High Museum of Art: Films

Architects on Screen: Linda’s Picks by Linda Dubler

Ever notice how the default profession for artistic, but not completely cuckoo, characters in the movies is architect? As TCM’s Robert Osborne has observed, “With architects, you have an image of someone above reproach and not damaged, the way lawyers and judges and even doctors have been. There are very, very few professions that still have a ring of heroism about them, and architecture is one of the few that does. If an architect is portrayed going off the deep end, it’s always because he is so committed to what he’s doing that it’s an honorable thing. And it’s one of the last manly professions — you’re building something outdoors.”  The High’s current exhibition, John Portman, Art and Architecture, on view through April 18, has us thinking about the way the practice of architecture is shown on screen.  Here are a few noteworthy films to sample.

Strangers When We Meet

Strangers When We Meet

Strangers When We Meet

Made during the era when the Playboy lifestyle defined hip masculinity,  Strangers When We Meet stars Kirk Douglas as Larry, a self-employed architect with a bad case of the My Ways and Kim Novak as Maggie, an affection-starved housewife determined to honor her marriage vows. Larry’s wife thinks he should stick with safe projects sure to pad their bank account; Maggie’s husband is a withholding stick-in-the-mud who makes her feel like a tramp for wanting sex. When Larry spies the platinum-haired goddess disguised as a suburban mom at the school bus stop, he falls hard. Soon he’s inviting Maggie to visit the construction site of a signature house he’s building for a womanizing, best-selling author (Ernie Kovacs), and wooing her in dimly lit cocktail lounges. The film’s sexual politics hint at the feminist revolution to come, as well as the dawning of the Swinging Sixties, while the set design and costumes will delight fans of mid-century Modern style. Not satisfied with constructing a mere set, Columbia Pictures built a house in Bel Air that was renovated in 2003 and stands to this day.

The Black Cat

Apart from its blazing campiness, The Black Cat is worth watching for its stunning Bauhaus-inspired production design (as much a part of the action as the battling protagonists played by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff). Director Edgar Ulmer, affectionately known as the King of the B’s (as in B movies) sets the action in the fortress-like home of a demonic architect (Karloff, in a role inspired by the Satanist Aleister Crowley), who has built his retreat on the graves of thousands of  Hungarian soldiers whose lives he intentionally sacrificed during World War I. The plot owes nothing to Poe, and the acting is absurdly over the top, but oh those chrome railings and shining expanses of curved white wall!

The Fountainhead

Any mention of architects on the screen has to include The Fountainhead (based on Ayn Rand’s novel), and no one has written about it more deliciously than Pauline Kael. In 5001 Nights at the Movies she rhapsodizes, “Can people who see this picture ever forget the sight of the silvery-blonde columnist Dominique (Patricia Neal) galloping up on her black horse and slashing her riding crop across the face of the tall, mocking stranger who has looked at her impertinently while he was using a pneumatic drill in the quarry? He’s the genius architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper). . .  King Vidor directed this paean to the individualism of “superior” people, made in a sleek, hollow, Expressionist style that owes a lot to film noir. It’s an extravaganza of romantic, right-wing camp, with the hyper-articulate Roark standing in the wind on top of a phallic skyscraper, and the fierce, passionate Dominque rising in an open elevator to join him there.”

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