Despite an enormous budget, an accomplished director and some of the best acting talent available in the late 40's, this is one of the most unintentionally hilarious "message" pictures of all time.
Besides the fact that Raymond Massey had major parts in both films (though here it's in a supporting role, as pallid William-Randolph-Hearst-clone Gail Wynand) there are quite a few similarities between this film and another famous flop, 1937's "Things To Come". Both screenplays were written by revered authors with a huge popular following. The films themselves are visually stunning paeans to high technology, with fine casts and lavish production values, all of which are completely subverted by the reams of astonishingly clunky dialog mouthed by their cardboard-cutout characters.
The main difference between the two is that H. G. Wells was near the end of his career as a writer, while Rand was arguably at the peak of her narrative powers.
At least with "The Fountainhead" you know what you're in for from the very beginning, as veteran character actor Henry Hull -- playing Howard Roark's alcoholic, on-the-skids mentor -- doesn't merely chew the scenery but tears into it like a famished piranha, before his character's merciful (for the viewer) demise.
And it's all downhill from there, as Gary Cooper's ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright is dogged by the forces of conformity, personified by despicable architectural critic Elsworth Toohey. Just one of the many sledgehammer-subtle characterizations in this film, this villain does everything but sneer and twirl his moustache (yes, he has a moustache) as he declares that Howard must be crushed, for daring to be an individual and not submitting to the will of the masses (whom Toohey secretly despises).
Roark also designs buildings for which his doughy, loser friend Peter Keating (played by the thoroughly Caucasian Kent Smith) then takes the credit. Fortunately, Roark at least has the forethought to retain his little-known right (SPOILER ALERT) as the real architect to blow up his buildings rather than submit to the crushing tyranny of a conventional facade.
Patricia Neal does lend a certain verve to her role as Dominique, the sexually repressed and capricious romantic interest who must "destroy everything she loves". We know this thanks to an introductory scene where she tilts a large, heavy statue that she admires out the window of her high-rise apartment. ("Look out below: Dominique's in one of her moods again!"). Nor is this the most ham-handed bit of symbolism employed: I defy anyone to sit through the scene where Neal gets a blatant case of the hot sloppies while watching Roark get all sweaty pounding granite with a pneumatic drill without collapsing, helpless in the grip of a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
The rest of the plot is too ludicrous for words, but here are a few highlights from Ayn Rand's Bizarro World brand of "realism":
- An architectural critic can wield near-dictatorial power by virtue of his vast following among fellow journalists, unimaginative businessmen, and the easily-swayed masses. (And Roger Ebert thinks *he* has it made!)
- Rape is the best way to a willful and self-destructive woman's heart.
- A challenge to one's artistic integrity is best countered with lots of high explosives.
- (SPOILER ALERT) If treated to a tedious harangue about the importance of the individual, juries will tend to forget that this particular individual is on trial for dynamiting public buildings in a fit of pique.
Unless you're a rabid Ayn Rand fan -- or a confirmed masochist who gets a sick thrill out of watching great actors humiliate themselves -- stay far, far away from this rancid hunk of cinematic Limburger.