The Fountainhead
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Patricia Neal's 86th birthday.
Director: King Vidor. Cast: Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Robert Douglas, Kent Smith, Ray Collins, Henry Hull, Jerome Cowan, Moroni Olsen, Jonathan Hale, Ann Doran, Tito Vuolo. Screenplay: Ayn Rand (based on her novel).
Twitter Capsule: Boldly if unevenly directed. Unintimidated embrace of muddled, malodorous philosophizing at least makes it unique.

Photo © 1949 Warner Bros. Pictures
How do you grade The Fountainhead? The problem is not made easier by the wizened specter of Ayn Rand, glaring at you from the front row of the classroom, bellowing, "I want an A or I want an F! In between there is nothing!!" Sadly, those are the only two grades that need not apply. But, leaving this silly, single-character evaluation system aside, how do you even react do The Fountainhead? Let's not even pretend the question is hypothetical. How did I react to The Fountainhead? I still can't tell, except to say that I maintained a kind of engaged fascination throughout that felt indistinguishably like the way you respond to a bold piece of ambitious creativity, or a train wreck, or a mad heckler on the street, or a propaganda reel, or a coelacanth in your bathtub. The Fountainhead is by turns exciting, handsome, astoundingly awkward, fully committed, untowardly relentless, very strange, and a little creepy in its compulsive watchability. It's like very little else, and there are good and bad reasons why most movies are not like this.

Do you extend the movie credit for its insolent individuality, regardless of whether or not its hectoring rhetoric and halting, reversal-prone dramaturgy are anything you'd want to experience again? Is it possible to rate the film without judging the philosophical system that doesn't just underpin it but pours uncut from the mouths of its characters? They only exist, after all, as does the film, as delivery vessels for Ayn Rand's vehement ideology, of which the fortune cookie version is Do Your Thing, Superman, and Everyone Else Can Suck It. Is The Fountainhead's surprising faithfulness to such a distinctive source a reason to praise it, especially given how typically Hollywood launders this kind of bold, mannered property into something naff and unrecognizable? Do you still extend that admiration even if Rand, and specifically Rand's lawyers, exercised such a stranglehold over the production that director King Vidor and Warner Bros. had virtually no choice but to honor their contractual pledge that nothing in her script be altered—even when the stiffness and self-indulgence of that script clearly harm the movie? The last time I felt this uncertain along these sorts of lines was in reviewing Mourning Becomes Electra, which is a painfully stilted movie in many respects but has such gumption in sticking with O'Neill's uncanny effects and masklike characters that I felt admiration and interest, even when I wasn't feeling especially entertained or elucidated. The Fountainhead is sexier and more involving than that one, but my sympathies for its project are less. Then again, my sense of surprise when The Fountainhead ended was much greater, and I'm a fan (I think?) of that sort of surprise. I may still experience a case of late-onset disgust or renter's remorse, as I have to some degree about Electra. For now, especially in the season of weak-sauce Oscar contenders, I'm feeling that sui generis, splendid-looking provocations, however schizophrenic and politically dubious, deserve some reward.

This is my first direct encounter with Ayn Rand, and it was sort of like meeting a co-worker from some distant part of the campus, widely rumored to be horrible but brilliant, or horrible and overrated, or brilliant and outrageously maligned. You'd need a second meeting to make up your own mind, after the unresolved draw of the first one, but that feels a lot like tempting fate; it's hard to imagine her coming off any better and easy to imagine her coming off worse. Anyway, I knew she had no interest in couching her philosophical ideas within anything like a finessed structure or style, but I still under-estimated just how uncouched they would be. The scenario, in essence: the dour, ingenious, polygon-loving, ahead-of-his-time architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) can't get hired to realize any of his impudent, innovative designs. When he even comes close, his absolute refusal to adjust the most marginal detail in his blueprints always costs him the contract. Immovably proud as he is, Howard winds up doing menial labor in a rock quarry rather than compromise his principles. Before long, although the period of time covered in The Fountainhead is a little tricky to gauge, he meets Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), the more reluctant of two architecture critics at the New York Banner, who is one tough cookie. When they first spot each other, he is ramming his power-drill into a hole in a limestone wall, and she is idling atop a stone rampart, brazenly but also lazily erotic, like Grégoire Colin in Beau travail, except she's got a riding crop instead of a pair of cargo pants as her preferred accoutrement. This sort of stuff is unapologetically rendered in both its clunky Freudian symbolism and its eyebrow-raising erotic heat. (What do you mean, there's a censorship code?) The aphrodisiac aura of the film, all the more surprising given the sharp lines, sterile colors, and cavernous spaces of its photography, reaches a peak when Dominique smashes the hell out of a marble fixture in her house, just so Howard will have to drop by in his sweaty khakis, smash the thing some more, and make perfectly clear that he recognizes a booty call when he hears one.

Dominique is both aroused and alarmed by Roark, possibly because she makes a self-avowed religion of hating anything she desires, as a grande geste against any form of the dreaded Submission. Her newspaper, via its more sinister architecture critic, Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), slams the one, magnificent building that Roark succeeds in building, turning him overnight from cause célèbre to professional pariah. He gets a few more contracts. Over the course of the film, he hates, adores, rapes (yes, rapes), and pines for Dominique, who loathes and praises and condemns and longs for him, even after she's married her editor at the Banner, Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who admires, despises, encourages, thwarts, rescues, and denounces Roark at every turn, which is a lot of turns. Roark gets his hugest contract yet, but is actually ghost designing it for Peter Keating (Kent Smith), his untalented colleague from architecture school, who's a less divisive figure for a corporation to hire—and an easier one to bully. This twit is supposed to hold fast to Roark's every specification, but you know he won't. Slashed wrists, giant explosions, and bullets to the head ensue, though not from the quarters you necessarily expect. The Fountainhead becomes, all of a sudden, a courtroom drama, with a final summation by Roark on his own behalf that lasts as long as the Mesozoic Age. Pandemonium has overtaken the streets and even the Banner's own offices, but the camera doesn't dawdle there. Mostly these rumored riots serve as a conduit for every major character in the movie to spout off about (and usually against) "the mob" or "the masses," in the same tone Michael Ironside used for the metallic space-ants in Starship Troopers, and which Blue Staters reserve for Iowa Caucus voters, especially the ones who can't seem to find those ballots they allegedly counted.

The last thing The Fountainhead cares about is subtlety, but transparency is one thing, and strident philosophizing is another. If the seismic ups and downs of Roark's career seem exaggerated enough (no such thing as ambivalence or complexity without a dramatic narrative swing to spruce things right along), the dialogue is even more over-weening. Ellsworth Toohey, contemplating his motives for his smear campaign against Howard Roark: "Maybe I wanted to dishonor and discredit all greatness." Dominique, pleading Roark's cause to Gail: "Because it's great. I'm pleading for a man's achievement! I'm pleading for greatness!" Dominique, responding to Gail's first, sidelong marriage proposal: "If I ever choose to punish myself for some terrible guilt, I'll marry you." Dominique, the second-stringer architecture reporter at one among many New York City newspapers, regarding I can't remember what: "There is no honest way to deal with people. We have no choice except to submit or to rule them. I chose to rule!" Gail, offering Howard a contract: "You will take your spectacular talent and make it subservient to the taste of the masses." Ellsworth, incensed by Howard's designs, and by His Greatness, and by the steps Howard takes to insulate both from the space-ants of New York City, including its corporate boards: "Who is Society? We are! Self-sacrifice is the law of our age! Howard Roark, a supreme egoist, is a man who must be destroyed!" Roark, to a jury of his ostensible peers (ha!): "There is no such thing as a collective brain... The parasite follows the opinions of others... The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing."

The characters in The Fountainhead talk about Greatness the way the characters in Crash talk about race. There is no need for a line of dialogue that a resident of the world might actually speak, implicitly disclosing a personal ethics or a racist bias, not when a pseudo-Nietzschean dictum or a putrid epithet can do the job. On the one hand, it is easy to mock both movies for their heightened verbal register. It's a tall order for the casts of either film to keep up, especially since the Fountainhead folks aren't just saddled with a style of expression that's tough to put over but are tasked to make sense of the spiky worldview these lines are hawking. Patricia Neal, all but debuting to the public in the highwire role of Dominique, does yeoman's work trying to make psychological sense of her vociferous expostulations and unpredictable volte-faces. She gets stuck with a lot of "I love you, now get the fuck away from me" reversals, sometimes more than once in a given scene. Failing sense, she often tries to dress the lines up with shadings of feeling or tailored glimmers of Dominique's personality, whatever that ultimately is. While Neal can be a dynamo to behold—rough and beautiful and cut out of hard rock, like one of Roark's buildings—she fights a lot of losing battles against words that beg to be stated, not embellished with character detail or conversational flavoring. Massey, cast in the role of Ambivalent Machiavellianism, and Douglas, playing Effete Venality, have less tempestuous characters to keep track of, but they also exhibit a stronger hold on how to color-block their performances effectively while still effacing their own labor as actors, and letting the lines do the job.

Gary Cooper is also undemonstrative, in a less consistently satisfying way. A decade or two after he played such appealing innocents and comic charmers, he registers here as a glowering sourpuss who really doesn't want anyone by his side. How much of this is down to acting feels unclear. Suffice to say that Cooper seems like the right actor for the part when Roark is acting sullen or cruel, but roundly over-challenged when he's the conduit for intellectual rhetoric that he plainly struggles to decipher. His discomfort feels most obviously like miscasting in that final courtroom speech, which Rand refused to cut by a single word. This visually dynamic movie calcifies so suddenly into flat compositions and repetitive edits that I wondered whether Vidor was purposefully sabotaging the sequence so that someone, anyone, would be forced to pull out some scissors. The bigger problem is that Rand enunciates the themes of The Fountainhead so exhaustively that she seems to believe they have been in any way unclear for the duration of the movie. Like virtually every dogmatist known to man, she thinks she's just getting warmed up while the rest of us are crying uncle.

All of that said, I admire The Fountainhead's gumption at painting in such thick, heavy-brush strokes, as I do in Crash (which doesn't strike me as aspiring to simple realism, despite the modest photography) and in Electra (which quite obviously isn't). The movie isn't just belaboring its points, but making its assertiveness into a style—not my favorite style, maybe, but an apt choice given the material, since Rand's positions are as much "about" their vociferousness as about the stances involved. To watch Hollywood bend its usual protocols to accommodate this kind of expression is as thrilling, in its way, as watching a film raise its degree of difficulty with a particularly mobile camera, or an overbright palette, or a musical score that many viewers will reject as incongruous to the story or the genre. And lest I reduce this style of utterance to an intriguing form at the expense of content, The Fountainhead is certainly unusual in foregrounding a series of philosophical arguments so emphatically as a storytelling approach. Romance, character, fantasies of wealth, even narrative structure are continually subordinated to debates about morality. Agreeing or not with Roark's positions or the chemical reactions they prompt among the other characters does not slake the weird interest the film engenders by showing that jagged, trapezoidal Expressionism can be a style not just of lensing and set-design but of speaking. It's even a little exciting to be hectored by a 40s studio movie rather than sobered, diverted, flattered, or seduced.

To honor the script's verbal idioms as well as its own monumentality, not just in theme but in moral arrogance, The Fountainhead devises an impressive mise-en-scène of sleek, angular compositions. The shots are so handsome and striking, and so consistent in their bold aesthetic, that they furnish a laminating cover, too, for the story's maze of hairpin turns and psychological muddiness. If you're finding the movie hard to follow or tough to swallow, just check out the balance of light and shadow, the tense relations of foreground to background, the glimmer of life in the inkpool of Neal's eyes! Cinematographer Robert Burks, whom we were just praising for juxtaposing Tennessee Williams's flights of poetic fancy to a poignant urban realism in The Glass Menagerie, snazzily pursues a very different calling here. If the images don't always help us to "read" a story that needs a little more illumination than Rand provides, Burks's sleek work with cross-hatches, triangular patterns, and blank spaces begging to be filled is often enough its own reward. In shots like the one where Dominique descends into the quarry to meet Howard for the first time, Burks even succeeds in blocking parts of the frame so that they reproduce the silhouettes of his own architectural signatures.

In general, the compositions are as inspired by modern architecture as Citizen Kane's were by the gridlike flatness of the newspaper, and indeed the impress of Kane seems strong here, not just in some directly quoted images but by using exaggerated spaces, flamboyant tracks, and chiaroscuro effects as crucial tools for selling us on Roark as a protean Colossus standing astride the culture. It's a tougher sell with him than it was with Welles's protagonist, and I can only assume Rand would resent the implication that The Fountainhead drew inspiration from anybody or anything to whom it might owe a debt. The photography can't always hide the moments when the mise-en-scène comes up a little short or seems to hit a budgetary limit; the alleged sacking of The Banner's offices in the wake of a Roark-related controversy is a narrative conceit that the image barely takes seriously. Some of the process shots asking us to accept rear-projections or photo-stills as live backdrops are also distractingly wonky. Overall, though, the production values associated with the sets, the visual effects (including the smart work getting Roark's designs "into" New York City), and Max Steiner's harsh but subtly impassioned score are all pretty high.

Occasionally the look of The Fountainhead is so strong, and almost freestanding from the pitch or the import of what's going on at a given moment, that the film seems a little confined to its dazzling surfaces, both visual and verbal. In this respect, it's almost helpful to the movie that in an otherwise repulsive move, Rand allows her male lead to rape his ally-enemy-paramour and never really answer for this crime, not even when he's standing atop his proudest achievement in dramatically low angle, like some kind of triumphant, idealized blend of God, Edmund Hillary, and Albert Speer. If the script errs on the side of forgetting this inevitably indirect but still very harrowing episode in its own past, Neal, at least, never forgets it. We can assume from the way she plays so many of her subsequent scenes that Vidor hasn't forgotten, either. For the rest of the film, it's impossible to know how many of Dominique's schizophrenic reactions to Roark are based on her response to his own genius or to her neurotic moral system or to the incensing and humiliating memory of his violent aggression. The rape is a violation of Dominique in all the ways it would be to anyone but also to her specific, extravagant rejection of "submission" in any form. Dominique, then, has to be understood forever afterward as a character experiencing a profound internal tailspin, even during the interludes when she seems to have a leg up in the endless series of power-plays.

I've observed above that Neal is occasionally guilty of pouring too much into her line-readings and her close-ups, given that the film is more interested in working with placeholders than psychologized characters. Still, to the extent she's the only actor freed to play something beyond what's overtly "in" her lines, she not only supplies some invigorating notes when the movie needs them but she offers the best evidence that The Fountainhead might hold up to a second viewing, with more to show for itself than its loudly trumpeted beliefs and its impressive but not necessarily layered images. Even the ongoing dissonance between the horrible, unconfessed history linking Howard to Dominique and the flagrant sexual magnetism between Cooper and Neal, who conducted a notorious extra-marital affair during filming, swells the movie with an obscene sense of erotic danger that Rand's system seems hard-pressed to address. This, too, gives the movie a specific identity and texture of its own. (I personally think The Fountainhead, which in every other way is obsessed with specifically masculine rivalries, would profit in fascinating ways from casting Dominique as a man. This choice would contextualize Howard's rape as the violent, desexualized epitome of white-collar brutality. Already, the events, the words, and the visuals of the movie keep imbuing its scenario with the psychological extremities, the swinging-dick bravado, the terrorizing ethics, and the compromised choices we associate with the Oz-style prison-house.)

These two, unequal vectors of The Fountainhead—that in which Rand soldiers implacably forward with her knife-edged philosophizing, and that in which Neal almost single-handedly invests the film with erotic, neurotic, and post-traumatic ambivalence—culminates in a very strange final sequence. From one point of view, Dominique suddenly appears as something softer and more banal than she's ever been, a June Allyson take on the happy wife, visiting hubby at the workplace, though with a very un-June intention of boinking him on the top of the world's tallest, most phallic, and most throne-like skyscraper. (I love whomever in the Art Direction department decided to take the piss out of Roark's accomplishment by plonking an ugly fire hydrant right in front of the building's self-mythologizing cornerstone.) At the same time, as she rides an open-air elevator further and further up the world's tallest building, you can't quite decipher whether Neal's Dominique is leaning further and further backward to get a better, quicker glimpse of her Nietzschean Superman or whether she's seized with inchoate disgust (at him? at herself?) and a corresponding urge to throw herself right off Olympus and into oblivion. Maybe the same tension exists in Rand. Maybe it's disappointing that Dominique seems a little castrated in her final scenes, wilting in a hospital bed and feeling so earthbound in relation to her High Holy husband. But I think it's to the good of the movie. The narrative logic and the visual grammar of The Fountainhead's finale don't seem to invite a whole lot of uncertainty about the culminating message, and I'd already be sympathetic to a film that's this aggressive in pursuit of an idea it knows a lot of people will find abrasive, to say the least... even if we're mindless ants for reacting that way! Still, if the final shots of The Fountainhead are its most brazenly triumphalist, the inscrutable mood and the irregular cross-cuts to Neal on that elevator constitute a dark and fascinating counter-harmonic to all the blinding-white apogees and crescendoing fanfares. If Dominique's not sure how she's feeling, I can relate. I myself was seized by the impulse to applaud, to chortle, and to pop the DVD right back in to see how honestly or not the movie had arrived at this destination, so pompous and so queasy at the same time. As you can tell, I still haven't sorted out those reactions, but any movie that enlists this many balls-out strategies to provoke this many questions and impressions is a movie I'm happy to have around. Grade: B

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