Fountainhead, The (1949)

“Do you want to stand alone against the whole world?”

Synopsis:
A visionary young architect (Gary Cooper) refuses to compromise his artistic integrity at any cost.

Genres:

Review:
King Vidor’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel is just as stilted as its source material. Rand wrote her own screenplay, and, like her central hero, refused to compromise the integrity of her philosophical vision; as a result, the characters are — as noted by DVD Savant — simply “walking ideas and arguments”, and the film itself comes across as “a presentation of a radical social philosophy using a soap opera format”. With that said, some believe there’s more to The Fountainhead than meets the eye; Savant himself refers to it as an “emotionally powerful piece of cinematic insanity, a movie that bears careful watching.”

I’ve seen the film twice now, and must admit I find it difficult to take seriously — while it’s nothing if not sincere, it fails to involve viewers on anything more than a superficial level, and the didactic dialogue is an enormous distraction. Cooper’s infamous, lengthy courtroom speech in the final section of the film is frustrating rather than satisfying, given that his logic is hopelessly skewed; ultimately, it’s hard to root for this staunchly selfish man, who considers his own needs more important than everyone else’s.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Patricia Neal — stilted, but undeniably beautiful in her first major film role
    Neal
  • Robert Burk’s stark cinematography
    Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its status as an over-the-top cult favorite.

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One Response to “Fountainhead, The (1949)”

  1. A must – if often for the wrong reasons.

    I’ve not read the 752-page Rand novel – it’s one of those I’ve always meant to get to…but actually don’t really want to. Since Rand herself streamlined the book into a screenplay, I suppose in some sense I don’t really have to.

    So classy and yet so clearly deranged, ‘The Fountainhead’ is a woman’s picture at odds with the world of ideas – and the clash of one against the other makes for ping-pong excitement. Oddly, I don’t find the film stilted at all; even if the characters are often nothing more than mouthpieces, director Vidor infuses the proceedings with such utter conviction, it’s almost easy to believe that people could talk this way. Almost.

    With its theme of “the individual against the collective”, the film cozies up to any number of others: ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Ionesco’s play (later, the film) ‘Rhinoceros’, Cooper’s own ‘High Noon’ three years later, etc. But here the theme is a ‘VERY IMPORTANT’ one – as witness the often elephantine production design, the remarkably evocative b&w camerawork, and the often bombastic Max Steiner score. (If the film weren’t huffing and puffing so much on its own, it would have trouble breathing under the music.)

    Ultimately, the performances are the real thrust of this phallus-centric film. Neal is playing a woman driven nearly insane by the ‘fact’ that “…beauty and genius and greatness have no chance – [in] the world of the mob.” Her initial sexual encounter with Cooper has the torrential abandonment of the wildest of one-night-stands – yet the very thing she wants becomes the very thing she fears: “I’ll do anything to escape from you.”, she tells Cooper just before kissing him passionately.

    What’s perhaps most satisfying as a fantasy is the fact that, in Cooper, Neal has found not only a genius and staunch iconoclast but someone who’s HOT as well (so rare, as we all know!). Note the moment when the quarry foreman greets Neal:

    Foreman: Let me show you around, Miss Francon. This is the best great granite in the whole state of Connecticut. Why, last month we shipped-
    Neal: [sharply; but then ‘sharply’ is her keynote throughout] Who is that man?

    This, of course, leads to the kind of intellectual, dinner party repartee endemic to Rand’s mind:

    Neal: I wish I’d never seen – your building. It’s the things that we admire or want that enslave us and I’m not easy to bring into submission.
    Cooper: That depends upon the strength of your adversary…Miss Francon.

    Hubba-hubba!

    Neal and Cooper were rarely better than they are here. Watch Cooper’s face in particular throughout; though he often says little (until the lengthy courtroom speech he apparently pleaded with Rand to shorten), his face is constantly responding to what’s said to him.

    [Though they are somewhat dwarfed here by comparison, special mention should be made of Raymond Massey – who, two years earlier, also played a ‘rebound marriage partner’ in Joan Crawford’s stunning film, ‘Possessed’; Robert Douglas, in a role that would echo somewhat in Addison DeWitt in the following year’s ‘All About Eve’; and Kent Smith, whose character seems to design every building in New York City not commissioned to Cooper.]

    As for the film itself, it’s too easy to simply see it as a camp classic. Its sheer audacity and endlessly quotable dialogue at times render it such, but this is one ffs can savor on various levels through various viewings.

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