The Fountainhead ★★

Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, is absolutely fascinating: a strident, remarkable, often ridiculous crowdpleaser that lays out her philosophy of ‘objectivism’, in which self-interest is the driving force of progress. This film adaptation is also fascinating, though not in the same way. When I heard about it, my fear is that it would lose the ideological imperative in translation, but actually the opposite is true: only the ideology remains intact, characters just yelling political slogans in one another’s faces for two hours. When you realise that Rand adapted the book herself, and essentially took over the direction from King Vidor, that makes more sense. Even so, you’d think that a cinephile like Rand, who saw up to 200 movies a year in the cinema, might have learned how to write one.

Gary Cooper is simply miscast as architect Howard Roark: in the book, a gaunt, upright, red-headed, ferociously dedicated, single-minded force of nature who lives only to create, and eschews compromise, populism and personal ties in his pursuit of greatness. Cooper trials to dial down his ‘aww shucks’ charm and his inherent nobility, but there’s nothing in its place: his Roark seems slow-witted, shambling and lacking the enormous creative dynamism that typifies the character. Kent Smith is also spectacularly wrong as the banal but beautiful Peter Keating, playing the ethereal, ringleted fraud as a sort of desperate, sweaty jock gone to seed, while Ellsworth Toohey, the piece’s seductive socialist straw man, chrome-domed Robert Douglas has a few witty one-liners, but is a simple two-faced villain rather than the insidious reptile of the page. Rounding out the tone-deaf silliness is Henry Hull, whose rapidly receding Henry Cameron is among the worst of his many bad appearances in 1940s film.

There are two quite good turns, though: a disorientating, pained performance from Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon – whose storyline poignantly and uncomfortably mirrors her real-life adoration of Cooper – and Raymond Massey’s imposing turn as self-made newspaper baron Gail Wynand, eventually stirred to start a public crusade he actually believes in, by the persecution of the film’s hero.

I don’t really mind that the film is camp and overblown to the point of hysteria. Even when junking much of the book’s first half and stretching the last quarter across the second hour, there is way too much plot and almost no credible dialogue, but that’s part of its batshit appeal. Instead, what I found most damaging was that it missed surely the greatest opportunity of all, which was to realise on screen the buildings that Rand could only write about. In true Roark style, Frank Lloyd Wright (the inspiration for his character) asked for $400,000 to draft the designs – a tenth of the budget. Baulking at the idea, Warner just did the best they could, producing results that Rand described as “horrible” and which architectural critics pointed out would be unable to remain standing for longer than a few seconds. By contrast, the gothic and renaissance reproductions are supposed to be revolting, but because they’re such cartoonish parodies, the exercise seems utterly fraudulent.

I find it fascinating – and a little terrifying – that in the HUAC era you had a man like King Vidor working on The Fountainhead. By 1949, he was a member – with Rand and Cooper – of the MPA, the red-hunting organisation that facilitated the Hollywood blacklist. Just 15 years earlier, he had directed unquestionably the most radical Hollywood film of its decade, Our Daily Bread, which despite featuring the ‘man of destiny’ not uncommon in his oeuvre, was also explicitly and proudly pro-communist. Even then, the film was considered too controversial for a major studio to handle, so he produced it independently and released it through United Artists.

To see Vidor, of all people, directing a hymn to individualism, a film with such vitriolic contempt for solidarity, empathy or even basic human decency, is absolutely shocking. At times, I found myself genuinely astonished at how sinister and terrifying The Fountainhead is, especially as an example of mass market entertainment. That it was bankrolled by Warner Bros, the socially-conscious studio responsible for the likes of Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang tells you basically everything you need to know about late-‘40s Hollywood.

It isn’t, by any criteria, a good film, but it is a compelling social document, with a few minor artistic virtues: Neal’s performance, some avant-garde framing and set design, and a stunning final shot of sheer, jaw-dropping fascism. By contrast, the book it’s based upon is a genuinely important artistic and political statement, however repellent and ridiculous it may be.

Incidentally: halfway through the film, a guy in front grabbed the bloke next to me by his shirt and threatened to punch him in the face if he didn't stop kicking his chair. Typical Ayn Rand crowd.