The Fountainhead (1949) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Individualistic and idealistic architect Howard Roark is expelled from college because his designs fail to fit with existing architectural thinking. He seems unemployable but finally lands a job with like-minded Henry Cameron, however within a few years Cameron drinks himself to death, warning Roark that the same fate awaits unless he compromises his ideals. Roark is determined to retain his artistic integrity at all costs.

  • An uncompromising, visionary architect struggles to maintain his integrity and individualism despite personal, professional and economic pressures to conform to popular standards.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) has just left university. He is told off by the dean (Paul Stanton), as he does not want to know anything about history or how buildings were built in the past; he is only interested in the modern possibilities of building. That forces the dean to take the matter on his own hands and expel him. But Roark has already decided that he wants to work for only one person: Henry Cameron (Henry Hull). Even Peter Keating (Ken Smith), his fellow student and good friend, advises him not to follow that career path, as Cameron was a renown architect thirty years before, but these days he is a finished man. Howard does not listen. He is admitted by Cameron because of the project he has designed, although Cameron himself tells him that he will be finished like him in a few years. Cameron recognises Roark's talents and hires him.

    Some years later, Cameron is making a scene of himself at the train station. He's drunk and buying copies of the yellow-press newspaper The Banner just to tear its pages away. The newsboy (Bob Alden) does not know what to do about it. A police officer (Paul Newlan) appears and is about to arrest him. Roark kindly takes him to their office. Cameron is a broken man: back at the office, he picks up a t-square and thrusts it into a window pane; then, he has a fit and passes out on the floor. Roark goes with him to hospital in an ambulance. There, Cameron knows he's about to die, and he makes Roark promise that he will burn every document Cameron has. Also, Cameron advises Roark to compromise, or he will end up like Cameron.

    A year and a half later, Roark is still burning documents from late Cameron. He can't burn the design of a special building which Cameron had thought of but was never built: the building is very modern-looking, only made of glass and metal, without balconies, decoration or distractions on the outside. Keating visits Roark. Peter is successful and rich because he has compromised and catered for the middle taste. Meanwhile, Roark is about to be evicted, has plenty of bills and has only 14.74 dollars to his name.

    Roark is anxiously waiting for news from the commission to the starship building for the Security Bank of Manhattan. Roark is said that his building is so original, and that he will have to wait until the decision is made. However, the following Monday he is said that he has won the commission. However, Roark is said that certain changes will have to be made. Instead of a simple glass and metal façade, reminiscent of the Cameron design, they have prepared certain changes. The board of directors (Bert Howard and Sam Harris) insist to pout a Greek-temple looking entrance to the building, and to plaster some rococo stonework on one of the sides. Obviously, Roark refuses to sign the contract on those conditions. Roark decides to skip the commission and work even as a day labourer if necessary. For Roark, it's a difficult decision, of course, but he finally leaves with the maps to the building and storms off banging the door. The board of directors turn to a figure on the shadows who has said nothing but was present throughout the ordeal. Ellsworth M. Toohey (Robert Douglas) had convinced the board to give an opportunity to Howard Roark as long as he accepted the changes. The board feels appalled when Roark rejects their offer, so they turn to Toohey, who says that it was all an experiment, but that he knew that their offer was going to be rejected and that they have to offer the commission to some other architect. Toohey mutters that Gail Wynand expects to have some classic element in his buildings.

    At The Banner , Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey) asks which architect Toohey recommended to the Security Bank, as he has the controlling interest over the bank, and Toohey recommends Peter Keating. Gail seems keen on accepting Keating, as Toohey says that Peter has not got a personality of his own, he just copies the ideas of the average man, and presents Wynand with examples of Keating's work. Gail deems the examples "marble monstrosities", but he says that he will accept the advice of the architectural experts of The Banner. Toohey is pleased, but Wynand points that Toohey is not the only critic on the newspaper. There is another one, Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). Toohey is apprehensive, as he and Francon do not always agree. The secretary of Wynand (Ann Doran) cannot get hold of Francon because she is not in the building. Wynand goes to seek her at her place.

    Cue to Dominique: she is throwing a small Greek statue from the window of her condo. Gail Wynand enters the place unanounced. She justified herself saying that she destroyed the statue because she used to love it and she doesn't accept to be slave to anything or anyone. When she is asked, she says that she has never known an architect of ability. Wynand mentions that Toohey wants Keating chosen, and that Keating is Guy Francon (Jonathan Hale)'s partner - Guy being Dominique's father. Moreover, she is engaged to Peter Keating, but she will not recommend Keating anyway. They are all going to dine together to discuss the commission. Wynand tells Dominique that she could make a brilliant career at The Banner , and that he would have fired anyone absent from work. Dominique does not care one way or another.

    At dinner, Gail offers Peter the commission of the Security Bank as long as he breaks his engagement to Miss Francon. At the beginning, Peter is outraged, but Dominique keeps a blank face, and states that she won't help Peter in this occasion. Peter gladly leaves Dominique. When Gail and her are left alone, he tells her that there are no men of honesty. He tries to kiss her, but she is frozen and incapable of love; in fact, she states that she has never been in love with anyone. She says that she will marry Gail some day if she wanted to punish herself of some unredeemable guilt, and he seems contented in spite of her reasons.

    Dominique leaves for the countryside. Her father's manor house is close to a quarry. He takes notice of a mature strong quarryman - Howard Roark -. They take a look at each other. She asks the quarry superintendent (Harry Woods) to show her around. The following days, they stare at each other, until Miss Francon opens the fire and tells Roark to stop staring or be fired. He mocks her airs and attitude. Back at her home, Dominique breaks on purpose a marble piece of the mantelpiece in her room. Roark is sent to replace the marble, and he immediately spots that it got broken on purpose. When pressed on to speak about something, Howard mentions that the fireplace is atrocious - it really is: it is heavy, it has been profusely decorated and cries new money everywhere -. She tells him that the home was designed by Guy Francon himself. He rambles about the quality of the marble and how marble gets formed. Some time afterwards, the maid (Almira Sessions) lets a different marble worker in, Pasquale Orsini (Tito Vuolo), to have the broken piece replaced. Dominique pretends to have forgotten everything about it to hide her confusion, and while Pasquale works on it, she runs after Howard on her horse. She ends up hitting Howard with her fuste. At night, Howard appears on her room, and after another fight and some pushing and shoving, they kiss passionately. She tries to run away. Howard leaves her on the floor, crying her heart out. Back to his humble home, he has received the telegram of Roger Enright (Ray Collins) telling him that he wants him to build a building for him. After a second, Howard packs his staff and leaves. The following morning, Dominique asks the supervisor about Howard, but she is told that he has left, maybe for New York. She is about to inquire about his name, but she leaves before giving in to the tender thought.

    Back at The Banner , the editor, called Alvah (Jerome Cowan), is looking for ideas to denounce on the first page. The newspaper sells more when it falls onto a crusade against something, he says. Toohey suggests the Enright building, a luxury apartment building whose new building methods make it modern, "about to crumble down" and weird looking. Enright is a self-made man, who is "stubborn and rich as blazes", and a crusade against the rich will always attract the masses. Dominique looks at the photograph and asks about the architect, and she is said "Howard Roark", but the name says nothing to her. The editor is enthusiastic, and phones Wynand to tell him of the plan. Dominique asks Toohey whether he can recognise it as a great building - he does -, and she also asks about his motives, which he does not want to proclaim at that moment. Wynand goes on with the story even with Dominique's - who thinks that the building is a "great architectural achievement"- opposition. She asks him to call off the campaign, but he says that he will give everything except for The Banner , so Dominique resigns on the spot. Wynand tells him that she will not be able to fight him.

    Toohey starts his defamation campaign, and all the rest of architects sign a petition against him. The building gets done anyway. Enright himself will move onto the house and give an inauguration party. Dominique attends the party and wants to meet Roark. Peter tells her that he is taking a poll among the guests (Lois Austin, Jay Eaton, Thurston Hall, Dorothy Christy & Harold Miller) knowing that they will agree with his opinion - the building is too original, too weird, too unadorned, and nobody would feel comfortable enough on it to call it "home". Even Guy Francon agrees that the building would need more "Greek ornaments" to be nice, but Dominique likes it as it is. Dominique is terrified when she recognises Roark, but she has nowhere to hide. Enright says that she understands Roark and that she quit to defend the building in front of him. Roark is surprised about that.

    Afterwards, Dominique and Howard are alone and she tells him that she admires him, but that people will destroy him: in fact, he has not not offered a single job after the crusade of the newspaper. They kiss again. She even asks him to marry her. He refuses point blank. Roark is sure he will not be destroyed, and that when she learns to be independent from the masses' opinion, she can go back to him. Dominique goes right away to welcome Gail, back from his world voyage. She asks him to marry her even though he knows she does not love him.

    Roark is refused the commission for the Civic Opera Company of New York by a director (Paul Harvey) who is afraid of sticking his neck out. He also sees the mayhem outside the wedding venue of Dominique and Gail, full of paparazzi. Francon and Keating have won the commission for the Civil Opera House. The onlookers (Glen Cavender & Leo White) do not pay attention to him. Suddenly, Toohey comes Roark across and encourages Roark to express what he feels about the critic to his face. Roark says that he does not think of him at all.

    A gas station owner (Monte Blue) wants Roark to build his station. Afterwards, Roark designs a farm, a home in the country, an office building, a factory... all with concrete, resulting in clean lines, no extra decorations or windows... nothing which is not required for the purpose of the building.

    Howard Roark succeeds enough far from New York to have an office of his own - designed with clean lines, the same as his buildings. His secretary (Ruthelma Stevens) tells him of a new commission for... Gail Wynand. He wants him to build a countryhouse to imprison Dominique there. Wynand admits that he likes Roark's work. Finally, Roark accepts the job.

    Obviously, Dominique gets really upset - not at the idea of the manor countryhouse, but at the prospect of Roark being the architect. She accuses Wynand of being away on his yacht while The Banner 's smear campaign was fully marching on. She tells Wynand that Roark has won over him; but Wyland wants to hold the upper hand. He proposes Roark to be the sole architect of all the buildings The Banner or him will erect in the future. Wynand says that he will build all the commercial buildings as the public wants to see them: "colonial houses, Rococo hotels and semi-Grecian office buildings". Roark agrees and sets to make a drawing project: he draws a hut. Wyland laughs it off. Roark says they are equal; after all, Wynand rose from Hell's Kitchen onto becoming a rich self-made man, although he was mistaken on the path of career. Wynand invites him over for dinner. There, they both feel like victors. At first, Dominique says she will not be able to live in Roark's designed house, but then she gives in.

    Meanwhile, Keating is lost: he has been losing contracts since Guy Francon died. Toohey says that he should ask himself if there ever was reason for him to succeed. Keating wants to be chosen as the architect for the Cortland House project. Toohey explains at length that the economic side of the matter is the main problem for the accommodation of the poorer classes, so everybody is searching for an idea to solve the equation.

    Keating goes to Roark, admitting that he has never had an original idea by himself. Roark admits that he has thought the problem over, but never proposed anything because he had never been granted anything for any committee. He will give the solution to Keating as long as he guarantees that nothing will be changed from the project. The project will carry Keating's signature, and nobody will know of the truth.

    "Keating's" project wins the commission. Only Wynand and Dominique recognise it as coming from Roark. Wynand invites Roark for a several-month voyage. Dominique is jealous of Roark and asks him to refuse it, but he accepts. When they come back from the yacht trip, Gordon Prescott (Frank Wilcox) and Gus Webb (John Doucette) have been appointed as side architects to the Cortlandt project. They want to add decorations, colours, balconies... and they did. Obviously, Roark is not happy. Keating says that they started changing details for no reason at all and that he couldn't do anything to stop them. Roark starts to devise a plan.

    Dominique appears to tell him she loves him and that she is leaving Gail. He asks her to go to a side of Cortlandt Homes pretending to be an innocent bystander. She says to the old watchman (Fred Kelsey) that she has run out of petrol. She offers him some money to go and fetch somebody (Selmer Jackson) to help her as the telephone is out of order. She jumps to a hole on the ground while everything explodes around her. The watchman sees Howard standing next to the detonator, waiting for them to take him to court. Alone, Dominique runs to her car with a piece of broken glass, and tries to commit suicide by slashing off her wrists.

    Toohey starts giving speeches about self-sacrifice to different groups of people against Roark, and Wynand is the only person who will publicly defend Roark. Dominique is alive and recovering, and the police think that she was only an innocent bystander. Wynand is glad that Dominique has defended Roark. Gail says that this is the crusade he has been waiting for all his life. Roark is out on bail. Dominique says that he wants everybody to know her real feelings. Roark tells her to stay with Gail, just in case he loses his case at court.

    Toohey asks Keating whether he truly designed Cortlandt. He admits he didn't. Toohey expresses his plans: he wants to submit everybody, but some men, in special great men like Roark, cannot be submitted. Keating gives in and writes down a self-confession. Alvah Scarret (Jerome Cowan) tells Wynand that the rival newspapers are opening with Keating's signed confession. Toohey admits that his ambition is to run the newspaper.

    There are demonstrations against Roark. In a party, a lady (Josephine Whittell) says that she has fired her cook because he was reading The Banner.One of The Banner 's clerks (Bill Dagwell) does not understand why they are killing themselves in the upper offices: Gail and Dominique seem to be the only remaining staff. Wynand realises that he has never had any power, he was a tool of the masses. The vice-president of The Banner (Roy Gordon) and other members of the board (Charles Evans & Albert Petit) insist that Wynand stops defending Roark. The Banner becomes wet paper and litter on the streets.

    Back at court, the prosecutor (Morris Ankru) gives his final speech. Roark stands up and tells the judge (Griff Barnett) that he has no witness apart from himself. The court clerk (Tom Coleman) takes his oath. He gives a speech in which he stresses the rights of personal will, honesty and ambition. Copying is made for looters. He says that his price for solving the problem of Cortlandt was to see it built exactly as he intended, so he was not paid and he had nowhere to complain: that's why he did what he did.

    The judge stresses to the jurors that no financial issue is being discussed at the moment. They only need to decide on the criminal side of the matter. Some time afterwards, the jury foreman (G. Pat Collins) declares Roark NOT GUILTY.

    Enright buys the property where Cortlandt Homes used to stand as scrap land. He wants Roark to re-build it as he had envisioned. Wynand calls for Roark. He wants the architect to build the Wynand building as he wished, but he stresses the fact that he does not want to see Roark again. The documents get signed without being read. The Banner has been closed down. Wynand bades goodbye saying the famous last words: "BUILD IT AS A MONUMENT TO THAT SPIRIT WHICH IS YOURS AND COULD HAVE BEEN MINE". Right afterwards, he shoots himself off-camera.

    The Wynand building is the tallest building in the world for a while. Dominique appears on the building site presenting herself as "Mrs Roark". She goes up to the rooftop where her husband is waiting for her. As the camera pans onto him, we see Howard Roark being on top of the world.

    --written by KrystelClaire

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