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.