Towering imbroglio


It's clear from the opening credits of King Vidor's The Fountainhead that the film is in the grip of phallic dementia. It begins with a skyscraper swinging round to turn into a book - the best-seller by novelist and ideologue Ayn Rand. Rand herself adapted The Fountainhead, and there's no mistake who's pulling the rhetorical strings as a succession of sniffy bureaucrats lecture a monolithic, shadow-cloaked figure about the virtues of mediocrity in the building trade: "Do you want to stand alone against the whole world? There's no room for originality in architecture!"

That figure turns out to be the most statue-like of Hollywood heroes, Gary Cooper. He's architect Howard Roark, a man of absolute vision, and by golly he knows it. "A building has integrity, just like a man . . . I set my own standards," he declares.

The Fountainhead is less a drama than the illustration of an ideology. Born in Russia, and a hater of the revolution, Ayn Rand dreamed of America as an Eden of individualism. When she got there - becoming first a Cecil B de Mille extra, later a novelist and popular philosopher - she expounded her belief in the sovereignty of the individual. For Rand, the self comes above society, termed variously "the masses", "the collective", "the mob". This leads to some peculiar redefinitions of familiar terms: for Rand, there's nothing more corrupt than "altruism". Hence such bizarre proclamations as Roark's warning: "The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing."

The Fountainhead is unique in classic Hollywood cinema in demanding that its audience accept terms of reference completely alien to the conventional codes. The standard Hollywood hero - usually no stranger to self-sacrifice - is replaced by an Uber-ubermensch who towers (literally) over the rest. Roark, a character inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, won't accept commercial compromise - no neo-classical porticos for his temples. He has a kindred soul in Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal); developing a bizarre sado-masochistic relationship, they are eventually united in their febrile integrity.

Pitched against Roark is architecture critic Ellsworthy Toohey (Robert Douglas). Toohey is the pure stuff of totalitarian cartoon - the evil intellectual who exploits the bovine masses (and make no mistake, for Rand they are bovine), a fop with a cigarette holder and wing collar, who speaks like George Sanders with a dash of Brian Sewell.

It's a bizarre fantasy - architectural criticism as a fast track to world domination. But in The Fountainhead, architecture is everything. The film is as monomaniac in its world view as David Cronenberg's adaptation of J G Ballard's Crash, in which all desire is channelled through the car. Everything here is expressed as bricks and mortar. Nearly every window shows a forest of skyscrapers - especially the panoramic window of press baron Wynand (Raymond Massey), which dominates a stark modernist vista, a hyper-Manhattan. Edward Carrere's austere, stately art direction makes the theme solid, with a monumentalist oppressiveness that's less Lloyd Wright than Mussolini.

Even the eroticism is architectural. Dominique is first seen angrily dropping a statuette out of a window, her fixed marble gaze reminding us of director Vidor's origins in silent cinema; the film's stylised acting oscillates between blank and frenetic, with Neal giving a compellingly neurotic performance. Dominique spots Howard working at a quarry amid a row of men resembling Jacob Epstein statues; their first exchange is set to a background of drilling, a phallic fanfare of musique concrete. Later, in a strange homoerotic contract, Wynand has Howard build a skyscraper in his honour - although even a heavy-handed symbolist like Rand knows enough to keep the word "erection" out of her script.

The Fountainhead is, in both its message and its telling, rabidly right-wing, if not necessarily fascistic - Rand was equally scathing about fascism and communism. But it certainly prefigures libertarianism, survivalism and a mass of assertively self-fixated American pseudo-philosophies. The great irony is that it was made under the Hollywood studio system. Roark would rather tear down his own building than countenance the smallest modification. In movie terms, this sounds like a testament of radical auteurism, although Warners, no more than any other studio, wasn't exactly known for sanctifying the director's autonomy. But it was always a tenet of auteurist criticism that a Hollywood director's brilliance often lay in the ability to impose a signature on material that was the fruit of compromise. Which, of course, Vidor has done here, forging a cinematic vision out of Rand's tendentious wordiness.

Thanks to the imagery, what might have been mind- numbing oration becomes riveting, especially when the monumentalism spills into erotic frenzy. The tone of unrestrained hysteria completely transcends kitsch, and even the most irony-hardened jaw will drop at the finale, as Neal takes a lift up the world's tallest structure. Waiting at the top is Cooper in his rippling shirt, the worker demiurge dominating the city. It's an image that has less in common with Hollywood than with a film that could have given The Fountainhead its alternative title - Triumph of the Will.

"The Fountainhead" (PG) plays at the Curzon Soho (0171-734 2255) and the National Film Theatre (0171-928 3232) from 20 November

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie