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Film / The Cobweb

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The Cobweb is a 1955 film directed by Vincente Minnelli.

It is about the the dysfunctional relationships and power dynamics between the staff at a high-end mental health clinic devoted to nervous rich folk—the exact opposite of a Bedlam House, in other words. Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark) is the new director at the clinic, having supplanted long-time director Dr. Charles Devenal (Charles Boyer). Charles is not thrilled about this. Neither is Vicky Inch (Lillian Gish), a starchy, mean-spirited administrator at the clinic who doesn't like Stewart for bringing in his new style and new ideas and doesn't like Charles for having knuckled under to Stewart.

The staff's personal lives are just as complicated as their professional ones. Stewart's wife Karen (Gloria Grahame) stews in frustration as Stewart gives more and more of his attention to his work and less and less to her. Stewart for his part is starting to develop feelings for Meg Reinhardt (Lauren Bacall), a young widow who is a member of the staff. Charles is attracted to Karen. Vicky doesn't like anyone.

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Conflicts are brought to a head by the order of new curtains for the library. The penny-pinching Miss Inch orders cheap, ugly curtains. Stewart and Meg, independently of Miss Inch, hit upon the idea of letting the patients design new curtains as part of their therapy, led by Stevie (John Carr), a troubled young artist who had a breakdown after his mother died. And independently from any of them, a bored Karen, looking for something to do, orders fancy designer curtains.

Besides all of the stars listed above, Fay Wray of King Kong fame appears as Dr. Devenal's wife Edna.


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Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Dr. Devenal, who pounds drinks in his office in the daytime and at night goes to motels for binges.
    Stewart: I wonder where Dev is. He's probably drunk someplace.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Stewart practices the old-school "talking cure". Possibly justified in this instance as the patients at the clinic don't seem to have anything really wrong with them like schizophrenia.
  • Death of a Child: In the backstory, a car wreck killed Meg's husband and small son. She first came to the clinic as a patient after this but has stayed on as a member of the staff.
  • Disappeared Dad: Stevie says that his father was "a louse" who ran away long ago. While that certainly didn't help matters it was the death of his mother that sent him into the hospital.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Vicky's introduction in which she is browbeating a fabric merchant over the phone about the price of the curtains establishes her as a hardass.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Stewart is asked how he could let a depressive patient have the run of the place instead of keeping him in his room. He replies "Because I'm a doctor, not a jailer."
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Devenal hits the liquor cabinet after Vicky unloads on him with a "The Reason You Suck" Speech after finding out that he's signed away all control to McIver.
  • ISO-Standard Urban Groceries: Surprisingly, Meg's bag of groceries does not have a stick of French bread poking out of the top, but it does have lettuce.
  • Married to the Job: The main source of conflict between Stewart and Karen, as Stewart's devotion to the patients causes Karen to feel more and more neglected.
  • The Mistress: Dr. Devenal, who is married, is carrying on an affair with his Sexy Secretary Agnes.
  • Serious Business: Curtains. This seemingly trivial conflict leads to an uproar as hidden resentments and frustrations burst forth.
  • Shower Scene: A little Fanservice in a scene where Stewart confronts Karen as she's taking a shower.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Karen and Stewart's son Mark plays in tournaments and beats his father routinely.
  • Title Drop: "Out of our needs and our passions here, we've spun a human cobweb, and this boy's been caught in it." So says Stewart at the board meeting when he admits what's happened with Stevie.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Charles has been carrying on a longstanding affair with his secretary. Stewart cheats on Karen with Meg.
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