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FOUNTAINHEAD, THE(director: King Vidor; screenwriter: from the novel of Ayn Rand/Ayn Rand; cinematographer: Robert Burks; editor: David Weisbart; music: Max Steiner; cast: Gary Cooper (Howard Roark), Patricia Neal (Dominique), Raymond Massey (Gail Wynand), Kent Smith (Peter Keating), Robert Douglas (Ellsworth Toohey), Ray Collins (Enright), Moroni Olsen (Chairman), Jerome Cowan (Alvah Scarret), Henry Hull (Henry Cameron); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Blanke; Warner Bros.; 1949)
“It’s the kind of dazzling film, shot in a fascinating German Expressionist style, that veers from being silly to being provocative.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ayn Rand adapted her own novel about a questionable uncompromising idealistic architect and his fight against corrupt business people. It espouses Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, “a belief in the integrity of the individual and a general contempt for the mediocre standards accepted by the masses.” King Vidor (“The Big Parade”/”The Crowd”/”Comrade X”) keeps it searing with overripe melodramatics, stuffed with Rand’s didactic dialogue and features a ton of Freudian symbols. It’s the kind of dazzling film, shot in a fascinating German Expressionist style, that veers from being silly to being provocative, with plenty of hidden meanings for those lovers of Nietzschean philosophy willing to dig into the film and also offers a valentine for capitalists with a soft spot for Rand’s right wing views on the free-enterprise system. The nutty film is flawed, but has its moments of real zingers that include a dynamite blast and a suicide.

The up-and-coming arrogant unorthodox genius architect, Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), designs buildings for his own aesthetic reasons and not to please his clients. He hires his friend from college, the hack architect, Peter Keating (Kent Smith), to carry out his new project if he agrees to do it without changing his plans and thereby Roark will let him receive the praise and cash. The Cortlandt Homes project is Roark’s most ambitious one to date – a low-cost public housing complex design. But when his plans are radically altered by the clients and Peter is too weak to stop them, Roark refuses to accept this and proceeds to dynamite the building. Afterwards Roark surrenders to the police at the construction site and goes to trial.

The wealthy publisher of New York’s “The Banner,” the self-made mogul Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), a former enemy of Roark, has his influentual paper pay the piper for being the only one to back Roark’s unpopular deed. This comes after Wynand had the architect build his country home and they became uneasy friends. Wynand’s wife Dominique (Patricia Neal) already experienced Roark’s passion when he took her without waiting for a yes or even offering his name, and the moody heroine finds that she shares his artistic values and wants to leave her loveless marriage to marry her hero. Her father was an architect and she wrote an architectural column before quitting as a matter of principle over hubby’s crass beliefs that money is everything. Complicating things is the pompous power hungry chief architect critic for the paper, Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), who rallies the entire staff of Wynand’s to quit (which, of course, is too ludicrous to believe).

In any case, Roark gives a closing emotional speech to the court that sums up Rand’s belief that “A man has a right to exist for his own sake,” and the jury brings in a Not Guilty verdict. With that, Wynand realizes that his life is a failure and that money can’t buy him the kind of power he craves and he gets Roark to agree to build him in NYC the tallest skyscraper in the world as a tombstone to his life and to build it any way he sees fit. Wynand then puts a gun to his head and checks out of the world, which clears the way for Roark to marry Dominique.

In this one-of-a-kind insane soap opera film with intellectual pretensions and much chatter, we are asked to believe that dynamiting a charity project and building an egotistical monument where quantity and quality merge as equals are two great acts of conviction–that is, according to the aesthetics of Rand.

The chemistry onscreen was so good between the stars that it continued offscreen, with the 47 year old married Cooper and the single 22 year old Neal having an affair.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”