Cobweb, The (1955)

Cobweb, The (1955)

“I want to un-mix this mix-up about the drapes.”

A psychiatrist (Richard Widmark) at an upscale clinic decides it would be good therapy for his artistic patient (John Kerr) to create silk-screen designs for a set of new drapes — but the clinic’s controlling business manager, Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), wants to buy simple cotton drapes, while the psychiatrist’s neglected wife (Gloria Grahame) has more expensive ideas of her own. Meanwhile, Dr. McIver (Widmark) grows closer to his female co-worker (Lauren Bacall), while Grahame seeks attention from her husband’s alcoholic boss (Charles Boyer).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Charles Boyer Films
  • Fay Wray Films
  • Gloria Grahame Films
  • Lauren Bacall Films
  • Lillian Gish Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Oscar Levant Films
  • Paul Stewart Films
  • Psychotherapy
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Susan Strasberg Films
  • Vincente Minnelli Films

Vincente Minnelli’s widescreen, all-star melodrama — based on William Gibson’s bestselling novel — is a truly puzzling venture. While it seems impossible that any movie starring Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Lillian Gish, and Susan Strasberg (and taking place in a mental institute) could be a clunker, this one comes awfully close. Part of the problem stems from the format of the film itself, with the characters literally engulfed by the widescreen camera:

Equally problematic — and common to many ensemble films, especially those adapted from dense novels — is how underdeveloped each of the characters ultimately is, with none given enough screentime to truly shine. Bacall (a nominally “central” character) is especially underserved:

while Strasberg’s admittedly minor role as an inmate is so slight she barely registers.

Some have noted that the film’s very premise — curtains — is enough to push it into the realm of enjoyable camp:

but I failed to see it this way. Ultimately, The Cobweb is only worth seeing for the lead actors, who do their best with limited material.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Widmark’s sympathetic turn as Dr. McIver
  • Gloria Grahame as McIver’s neglected wife
  • Charles Boyer as tippling Dr. “Dev”
  • Fine cinematography and production values

Must See?
No; it’s unclear to me why this overstuffed melodrama has developed a latter-day following.


3 thoughts on “Cobweb, The (1955)

  1. A must.

    Not because it’s any good. In the final analysis (if you will), it isn’t, really. It is certainly, however, a one-of-a-kind film experience, if you can stay awake.

    There’s a lot of honest-to-God BLATHER in this mind-numbing movie; as pointed out just about anywhere else, the dialogue appears to be a good 90% about curtains. There’s a phenomenal amount of talk just like this:

    Widmark: Now, when did Karen call you?
    Gish: Last night.
    Widmark: What about?
    Gish: …Swatches!!

    ‘Cobweb’ undeniably has a je ne sais quoi, and here’s quoi: there ain’t another picture so bent on illuminating certain drapery fetishism.

    Which it does late in the picture when Kerr is talking with Strasberg:

    Kerr: All of the sick feelings out of the past hook on to things in the present.

    Oh, yeah! – kinda like…drapes! Now I realize that ‘Sick Feelings’ may not have been a great marquee title in 1955, but (Widmark’s late remark notwithstanding) why ‘The Cobweb’? Why not…oh, I don’t know…’The Fabric’?

    While for many this will be little but a snore-fest, I think it just gets wackier on each viewing, so I hardly ever mind returning to it. Mostly it’s because of the large and unlikely cast rounded-up (kind of like what was done with the laughable ‘Duel in the Sun’ nine years earlier – also with Gish). Everyone gives it their all and most of the headliners have their moments (in particular, Gloria Grahame: she excels at phone conversation scenes and I love how she browbeats Widmark for his inattentiveness while treating her own wonderful children like wallpaper).

    Gish is the one who walks away with the film, though. And in a marvelous cameo as Boyer’s wife, Fay Wray reminds us again what an interesting quality she had.

  2. I wonder, though — if this one will likely be, as you note, “little but a snore-fest” for most viewers, should it still be considered must-see for all of us? This gets into the tricky territory of whether all cult films (if “The Cobweb” even qualifies as one) should be considered mandatory viewing for ffs.

    Perhaps I’m just a big old grump, but I didn’t find Gish particularly compelling here, either.

  3. Oh, go ahead, be a grump, ya good kid, ya!

    For me, it comes down to – if someone were to ask me if something is must-see or not, what would I honestly say? I certainly don’t feel all cult films are musts (i.e., ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ – sheesh!).

    On the other hand, I don’t think must-sees should simply be those widely considered great for one reason or another. I believe a real ff should see all the ones that ‘work’, along with some that don’t – I guess what I would call ‘interesting failures’…and when I refer to ‘The Cobweb’ as “interesting”, I mean “jaw-dropping” stuff.

    My friend Paul (btw: don’t miss him on TCM on Thanksgiving night) says Minnelli is his favorite director but the only thing he likes about ‘TC’ is the color photography. Paul reminded me how visually meticulous Minnelli was when working on a project. Do ffs ‘need’ to sit-through a reflection of Minnelli’s own obsessive behavior? No. But I’d still call it a must-see. How can I explain how my life is…richer…for having seen it more than once? 😉

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