Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Drill Gary Drill

I knew King Vidor's adaptation of The Fountainhead would be something very special from its opening shot: a skyscraper set among the New York skyline. It is revealed--by turning!--to actually be the side of a book--The Fountainhead!--which opens to let us know it's adapted by its author--Ayn Rand! It's tacky and ridiculous, but strikingly so. It also bespeaks a fidelity to Rand and her novel which is, shockingly, not a liability. Far from it--it manages to retain enough of Rand's "philosophy" to satisfy all but the most ardent Objectivists (including Rand herself, but more on that later), and also translates her wild-eyed sensibility with such craft that the ordinarily suffocating didacticism can be safely bypassed and the movie enjoyed as a luxurious camp artifact.

The process of adaptation began within a year of The Fountainhead's publication. Though initially slow to sell, over the summer of 1943 it became a runaway hit, and by the end of the year Warner Brothers came knocking. Rand demanded what was then an extraordinary sum for the rights, $50,000, which the studio paid. Rand, a Hollywood veteran, produced a script treatment for them. After several years in development hell and wooing by an A-list that included Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, the studio attached Vidor and star Gary Cooper to the project. Rand tightened her screws and, along with being guaranteed that she would write the script and that it would be adhered to, she was regularly consulted on the set about character motivations and acting style.

The resulting screenplay is a masterpiece of concision, at least as far as the normally logorrhoeaic Rand goes. The core story of rugged individualist Howard Roark struggling against and triumphing over the forces of collectivist blah blah blah remains, but with whole sections either excised completely or drastically condensed; gone is Peter Keating's mother as well as his sometime lover, along with Ellsworth Toohey's circle of intellectual mediocrities. Numerous episodes have been expunged in order to let a few major events drive the action forward.

The film's opening scenes are a terrific example of its economical approach: an aggressive montage, with Roark standing in shadow, back to the camera each time. First Roark being ejected from architectural school, then being told by Peter Keating to be like him and make what everybody else likes, and then listening to curmudgeonly mentor Henry Cameron (Henry Hull) argue with himself before offering him a job. Then: "Wait! What's your name?" "...Howard Roark." The door shuts, and the camera pivots to the pages on Cameron's daily calendar, blowing in the wind and all but blaring, "PASSAGE OF TIME." It's not even necessarily good, but it's compelling viewing.

The relentless editing gives new focus to the story, away from the vacuous Peter Keating (Kent Smith) and inhumanly mediocre Ellsworth Toohey (played with effete European relish by Robert Douglas), and onto newspaper tycoon Gail Wynand  (Raymond Massey) and love interest Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), who  doesn't show up until two hundred pages into the novel but here makes her first appearance within twenty minutes. From a structural standpoint this is a problem; Toohey doesn't do much to become a full-on villain, and Keating his patsy, until well into the third act, so there is no consistent opposition to Roark. But with so much else to gawk at along the way, this ends up not being nearly so much a problem as one would expect.

For the film lives and dies by its style, which makes eminently watchable a script that would be otherwise unsalvageably hokey, stuffed as it is with dialogue chunks like:
WYNAND: I merely wanted to show you that all men are corrupt, that anyone can be bought, and that you are wrong in your contempt for me. There is no honest way to deal with people. We have no choice except to submit or to rule them. I chose to rule.
DOMINIQUE: A man of integrity would do neither.
Yet rather than try to mine this for psychological depth, the actors instead play it with a crazed earnestness suggestive of religious fanatics. This I think is a kind of Rosetta Stone for Ayn Rand's enduring appeal and for why her sensibility tends to translate so poorly to flesh and blood depiction. In portraying them, it doesn't matter what these people believe--an ugly amalgamation of the unchallenged, the impossible, and the indefensible--but that they believe. Most real people have doubts and internal conflicts, while Rand's creations have all the mythic judgmental certitude of an Old Testament prophet.

None of the performers demonstrate this better than Neal as Dominique Francon, a character who comes off on the page as an irritatingly contrarian bitch but who Neal imbues with a sad longing that makes her, not necessarily sympathetic, but sexy and entrancing (Neal replaced Lauren Bacall at the last minute, and began an off-screen affair with Cooper; Rand initially wanted Gretta Garbo for the part). It's the eyes that do it. Rand wrote Dominique as "myself on a bad day" and there are indeed a couple shots in which Neal wears a manic stare that encapsulates, within a few frames, everything about Rand and her "glare that could wilt a cactus" that Helen Mirren spent 90 TV-movie minutes trying and failing to capture.

The performances are augmented every step of the way by Vidor's direction, which goes for the garish gusto every step of the way. Max Steiner's music swells and stings to underscore, as it were, every very emotional beat of the story. The set design is delightfully ostentatious, with a giant map of the world befitting a James Bond villain that spans the wall of Wynand's office, and little details like a fish tank lamp or a giant, tacky portrait on the wall of newspaper editor Alvah Scarret. The lighting is bold when it wants to be, such as the giant shadows in the rape scene. The framing and editing work hand-in-hand to bring all this together and scream the subtext. Consider the scene of Dominique's first glimpse of Roark, a back-and-forth edit that contrasts Patricia Neal's idealized Hollywood goddess looks with the most brute sight and sound of masculine penetration possible.

The most unnatural aspect of the whole thing is, obviously, Howard Roark's five-minute courtroom speech, unusual and unprecedented in its time and perhaps even more out of step with today's jump-cut driven movie rhythms. It's a dramatic dud for all the obvious reasons (the same reasons that have me salivating with sadistic glee at the prospect of the two hour John Galt radio speech being adapted for the nigh-guaranteed Atlas Shrugged Part III), but it is helped in no way by Cooper, who is, somewhat inscrutably, the one weak link among the major players. He is simply, at age forty-eight, too old for an archetype of timeless virility. His gaze communicates confusion more than stoicism, and he makes the kiss-of-death mistake of trying to make Rand's heavy-handed dialogue sound believable, which comes off all the worse when everyone else is acting on a completely different level. (He admitted as much after seeing the finished cut of the movie.)

Though Rand was initially proud of the film and the fact that it had been shot as originally written, she later denounced it as hopelessly compromised after discovering that a line of dialogue had in fact been cut, and from Roark's speech no less: “I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.” Outside that hardest of cores, the movie is appreciated by Randians for--what else?--its spirited defense of individualism. Yet, as I have hopefully made clear, there is considerable outside appeal as well. Though it remains true to its source material, in letter and spirit, more than any adaptation I can think of, it tempers Rand's poisonous opinions with enough actual style and skill that those opinions are easy enough to ignore.

That irony, that paradox, is what is so fatal to Objectivism as a whole: it is because of "others" that The Fountainhead exists on film as anything more than an incompetent joke; Atlas Shrugged, as we will find, would not be nearly so lucky.

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