Director: Vincente Minnelli
The Cobweb (1955) is an all star soap opera that takes a look inside the problems and power struggles of a posh psychiatric clinic, where, in the words of one character, “everybody’s tilted and you can’t tell the patients from the doctors.”
Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark) is the chief analyst juggling paperwork and endless meetings with patient sessions. He’s a tough love practitioner, a fierce defender of patients’ privacy rights and advocate for their self government. His terms among his colleagues are unconditional surrender to his methods and decisions, which the board thinks are too lax and experimental. The demands of his job leave him little time for his own family. His daughter tells people she wants to be a patient to get more of daddy’s attention, his sweet son waits for the chess games to get some time with father, and wife Karen (Gloria Grahame) is desperately needy and bitter about his neglect. She consequently ties her self worth to flirting with other men and getting involved in making decisions at the clinic.
One such decision, the central one of this plot, is the escalating and bizarre struggle centred on selecting the clinic library’s drapes. Once the secretary, Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) chooses a fabric swatch that Karen deems an ugly rag not fit to wash a car, Karen sees a chance to assert herself, goes up to the Chairwoman and rush orders more lively drapes. Meanwhile back at the clinic, the patients have offered to make the drapes themselves, printed with graphics provided by the resident artist Stevie (John Kerr). Widmark approves of this project as a perfect fit into his therapeutic policy, oblivious to the battle brewing between Inch and Karen.
As they say in couples counseling, the argument is never just about the drapes, so those curtains (which I got so sick of hearing about by the end of the movie) pull back to reveal a variety of other neuroses and tensions. Karen takes the issue to Dr. Devenal (Charles Boyer), who everyone assumes is the head of the institute but who’s actually lost his power thanks to his own problems with booze and women. Devenal decides to make a play to regain control of the clinic, as well as a play for the vulnerable Karen. When it looks like Karen’s drapes have won the contest, the patients’ lose faith in McIver and his promises, they rebel, Stevie disappears, and Karen’s finds out her husband spends lots of time with understanding art therapist Meg (Lauren Bacall). By the end of the movie McIver questions his ability as he races to keep his job and his marriage, keep his patient alive and put out all the fires started by insecure, selfish characters around him.
Those characters are what make this crazy drama worth the time, and they’re introduced and inhabited so comfortably you feel like you’ve tuned into a couple episodes of a prime time soap. Grahame’s fine performance is matched by Gish’s as Miss Inch, the fiery hard-working taskmaster who will hang up on you rather than continue any conversation that’s not going her way. She’s dedicated to the clinic and Devenal, and shattered to learn he isn’t in control. Devenal goes on a bender in a seedy motel where the clinic receptionist (Adele Jergens) sees him. Edna Devenal (Fay Wray) arrives at a key moment with a document that might oust McIver or drive away her husband.
Talented, overwrought ball of rage Stevie hates the world and himself and has a genius for “belittling the world.” He holds his father’s flaws and failures against everyone he meets, acts like nobody else ever felt pain or rejection. Producing the art that will be screen printed on the drapes steadies him and he warms to the calming Meg and helps the agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg) make progress, but still demands too much and is too easily destroyed by the smallest setback, so when he goes missing after the drapery debacle there’s some real suspense about whether or not he did himself in.
Meg lost her husband and son in a car crash, and Bacall does a nice job of making her convincingly sweet and caring with a hint of sadness. She’s come out the other side of grief and is “back among the living,” so she can dispense good advice to Stevie about life getting better the more you work at it, and she can discuss patients and clinic workings and drapery with Widmark. Meg, and her friends the fabric printer and his wife (Bert Freed and Eve McVeagh), are so normal and enthused about regular things like creativity, marriage, children, even something as simple as a nice meal, that they provide McIver (and the viewer) with a welcome escape from the insanity of the clinic, his colleagues and his marriage.