Web of Love


Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.


The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.


Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.


Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)

18 Responses to “Web of Love”

  1. I always felt MGM missed a good bet on an ad campaign that should have read “When Gloria Grahame Changes the Drapes It’ Curtains For Everyone!”

  2. “Quick, nurse, the screens!”

    I was shocked — but really excited — to see how many Minnelli movies I have yet to see. The nightmare of The Long Long Trailer is what got me most into him, but I’ve been slow to follow up. Designing Woman is something else, ain’t it?

  3. It sure is — with Jack Cole playing a “flamboyant” choreographer who we’re informed in the last act is really straight after all. Yeah, right.

    Minnelli’s talents were many and varied, and unlike so many other Golden Age of Hollywood directors he worked (until the very end of his career) at one studio — MGM. It’s penchant for the plush matched his own. Yet he really excelled at dramatizing less-than-rosy scenarios eg. Some Came Running, The Bad and The Beautiful, The Cobweb, Home From the Hill, Lust For Life, Tea and Sympathy.

    And that’s not to mention such fabulous insanities as The Pirate, Two Weeks in Another Town, The Story of Three Loves and Yolanda and the Thief

  4. Christopher Says:

    Minnelli’s “Mademoiselle”segment in The Story Of Three Loves,is a guilty pleasure..always would have liked to see that expanded as a feature by itself.

  5. It’s really something.. Little Ricky Nelson falls in love with Leslie Caron and gets his wish granted to be a grown-up — Farley Granger (!) –in order to date her.

  6. Penny Marshall’s Big avant la lettre.

    Jack Cole’s heterosexuality is proven by his ability to beat up a gang of mobsters using the power of dance. GREAT.

    What’s remarkable about Minnelli’s serious films is that he can go overboard with aesthetics without losing a sense of reality. They’re not gritty, and at times border on being musicals without songs, but they still carry emotional conviction on their own terms, and can get pretty damn dark. He’s like a painter who can create any mood while using only primary colours.

  7. jiminholland Says:

    I trust that you know that Self-Styled Siren and her commenters have repeatedly (should I really say it?) draped this film with commentary that is as hilarious as it is incisive.

    I’ve mentioned before that I have long been contending with a mood disorder similar to Fiona’s; in my case it’s been named ‘cyclothymia,’ ‘rapid cycling,’ ‘soft bipolarity,’ and other things (including ‘assholism,’ by those who lack the luxury of dealing with it in a clinically detached way).

    But whatever this is called, one of its most galling aspects for me is that movies not only won’t help it, but will make it worse: I’ll turn to them in hope of relief from my dysphoria, and then become more dysphoric yet when they prove unable to provide that relief.

    What do you do when you’re in such a frame of mind that watching, say, ‘Our Hospitality,’ results in feeling more dismal about yourself and the world–something that happened to me just a few days ago?

    I don’t know; going to stuff like this helps me, at least a bit:

    (The blonde dancer in the b & w video is Raffaella Carrà, best known for her long history of cozy personal relationships with fascists, and her supporting role in a film starring Frank Sinatra.

    And those are different things?)

    The point here, if there is one, is that Adriano Celentano is apparently a genius, but the fact that he’s working in a medium I don’t feel is so central to my life — TV (and Italian TV at that!) — allows me enjoyment that’s less complicated than that I normally take from someone like Keaton.

  8. Makes sense that a more abstract art would provide distraction, too.

    Fiona’s diagnosis seems to have changed: she still has depression and anxiety, but the sudden mood swings seem to have been caused by the antidepressant they were trying her on. Back on Prozac, they have vanished and her overall mood has lifted enormously.

    Her health updates aren’t really what we’re here to talk about, but she’s feeling better and her new shrink says he sees no evidence she’s bipolar. The kind of weird surges of energy she was getting weren’t really normal bipolar symptoms: the bipolar group she attended were freaked out by them!

  9. And that’s not to mention —

  10. Yes, Cole as straight is an absurdist joke — we couldn’t work out if it was to be taken semi-seriously as an injunction not to judge a book by its cover, or was just an in-joke by Minnelli. Whatever the joke is, it’s on Gregory Peck’s character, which is always refreshing.

  11. Excellent article!

  12. John Kerr is the dullest, least interesting actor whose work I have encountered in film although he may be trumped by Don Dubbins.

  13. But he’s a good guy to bring in when things are in danger of getting too interesting. He has the legendary minus factor. When he enters a scene it’s like somebody left.

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