FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Cobweb and Two Weeks in Another Town
Reviewed by Robert Sklar

Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall in The Cobweb

Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall in The Cobweb

The Cobweb
Produced by John Houseman; directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by John Paxton, additional dialog by William Gibson, from the novel by William Gibson; cinematography by George Folsey; art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Preston Ames; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Leonard Rosenman; starring Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, and Lillian Gish. DVD, CinemaScope and Eastman Color, 124 min., 1955. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release.

Two Weeks in Another Town
Produced by John Houseman; directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Charles Schnee, based on the novel by Irwin Shaw; cinematography by Milton Krasner; art direction by George W. Davis and Urie McCleary; edited by Adrienne Fazan and Robert J. Kern, Jr.; music by David Raksin; starring Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Cyd Charisse, George Hamilton, Dahlia Lavi, Claire Trevor, James Gregory, and Rosanna Schiaffino. DVD, CinemaScope and Metrocolor, 107 min., 1962. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release.

Vincente Minnelli directed some thirty films at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer between the early 1940s and early 1960s before he made his first picture at another studio, one of the longest runs of consecutive work by a major director for a single company in Hollywood history. It wasn’t all peaches and cream: an early chapter of his autobiography is titled “Foreman at the Factory,” which well describes a contract director in the studio system who neither initiated projects nor had rights to final cut. Still, there were considerably more hits than misses, and Warner Bros.’ home-video division, a rights holder, has released all but a half dozen of Minnelli’s M-G-M titles in DVD format over the past few years. Now that gap is closed with the final six films becoming available on DVD on a made-to-order basis from the Warner Archive Collection. And these remaining titles aren’t all from among the misses.

This review concerns two of the six, The Cobweb (1955) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), which Warner for some reason has labeled “2 Weeks…” on the disc and box jacket. Both are described as remastered editions of CinemaScope color prints, and they look great in their original format. (The only added feature on each is a theatrical trailer.) They would both be classified in the second category of the three-way division of Minnelli’s career output into musicals, melodramas, and comedies. John Houseman produced both pictures, two of the four he made with Minnelli; both are adaptations of popular novels; and both share an interest, in different degrees, in mental illness. But they’re fundamentally a fortuitous pairing. The former dates from the studio’s final heyday; seven years later, the latter marks the system’s crisis and dissolution. (For reference, the other made-to-order titles are I Dood It, 1943; Yolanda and the Thief, 1945; Tea and Sympathy, 1956; and The Reluctant Debutante, 1958.)

The Cobweb adapts William Gibson’s novel of the same name. Later noted as playwright of Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker, Gibson was married to a psychoanalyst who had trained at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and the book dramatizes people and situations he might have encountered there: male analysts and clinic leaders on the rise and in decline, unhappy wives, eccentric employees, disturbed patients. Their struggles are encapsulated in a byzantine intrigue over who gets to choose new drapes for the clinic common room. The filmmakers called Gibson in to add some panache to John Paxton’s screenplay. In Psychiatry and the Cinema, Glenn O. Gabbard and Krin Gabbard characterize the film as “the most elaborate treatment of the psychiatric profession in any Hollywood film to date.”

Richard Widmark plays the progressive analyst who advocates patient self-government, Gloria Grahame his discontented wife, Lauren Bacall the widowed art therapist drawn to Widmark’s character (and vice versa), Lillian Gish the old crone business manager who knows all the secrets. Houseman and Minnelli clashed over who would play the alcoholic, womanizing, over-the-hill clinic head, and Minnelli won out with Charles Boyer. The suave Frenchman was a big mistake; the part needed someone like Arthur Kennedy, perfect for an abject Midwestern bluffer, as he demonstrated in Minnelli’s 1958 Some Came Running. Boyer unbalances the film, distorting its dynamic. Of course the studio did the same, adhering to the Production Code by changing the novel’s ending, so that Widmark ends up not finding love with Bacall but domestic togetherness with the missus.

Two Weeks in Another Town, based on an Irwin Shaw novel, is in its own way a basket case, beset by intertexual anxiety over the new European cinema of Fellini, Antonioni and company. The film opens in a sanitarium where Kirk Douglas, as a broken-down actor with complexes and a shaky hand, receives an invitation to work on a picture in Rome, where a has-been director, played by Edward G. Robinson, is shooting a quickie for a crass European producer. Once he’s there, a screening of The Bad and the Beautiful is held: we see Douglas in his glory, but Robinson’s character is identified as that film’s director, turning him, reflexivity gone wild, into a version of Minnelli himself. There’s also a reprise of Lana Turner’s wild ride in the 1952 film, this time with Douglas at the wheel and Cyd Charisse, as his diabolical ex-wife, hanging on for dear life.

Two Weeks has its admirers and defenders, from Peter Bogdanovich in a 1962 review to Joe McElhaney’s extensive analysis in his 2006 book The Death of Classical Cinema, but it is a mess, which one may find fascinating or tiresome depending on your mood. Minnelli blamed the studio for cutting the film down to incoherence, eliding responsibility for static close-ups and droning monologues (by Charles Schnee, who also wrote The Bad and the Beautiful), Claire Trevor’s screeching performance as the director’s wife, George Hamilton’s nonacting in the James Dean role, and the many clichés about Italian decadence, courtesy of La dolce vita. Just about everyone and everything is over the hill in this film, classical cinema, the studio system, the works. The main survivor appears to be the European producer who mysteriously claims that he’ll make a big profit even if the film that Robinson’s character is shooting never gets released.

Robert Sklar is author of Movie-Made America and many other books on film.

To purchase The Cobweb or Two Weeks in Another Town, click here and here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.