Friday, October 07, 2005

The Cobweb: Repressed Beyond Retrieval

Somewhere deep in the subconscious of The Cobweb (1955) there is a giant joke just waiting to emerge, but no matter how much psychoanalysis is given to this film, the joke that it wants to be just won’t come out. As much the victim of repression as The Cobweb may be, it is more the victim of a lost memo, one that decided whether it would be a comedy, a love story, a drama, or a socially conscious expose of psychiatric clinics. The latter is decidedly inapt (considering how inept the film’s handling of psychoanalysis is) but, nonetheless, as the film nears its conclusion and the morals come out of the closet, there’s a lesson to be learned about analysts as well: sometimes they, too, tend to “lose it.”

At an open-doors psychiatric clinic, where patients are allowed to walk around town, take other patients to the movies, or attempt to drown themselves, the higher-ups are at odds over curtains for the library. Doctor Richard Widmark, in charge of the patients, pushes for a patient to design the curtains. Lillian Gish, handling the pocketbook for the whole operation, pushes for cheap cotton. Gloria Grahame, Widmark’s neglected wife, has her own fabric in mind. Somehow, this fuels a two-hour and fifteen minute drama/comedy.

Writers William Gibson and John Paxton had in mind an ensemble piece with only the barest threads holding the disparate stories together. The actors, more than the writing or Vincent Minnelli’s directing, give the film its flavor and its emotional direction, even if it does seem to be lacking a compass most of the time. If you ever wondered what would happen if Widmark, Grahame, Gish, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall and Fay Wray were like on screen together, this film with be the Cuisinart of your dreams. Widmark is his usual didactic self, off to save the world from another disaster: instead of the plague or Communists, this time it is your own subconscious. But for the rest of the actors (and, by association, their characters), the doctoral roles and clinical surroundings have had an adverse effect: more than ever, their personas have been anaesthetized to the point where they lack even the most surface level id.

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