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THE COBWEB – Leonard Rosenman

December 14, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Vincent Minnelli was intrigued by the cinematic possibilities offered by William Gibson’s novel, The Cobweb (1954), which takes place in a psychiatric institution where both the patients and the professional staff suffer from neuroses. He sold his idea to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, John Houseman was tasked to produce, and a budget of $1,976 million was provided. Casting foundered when Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Grace Kelly were either unavailable or declined. Eventually a fine cast was assembled, which included Richard Widmark as Dr. Stewart McIver, Lauren Bacall as Meg Rinehart, Charles Boyer as Dr. Devanal, Gloria Grahame as Karen McIver, Lilian Gish as Victoria Inch and John Kerr as Stevie.

The story reveals Dr. McIver assuming the post of Medical Director of a psychiatric Institution, replacing Dr. Devanal who has held the post for many years, but who is battling a drinking problem as well as having an affair his secretary Miss Cobb. Miss Inch is offended by Dr. Devanal’s behavior and works to expose and discredit him, while Devenal’s wife Edna believes Dr. McIver foments a plot to discredit her husband. Stewart’s passion for his work leads to an estrangement with his wife Karen, and an affair with staff member Meg. Against this sordid backdrop unfold personal stories involving patients suffering from a variety of psychological disorders including a suicidal artist, a homosexual man full of self-loathing and a young woman plagued by agoraphobia. The film was a commercial failure for MGM, earning a paltry $2,000 profit. Critical reception was tepid at best and the film earned no Academy Award nominations.

Director Vincente Manelli related that he liked the music for Eli Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden. He offered its composer Leonard Rosenman, a 31-year-old who had only scored this one prior film assignment over the objections of the studio music director. Rosenman conceived an audacious approach to scoring the film, one that had never attempted before – use of the twelve tone technique created by composer Arnold Schoenberg of the Second Viennese School. The compositional technique is premised on ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are afforded equality of expression, with no single note predominating. Rosenman related that he was motivated;

“simply because I felt it was important to write a serial score. I felt the film really could have used this kind of treatment. I also felt it would have set off the film as not simply a potboiler melodrama, which happened to center around an insane asylum, but rather a film in which this kind of impressionistic music could be, so to speak, mind reading or, as I say, super-real. . .It was my intention not to ‘ape’ or mimic the physical aspect of the screen mise-en-scene but to show what was going on inside character’s head.”

Rosenman was afforded a 60-piece orchestra, however he wrote most of the score intimately for discreet chamber-like ensembles, reserving the employment of the full orchestra for moments of drama. As is to be expected, the twelve-tone technique does not readily lend itself to melodic expression, however after repeated listening we discern two themes and two recurring motifs. The Madness Theme disturbs, and speaks of the turbulence and psychic maelstrom of a wounded mind. Wrathful rolling by timpani, sharp strings striduli, chattering horns filled with alarm and pounding piano irato join in a dissonant tempest. The Love Theme supports the relationship of Stevie and Sue. The theme lacks ardency and passion, unfolding, yet never blossoming during the film. Flute delicato and kindred woodwind emote a fragile, gossamer-like identity, tentative in its articulation. There are two recurring motifs; The Tilted Motif refers to a term used in the film as a euphemism for someone off mentally or unsettling conditions. It is carried by a forlorn flute, attended by kindred woodwinds and bleak aimless strings. The Anger Motif externalizes the psychic torrent of rage, fury and anger felt by the characters, emoting as a cacophonous furioso by staccato woodwinds, chattering horns, and pounding piano. Lastly, contemporaneous source music was woven into Rosenman’s soundscape to support authenticity and familiarity with the audience.

“Main Title” offers a powerful score highlight, where Rosenman sets the tone of the film. It opens dramatically with five shrill iterations of the Madness Theme, which support the roll of the opening credits against the backdrop of the manor-like psychiatric hospital. We see a young man (Stevie) commence running through the courtyard and exiting the open gate at 0:20 propelled by desperate flight music. We do not know if he is running to escape the institution or his own demons, but a cacophonous torrent of racing strings furioso, woodwinds animato, staccato horns and struck piano runs drive his desperate run. He falls several times yet he is not deterred. At 1:18 as he exits the field and comes upon a country dirt road, the frantic flight music dissipates as on-screen script displays “The Trouble Begins”. A car driven by Karen McIver stops and she offers Stevie a ride, which he demurely accepts. Rosenman sow a misterioso by a forlorn bassoon and kindred woodwinds, which speak of a troubled soul. A bleak soundscape of formless primary and contrapuntal woodwinds is joined by strings doloroso as Karen engages him in small talk. She discovers he is a troubled artist and patient at her husband’s clinic. At 2:19 as he states with a blank affect that artist are better off dead the forlorn flute of the Tilted Motif provides a window into his soul. The music meanders, lost and without purpose as she realizes that he is a patient at the institute. The music warms on strings at 2:53 as we see in her eyes, and hear in her voice empathy as she turns around and returns him to hospital. The forlorn flute of the Tilted Motif returns as she asks him if he is being helped and he responds, he thinks his analyst does. I believe Rosenman’s music gave us more insight into Stevie’s psyche than the dialogue.

“Holcomb’s Episode” reveals that one of the patients, a Mr. Holcomb has locked himself in his room. Dr. Devanal and two nurses are unable to get a response. Rather than unlocking the door, Devanal orders the nurses to try and coax him out and departs. Rosenman speaks to the scene from Holcomb’s paranoid perspective and unnerves us using a less shrill, yet still very disturbing reprise of the chilling Madness Theme as we see him self-bloodied and cowering in his room. At 1:00 we segue into “Drape Trouble Began” as Karen and Stevie arrive back at the institution. The forlorn flute, shifting kindred woodwinds and bleak, aimless strings of the Tilted Motif support their conversation as Stevie asserts that the doctors are as tilted as the patients to which Karen humorously replies that the difference between the patient’s and the doctors, is that the patients get better. At 1:52 Karen enters the institute carried by dissonant muted trumpets as we see a patient’s self-absorbed rambling with a nurse. At 2:24 a harp glissandi ushers in grim portentous music as she enters the common room and discovers the drape samples left by the salesman. She departs and at 2:46 runs into Dr. Otto Wolf supported by the forlorn flute of the Tilted Motif. She is unsettled and offers excuses as to why Stewart and her have not called on them socially. We close on a diminuendo of unease as she departs and enters Stewart’s office anteroom.

“Stevie’s Analysis” reveals Dr. McIver’s slow and purposeful diffusing of Stevie’s anger. When he states that he is not his father, and will not run out on him, Stevie calms, and the walls come down. Sad woodwind figures shift among their members and are joined by forlorn strings to support Stevie’s response to Dr. McIver’s reassuring words. At 0:31 we segue into “Drawing”, which offers some of the score’s most intricate writing. Tense strings open as Dr. McIver examines Stevie’s drawings. As he again reviews them in the common room with the patients, Rosenman supports with some of the score’s most intricate writing. Ever shifting primary and contrapuntal woodwind figures dance to and fro joined by pizzicato strings, harp, muted trumpets, tumbling piano, creating a surreal soundscape that is illusive and yet, intangible. The Tilted Motif enters at 2:38 on oboe and then flute, and then in contrapuntal interplay as the Dr. Devanal prepares to have cocktails with Karen. We end with increasing dissonance as the drapes order my Miss Inch arrive. In “Cafeteria Scene” Stevie asks Sue to go into town with him to see a movie. She snaps out no, and harsh rumbling timpani usher in an angry discordant maelstrom as he storms out, followed by her. At 0:20 we segue into “Sue’s Secret” where she explains to him that the reason why, is that she has agoraphobia. Flute and oboe delicato dance to and fro and usher in a tentative and nascent rendering of the Love Theme at 0:29, which shifts among the instruments as it struggles to find voice. She gives him hope that she would like to go with him sometime in the future.

The following ternary cue offers an astounding score highlight where Rosenman’s music erupts and perfectly evokes the release of all of Karen’s anger and long festering frustrations with Stewart. “McIver’s Fight” reveals the Karen walking from her car to the front door propelled by the fury of the Anger Motif, a cacophonous furioso by staccato woodwinds, chattering horns, and pounding piano. She enters and angrily walks upstairs refusing Stewart’s request to talk. He joins her in the bedroom and all is laid bare; his neglect of her, being an absent father, closing with a cruel rejoinder that their daughter aspires to become a patient so she can see her father. Stewart reels from the searing truth, departs, and we segue at 0:47 into “McIver and Son” where Stewart tries to console his son over his fight with Karen. The music’s anger diminishes and shifts to the perspective of Mark as Stewart enters his room, becoming plaintive. Woodwinds doloroso reveal his anguish joined by aggrieved strings, which speak the words Mark cannot articulate. We end with an echo of the anger motif. “McIver Fight End” was dialed out of the film with Minnelli preferring the searing dialogue to carry the scene. On album, at 2:10 we flow seamlessly atop a resurrected but simmering anger motif as Karen returns for round two, where she is devastated when Stewart remains silent when she asks if he still finds her desirable. His silence to her query is supported by a crescendo of rage as Karen tearfully slams the door to the bedroom.

In “Steve’s First Violence” Mr. Capp informs Stevie that his drawings will no longer be used to make the drapes. He flies into a rage, knocks people down to find the memo, then storms into the art studio and proceeds to collect his drawings. Rosenman propels his psychic maelstrom with a powerful furioso exposition of the Anger Motif. We segue at 1:11 into “Stevie Apologizes”, which reveals Stewart leaving a message for Dr. Devanal that the drapes using Stevie’s design will proceed as planned. Stevie is disappointed that he lost his temper and apologizes. Rosenman scores the aftermath following Stewart’s departure. The music softens atop woodwinds delicato with a fleeting reference of the Love Theme as Sue informs him that she is open to going to the theater with him tonight. We segue into at 2:28 into “Stevie and Sue in Theater” where we see him guarding her as the exit the theater, knowing she is afraid of crowds. Rosenman supports her fragility and his chivalry with a tender rendering of the Love Theme by woodwinds delicato and soft strings. At 2:43 we segue into “Bang Scene”, which was dialed out of the film. Stewart and Meg return to her place and she coaxes him in for a nightcap. Rosenman weaves a subtle woodwind textural ambiance that belies the undercurrent of desire flowing covertly between the two.

“Karen Acts” reveals her discovery that Stewart is spending the evening at Meg’s apartment. Rosenman supports her effort to discover Stewart’s whereabouts with an agitato that slowly intensifies, exploding into fury at 1:35 when she calls his office contact number and Meg answers the phone. A cacophony of horns propels a furioso as Karen loads the drapes she ordered into the car and speeds to the Institution to mount them. At 2:02 we segue into “Stevie and Sue’s Goodnight” where we see him walking her back to her room and closing the night with a tender kiss on her cheek. A gentle ambiance born by woodwinds delicato join with the Love Theme to support the intimate moment. Adjacent to the corridor, Karen has torn all the old drapes down, and discord enters at 2:27 as she hears them in the hallway. She turns off the lights and they pass without notice, carried once again the woodwind pleasantries and Love Theme.

“Drapes Are Hung” reveals a crazed Karen hanging her drapes in the common room. Desperation and jealousy drive her and Rosenman speaks to this with a cacophonous agitato, which crests with an angry shriek. At 0:22 we segue into “Stevie Disappears” where we find that the art studio has been ransacked and Stevie has disappeared. The Madness Theme reprises as the alarm is sounded followed by an interlude of uncertainty as Stewart visits the wrecked art studio. At 1:17 the music erupts in discordant fury as Stewart departs and searches for Stevie. We again see Stevie running through the fields, supported by an ambiance of desperation and confusion. At 2:04 we segue into “McIver Tears Down Drapes” where we see Stewart anger grow, the music erupting on a crescendo of violence at 2:35 as he in a rage tears down the curtains Karen mounted.

“Meg Leaves Stewart” offers a score highlight, which abounds with anguish. The police are dragging the river bottom to retrieve Stevie’s corpse. Against this backdrop Stewart is despondent and relates to Meg he has failed Stevie, failed his wife, failed his kids, and is not suited for this job. He desperately wants her, embraces her, yet she pushes him away, realizing that their relationship cannot work. She slams the car door and leaves him when he pathetically asks her “What should I do?” Rosenman weaves a masterful tapestry of despair with a soliloquy of futility and anguish. Long before Meg rejects him on a writhing crescendo of pain at 3:27 we know from the notes that their relationship is doomed. I believe this cue to be the score’s most powerful exposition, its emotional apogee, where Rosenman demonstrates mastery of his craft by composing an immortal cue.

In “Stevie’s Return” Stewart and Karen have reconciled and committed to repairing their marriage and family. They drive home and discover a dirty and tattered Stevie in their garage. The music enters tensely when they arrive home and discover Stevie alive. As they help him to the couch, and cover him with Karen’s curtains all is reconciled. Rosenman supports the scene with an ever-shifting atonal exposition, which drifts to and fro, shifting from the tangible to the intangible, informing us of an uncertain future for all involved. At 3:34 we enter the “End Title”, ascending from a misty sea of nebulous tonality atop a crescendo dramatico as script displays “The Trouble was over” followed by “The End”. We close at 3:56 with “End Cast”, as the roll of the cast credits commences, which Rosenman supports with the Love Theme, culminating in a flourish.

I would like to commend Lukas Kendall, Film Score Monthly and Turner Classic Movies Music for this premier stereophonic CD release of Laurence Roseman’s long sought score to The Cobweb. The digital mastering, remix and stereophonic conversion was well executed, providing excellent audio quality. I cannot overstate Rosenman’s brilliance and audaciousness in conceiving and executing his soundscape. Never before had the twelve-tone technique created by composer Arnold Schoenberg of the Second Viennese School been used to score a film. I believe his pioneering effort constitutes a seminal event in the history of film score art that powerfully demonstrates the utility and capacity of the twelve-tone technique to support a film’s narrative. This film was an intimate character driven drama where we bear witness to powerful conflicting, overt and covert emotional drivers. The brilliance of Rosenman’s conception was his capacity to musically speak to the inner psychology and occult emotional problems plaguing the characters. In scene after scene his music was insightful, powerfully persuasive and compelling. Folks, I consider this pioneering score one of the most brilliant of the Golden Age, and an effort that demonstrates Rosenman’s mastery of his craft. I highly recommend you purchase this fine album, which also includes his riveting score to Edge of the City (1957).

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a suite of the Main and End Titles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8Tge55VQag.

Buy the Cobweb soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (The Cobweb) (3:47)
  • Holcomb’s Episode/Drape Trouble Began (3:15)
  • Stevie’s Analysis/Drawing (3:27)
  • Cafeteria Scene/Sue’s Secret (1:59)
  • McIver’s Fight/McIver and Son/McIver Fight End (Escape From the Cobweb) (3:11)
  • Steve’s First Violence/Stevie Apologizes/Stevie and Sue in Theater/Bang Scene (3:33)
  • Karen Acts/Stevie and Sue’s Goodnight (Caverns of the Brain) (3:55)
  • Drapes Are Hung/Stevie Disappears/McIver Tears Down Drapes (2:50)
  • Meg Leaves Stewart (4:35)
  • Stevie’s Return and End Title (Return to Reality)/End Cast (4:41)
  • End Title/End Cast (Alternate) (1:06)

Running Time: 36 minutes 41 seconds

Film Score Monthly FSMCD 6-14 (1955/2003)

Music composed by Leonard Rosenman. Conducted by Johnny Green. Orchestrations by Leonard Rosenman. Score produced by Leonard Rosenman. Album produced by Lukas Kendall.

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