what my favourite aspect of the bad bad writing is — the repulsive philosophy at times almost seems creditable when applied to the specific dilemma of the artist, and by stretching every neuron to snapping point I just about see why a Hollywood director would find validation in it (“Could the interfering mediocrities of the front office please let me do my job?”), but the plot turn that has walking hard-on “Howard Roark” (Gary Cooper) dynamite a poor people’s housing estate for aesthetic reasons rather beggars belief. But I think the “dialogue” spouting from Robert Douglas’s mouth, in his role as all-powerful architecture critic (?) Ellsworth M. Toohey puts the tin lid on it. Unable to actually imagine another human being with another point of view, Rand assembles a “character” entirely composed of straw man arguments and moustache-twirling. When Toohey talks about how he was able to “corrupt” oligarch Raymond Massey’s newspaper staff, one splutters in vain, “But he wouldn’t see it like that! Not if he’s the one doing it!”
The great stoneface.
There’s bad writing which exposes stupidity, bad writing which exposes prejudice (often the same thing, and most often in the form of sexism) and there’s bad writing which exposes near-lunacy. THE FOUNTAINHEAD is almost entirely clapped-together out of the latter kind. The climax, in which Cooper is cleared of blowing up a massive construction site on the grounds that he’s a good architect, is so spectacularly demented as to be almost believable in this age of ours — perhaps Polanski should model his defense upon it.
THE FOUNTAINHEAD should be avoided by persons vulnerable to demagogic blandishment, but is recommended for those who enjoy spluttering. You could splutter at it for the full 114 minutes running time, then hit “Play” again and splutter all over. Keep a napkin handy.
I am Howard, hear me Roark!
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