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USA 1949
Directed by
King Vidor
114 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand adapted the screenplay for this film from her own successful novel which goes a long way to explaining its heavy-handed and completely straight-faced crypto-fascist proselytising.

Gary Cooper plays a Modernist architect, Howard Roark (Vidor wanted Frank Lloyd Wright who was Rand's point of reference for her protagonist, to do the drawings but Jack Warner vetoed after Wright asked $250,000 for the assignment), who is determined to realize his personal vision in the face of entrenched Establishment conservatism. Rather than compromise his principles he takes on menial work to survive. He meets a heiress Dominique (Patricia Neal), but sacrifices her (and his) love to pursue his dreams.  Dominique marries a Hearst-like newspaper tycoon, Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who guided by his paper’s power-crazed architectural critic, Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) at first campaigns against Roark but eventually becomes his strongest supporter. Roark finally wins a public-housing contract but when he learn that his designs will be radically altered he destroys it, ultimately to be exonerated and after Wynand kills himself for abandoning his cause, Roark and Dominique are finally able to consummate their destiny.

If Rand's ideological tub-thumping is tiresomely tendentious in its celebration of the Nietzschean Übermensch, the fun of the film is that King Vidor matches its excessiveness pound for pound, particularly in his depiction of the torrid relationship between Roark and Dominique, with the help of Max Steiner's score even outdoing that between Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in Duel  In The Sun (1946). Their initial encounters are especially good in this respect with Dominique seduced by Roark’s prowess with a power drill and charging after him on her steed to smite him with her riding crop for reducing her to a quivering lustfulness (the two actors went at it so well that it turned into an off-screen affair).  This is the best aspect of the film which plot-wise is largely nonsensical although Vidor packages it well using Expressionist stylistic touches such as raking camera angles, stark close-ups and symbolically resonant contrasts of light and dark.

Cooper, who was 47 at the time, is too old to play the part but was Rand’s choice in preference to Vidor’s of Humphrey Bogart (who was a couple of years older). Lauren Bacall originally had the part of Dominique but after she dropped out a 22 year old Patricia Neal was given the part and she does an excellent job (given that over-acting in this context is excellent).  Although by the time of Roark's courtroom speech the film has pretty much exhausted itself and us,The Fountainhead, a commercial failure in its day, is an enjoyable affair even if for a lot of wrong reasons.




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