Reach for the skyscraper

A trashy novel, a tract, a Gary Cooper movie: that's 'The Fountainhead'. David Thomson explains

A nyone who ever met Ayn Rand said her burning eyes were too big for her face - isn't that a movie person? The movie of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead is like a comic strip bursting to be God's mural in the sky. And it may be the best tribute to say that it seems urged into being by those wild, lovely and demanding eyes. The Fountainhead is back, revived as a film, and still selling as a book (5 million copies and counting), delirious and dangerous, maybe. Try taking your eyes off it.

Why does it sell still? Why is the movie so compelling, when book and picture - about a rogue architect, a genius, of course, fighting the mobocracy, and about a woman's eye gazing up at his phallic skyscraper - are no more than headstrong intellectual trash? The BFI may mean to be praising director King Vidor more than author Ayn Rand. But here they are, nearly 50 years later, pitching a movie that slaps you in the face with its nerve and tabloid immediacy.

As it starts, we see an architectural drawing - Frank Lloyd Wrightish, a low-slung house, jutting into space. On the line, "Do you want to stand alone against the whole world?", we cut to the first of three identical shots. An upright figure blocks out the left edge of the frame - as strong as a load-bearing pillar - and on the right a seated figure looks up at the tall, silent man. In the first, we see a Dean of Architecture at some Ivy League school, who is expelling the man. In the second, a fellow student, ingratiating yet furtive, tells the pillar to bend, to compromise. And in the third, an old man seethes over the same drawing. He's troubled because he sees genius, or egotism, things he's been trying to forget. So he tells the pillar to report for work next morning. "What's your name?"

We cut to a new angle: the tall figure pauses at the door in a bare white room, marked only by a dark couch and shadow lines from a window frame. The figure is as austere as the decor; and though it is Gary Cooper, he says, "Howard Roark."

The first line hammers in the theme of the picture, and every image is a brick towards its building. The black-and-white photography (by Robert Burks) is harsh yet elevated; it's film noir as seen by Eisenstein or Gerard Manley Hopkins. As befits a film about architecture and the filling of space, The Fountainhead demands to be seen on a large screen. The opening is staccato and headlong, but it also gives a hint of omission - its gravity is utterly lacking in humour. This can account for audience mirth at the "absurd" situations, the mannered dialogue and the trance-like playing. The Fountainhead is one of the most remarkable films ever made in America. But it's also a bit like a Roark building - so daring, so extreme, it risks falling over. The suddenness and economy of the script are borne out later in the recurring device of people saying one thing and doing another (declaring love, but moving violently away from it). You marvel at the screenplay's scorn for filler or small talk, and its unswerving statement of values. The film feels like a bomb itching to explode.

You assume some great expert did the script. But no, Ayn Rand wrote it herself, and she threatened to blow up Warner Brothers if they changed a word. I'm sure her eyes danced with merriment when she said this, but the career-compromisers who made pictures were not the ones to test this tiny woman with short, straight hair, a square face and eyes like radioactivity.

Alice Rosenbaum was born in St Petersburg in 1905. She was Jewish, the child of a successful pharmacist, a self-made man. The girl was taught at home by a Belgian governess, and she wanted to write like Dostoevsky or Victor Hugo. At the same time, she became a proponent of "positive, intellectual thinking". The Rosenbaums loathed the Bolshevik revolution and all it meant, and in 1918 they left St Petersburg, first for the Crimea, then for Chicago, where the family had distant relations. On the boat to America, Alice changed her name: she took Ayn from a Finnish writer (it rhymed with "mine" or "Mein"). Rand came from the name on her typewriter. She was a new woman, opposed to all versions of collective society, pledged to genius and the triumph of the lone wolf's will.

In America, she married a minor actor, Frank O'Connor; they lived in Hollywood, and she tried screenwriting. But working in English was a pain for her, and to the end of her days she had a beguiling accent. Still, the work came: a novel, We the Living, in which love was asserted above all the ideologies of the 1930s; a play, and a novelette. Then in 1943 came The Fountainhead, a work resolved to stand alone against the whole world.

Nothing before that had done very well, though a film of We the Living was made in Italy in the early Forties - a good film, but banned by the Nazis. The Fountainhead was published modestly. The reviews were nearly all bad, and some tried to be crushing. (Rand hardly ever got decent literary reviews, though the worst were saved for her later novel, Atlas Shrugged.) Many believed that her creed was close to fascism, while her language was somewhere between translated Russian, soaring philosophy and daydream trash. Put like that, you know she was made for movies.

Slowly at first, and then on a ground- swell, The Fountainhead became a phenomenon. Barbara Stanwyck was one of the actresses who longed to play the female lead, Dominique Francon. Warners bought the book and yielded to Rand's certainty that she was the only possible screenwriter, and that the script must be filmed intact. So she took on the big block of a novel and turned it into a two-hour arcing storyboard, about Howard Roark, the intransigent genius, Dominique, the woman who loves him but resists the bondage of love, and Gail Wynand, the Murdochian newspaper tycoon who wants to own Dominique and humble Roark. More than anyone anticipated, Warners did film the screenplay. Ayn Rand had become that much of a figurehead, a force that was not to be denied.

King Vidor was assigned to direct. He counts as a major director, but the trouble has always been in deciding the man he was - as opposed to the eye. He is one of the dynamic imagists of American film, capable of working himself into a frenzy of enthusiasm for nearly any cause. He had made The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934): populist, if not socialist, epics, filled with sentiment for the common man. Yet in The Fountainhead, the common man is regarded as mob fodder - stupid, unreliable, vicious. Vidor had also done films that gloried in American achievement - Northwest Passage (1940) and An American Romance (1944) - films fit for the Fourth of July. But The Fountainhead shows an American artist prepared to destroy his own masterwork rather than have it compromised.

There had always been another strain in Vidor, that of the flat-out melodramatist: it is there in Stella Dallas (1937), and in Duel in the Sun (1946), the blood-red romance on which he had tried to convey producer David Selznick's fantasies. On The Fountainhead, the eye and the kitsch came together. But even so, I doubt if Vidor would have done so uninhibited a job if he hadn't been in awe of Ayn Rand.

Vidor had wanted Humphrey Bogart as Howard Roark: a shrewd choice, for Bogart had the man's sardonic edge. But Rand wanted Gary Cooper, and she got him - and then Cooper listened patiently to the author and tried to match her fierce eloquence. He wasn't ideal. He was too wry, too much a country boy, too given over to log cabins, maybe. And he was prone to unexpected insecurities; by the late l940s, there was already plenty of doubt in Cooper's face. But he was architectural. Vidor builds shot after shot on his height.

Cooper also fell in love with Patricia Neal, who won the role of Dominique. It was her second film. She was stilted sometimes; in some scenes she seems like an automaton. But she had Ayn Rand's eyes, and as she fell for Cooper and realised he was too weak to leave his wife, she took on a tragic, icy air that is very erotic. Their scenes together may defy credulity - just wait for the rock-drilling rape - but it is hard not to be stirred by them.

The movie was not a big hit. Rand despaired of the form, and became her own goddess. Though married still, she took on a much younger lover. Then she presided over his marriage to a woman who would become Rand's devoted and obedient biographer. She had a circle of disciples: Alan Greenspan, now head of the Federal Reserve, was one of them. And you still see young women readers - waiting in airports, hospitals and cafeterias - deep in The Fountainhead; shy but intense women who are absorbing the greatest book of their lives. Literature disdains her, and warns of her influence. But the film is a true rhapsody, infernally provocative, and poised over the question of whether movies are trash or transcendent.

Is it only women who read the book? No. One great fan was Michael Cimino. After he had made The Deer Hunter, he wanted to remake The Fountainhead. The powers that be said no, it was too expensive ... too intoxicating. So he did Heavens Gate instead, and destroyed United Artists in the process. That was in 1980, two years before Ayn Rand died and went to sit in some Roark-made heaven - or hell. Can anyone be sure which is which?

'The Fountainhead' (PG): Curzon Soho, W1 (0171 734 2255); NFT, SE1 (0171 734 2255), from Friday.

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