[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

In The Fountainhead in particular, Vidor expresses himself on all creative fronts, unlike a Hawks, a Chaplin or a Capra who neglect photography a little, a Nicholas Ray who is not good at editing, a Cassavetes who doesn’t care about music or the sets. This versatility obviously tries to make us forget the literary origin of the work, to absorb it.

Vidor is a complete filmmaker who plays on all sides. He cares very much about the visuals (he started painting in 1938), the music (he owned five guitars), the sound (Hallelujah was the first film to really use the capacities of sound), the rhythm and editing (The Big Parade was shot with a metronome) and the sets.

How does that translate here?


It is the element that one notices right away and which produces the first striking effects of the film. After the first scenes in which Roark successively confronts the dean of the school, Peter Keating and the old architect, scathing in their speed and the haunting verbosity of these secondary characters, we receive the first shock: the architect Henry Cameron breaks the bay window of Roark’s office with a T-square, with a totally unexpected violence, with no obvious reason—it’s a friend’s office—but as if to symbolically break up the buildings in front of him. There are thus multiple sonic assaults that punctuate the film right up to the last scene: another window broken with a stone, at the door of the hated newspaper (an effect that will be repeated in Ruby Gentry, when the whole town rises up against the heroine suspected of murder), the many sirens, that of the ambulance rushing towards the hospital, that of the boat, that of the police car at the exit of Wynand’s wedding (what is it doing there? It seems an unlikely presence to me), the model of the building that Wynand hurls down suddenly, the one knocked down with a cane by the architect who corrects the Cortlandt building, the statuette that falls to the ground, thrown from the tenth floor, the newspapers torn angrily, the boat violently splitting the waves, the work of the drilling machine in the quarry, the marble under the chimney that Dominique breaks frantically, the off-screen blast when we arrive at Dominique’s country house, announcing the final blast. There is an erotic vertigo around breakage and explosion, seemingly translating Dominique rush of desire, like an inner cry from her body. Love = Breakage = Destruction, which is reminiscent of the Eros/Thanatos of Duel in the Sun, and which clearly shows the necessity of the final explosion. Do these sounds recall the sounds of orgasm? Perhaps.

These noises sound all the more aggressive as they are unexpected. Two seconds before their appearance, we can’t imagine them entering the soundtrack. They make you feel uncomfortable. One of them—the statuette falling to the ground—is anticipated by an astonishing echo, occurring earlier, that owes to Steiner’s music.


Max Steiner (1888-1965), who headed Warner’s music department for twenty-seven years, is remembered for his redundant scores that outdid visual and dramatic effects. It is a technically complex work, but one that takes the easy way out.

In John Ford’s The Informer, he even went so far as to replace noises with notes, which turn out to be even more expressive sounds, totally mastered, and which sound a bit funny today. It is a system that Michel Fano would later make use of.

His scores remain very invasive, often occupying, as it does here, a large part of the film. It was the rule in the forties: the viewer had to be monopolised by the music, which became, as it were, the opium of the people. The films of the Poverty Row companies such as the PRC had a musical score even for their entire duration. It was cheaper than offering a visual spectacle. In The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby got away with mixing Steiner’s music at a minimal level.

The Fountainhead probably remains Steiner’s masterpiece. It is a film full of effects. Well, it is normal for the score then to amplify the effects—an aesthetic that may be outdated, but which, when carried to such excesses, is insanely effective. If it’s a bass drum, it’s the biggest, bassest one there is. There have never been so many climactic moments in a single film. The music, thus, spearheads an aesthetic; quite the opposite of the music of a Bernard Herrmann, who tries to compose an overall atmosphere, without weighing down on every detail of the film.

Steiner’s composition is centred on two main themes: one, more romantic, associated with Dominique, and the other, with multiple variations, modelled more on the structure of the film, which gives the impression of a fairly long and winding development (in line with Roark’s slow progression), finally ending with a rapid and thunderous apotheosis. The perpetual return of these themes lends them a haunting quality, reinforcing the impression that Roark’s emotional and professional journey is long. It enhances the obsessive quality of the film, which is subordinated to architecture. But when we see the model of a building and its finished version one after the other, the music that can be heard over both the shots gives the construction a strikingly euphoric value. This rapid achievement seems to be a miracle, a fantasy, when in reality, it took several years to build a building around 1930.

One is astonished by the short, isolated motifs, underlining a sentence, a thought, a detail. Thus, when Wynand has the sudden idea of asking an outsider for their opinion on architecture, the brief sparkle in Wynand’s eyes is affirmed by a series of very strange sliding sounds. Sometimes Steiner exaggerates: a brief mention is made of the possibility of a dinner in the country, and Steiner feels obliged to introduce three musical seconds evoking the pleasantness of the thing. All this has a slightly kitschy quality that the viewer accepts with amused indulgence: it is all part of the game.

Let us also mention the rattling accompaniment—it is almost figurative music—to Dominique’s wild ride during her participation in the final explosion. It is proof that the sexual desire that animates her during the ride is equally present in this destructive act carried out in collusion with the man of her life.

Except once—the statuette—the music never precedes the effect contained in the image or the dialogue. It comes immediately after it, while in bad films, it precedes the image.


The visuals rely on the construction of a complex studio set, complemented by models of New York skyscrapers in the background. As a result, in a setting such as that of the newsroom of The Banner, one can see both banal modern architecture on the outside and futuristic kitsch inside, as Lorenzo Codelli rightly says in Positif  [1], with a gigantic world map, in front of which the newspaper’s employees move about in all directions, under the dominating eyes of Wynand on his revolving chair. These permanent backdrops highlight Wynand’s pretensions, his power and also the vanity of that power in the face of the world as a whole, before which journalistic quarrels seem futile and mediocre.

The major challenge for the film seems to have been to place skyscrapers or ultramodern houses in the background in ALL the shots.

To establish this presence, Vidor went so far as to situate his court on the tenth floor of a building so that we can see skyscrapers through its window—something that seems totally implausible. But there is such a thing as poetic licence…

In the same way, Dominique, in a rural setting, is filmed with only the model of her experimental house behind her, which seems rather out of place in this restricted setting.

The model for the New York buildings recalls Rope, which Hitchcock had shot for the same Warner seven months earlier. It is possible that it is the same model being used here, albeit less inventively: Vidor settles for a fixed background, whereas Hitchcock had it evolve through colour, changes in the indoor light of the rooms and cloud effects.

Edward Carrere’s designs were violently challenged by the journal of the American Institute of Architecture, which mounted a veritable cabal against The Fountainhead, and by architects in general.

For George Nelson [2], it was “the silliest travesty of modern architecture that has yet hit the films.” He notes that Carrere’s work was based on the absurd exaggeration of the characteristics of modern styles: “Houses without windows offset by corbelled balconies.” Nelson was essentially critical of the design of the house by the sea “with its suspended overhangs which make it look like a ship’s deck, and which would logically collapse,” and the Wynand house “with its discordant mixture of orthogonal and hexagonal lines.”

Nelson is probably right, but as it happens, we see the first one for just nine seconds, and the other one is not an essential set. It is the relationship between the characters that are more noticeable than the elements of the set. And the incongruence between the real work of Wright or the modernists on the one hand and Carrere’s models, of an uncertain viability, on the other doesn’t seem to have any effect on the quality of the film. It isn’t a bad thing to overstate a point for the benefit of the layman.

The cabal was probably orchestrated after examining the models, and not after watching The Fountainhead. The architects didn’t perhaps appreciate that Carrere, a novice decorator who wasn’t part of their association, took the job away from them.

Vidor often plays the game of pitting models, presented as such, against buildings supposedly belonging to reality, within the same shot—an enjoyable confrontation already initiated by the film’s very first shot, where a skyscraper suddenly turns into a book, The Fountainhead, of course.


Vidor turned his attention to expressionism as early as 1928, in a shot in The Crowd. When little John goes up the stairs as his father’s body is being lowered, there is a high-angle shot of the narrow staircase, with lines of shadow hemming in the image, as was typical in German cinema.

In the same film, there is a long upward movement along the outside walls of a skyscraper, which stops at the window of the large room where John and his colleagues work. The Fountainhead seems to continue this movement since we soon find ourselves inside a high floor of this building.

Here, with the help of cameraman Robert Burks (1910-1968), Vidor comes up with a whole scheme based on large areas of shadow, at the top of the image, and also on the right and left, which impart a dramatic value to the actions taking place.

This principle is confirmed by the presence of lamps with lampshades, located quite low in the rooms, within the frame. There are, unusually, no ceiling lights. This makes it possible, in wide shots, to have areas of shadow that are very large in height and delimited by precise, crossed lines, or rather uncommon curves.

As in Lang’s films, there is also a lot of smoke, pumped out by Toohey’s cigarette, which sets up the visual ambiance.

Why these crossed lines? Because we are in New York, and in the offices of The Banner, the contractors and the architects, there are large windows, never in one piece, which is understandable because of their huge surface area. The Banner’s bay window is divided into thirty-three segments, three rows and eleven columns, which are always reflected on the opposite wall. The inner significance of this segmentation is to produce these intersecting lines. We will thus see characters acting, moving around on a perpetual background of squares and rectangles, which give the impression of a prison, the prison of the modern world, its systems and its standards.

A relentlessly chequered universe. However, this choice is not always logical: it leads us to suppose that all the action happening in these locations takes place in the morning (or in the afternoon) at the same time, and that it’s always sunny in New York, which is far from obvious. But in the end, the viewer doesn’t really notice this implausibility.

Some of these bay windows are not vertical, but inclined, at least in their upper part, which allows for stranger, more varied, less geometric shadows with constrictions. The blinds, Dominique’s striped blouse, the protective bars of the service lift renew the stock of dark stripes.

These stylistic effects are reinforced by the presence of black film leaders as well as characters, furniture, rocks and forests in complete shadow. These effects are banal indoors, but unusual and more difficult to master outdoors. An ultramodern, skeletal and always empty coat hanger at the newspaper office recalls the chandelier of Murnau’s Tartuffe.

Expressionism is best known for its use in German cinema in the 1920s. At that time, however, it was only to be found in films with artistic pretensions, which in the end were quite rare in the country’s production. On the other hand, in America, from the thirties onwards, and sometimes even earlier, it was to be found in a large number of mainstream productions, normally in horror or dramatic films, such that, contrary to popular belief, there were many more expressionist films in the United States than in Germany. In Hollywood, it had become a form of snobbery, an external mark of quality. There was also the desire to beat foreigners on their own turf. With the rise of Hitler, the mass arrival of Germanic directors (Lang, Ulmer, Pabst, Dupont, Siodmak, Bernhardt, Dieterle, Koster) and cameramen (Freund, Mate, Schufftan, Courant, Planer) to the USA reinforced this inclination. Hollywood producers demanded expressionism even from German technicians who had not practised it in Europe (like Siodmak).

Note that The Fountainhead is partly set in a newspaper office, and that the other major film about journalism (along with Lang’s While the City Sleeps), Citizen Kane, often resorted to expressionism.

To be sure, expressionism was no longer as necessary as it was in the silent era, when it expressed what the lack of dialogue did not allow to be conveyed. With the spoken word, it thus became a little redundant, but there was also a certain blossoming. The Germans had used it chiefly to make sets with limited space—made of curves and arches enclosing the characters—more frightening. A world of the past, or of a terrifying future. On the contrary, in a film such as The Fountainhead, expressionism includes in its field of expression immense, airy, modern sets, made not of arches or curves, but of straight lines. And this technique makes it possible to show that the openness of the American world, with its gigantic skyscrapers, is also in fact circumscribed within limits which, beyond slogans extolling freedom in the great country, affirm the adversity affecting the freedom of its creators and inhabitants.

Robert Burks and King Vidor look for blunt contrasts between blacks and whites. In the quarry, Dominique is sometimes in black trousers and a white shirt, sometimes it is the other way around. The white/black opposition reflects an intense struggle, not only that of the individual against the collective, but also that of man against woman (and which is even more pronounced in Ruby Gentry), without either colour necessarily being assigned to one of the two sexes or the two worlds. The stark contrast exists even in scenes where these tensions are not so high: it is a general, almost immanent atmosphere.

These black shadows, these bars aren’t there to convey the thoughts or the predicaments of the characters, which we learn by more direct means. They constitute a kind of lyrical echo reiterating the situation depicted, intensifying it.

The Fountainhead is at times very daring when it comes to matters of lighting: one or two flashes of light are all that it takes, as in the sequence in which Dominique feigns to slash her wrist.

Horizontals, Verticals, Diagonals

Horizontals dominate the film, in shots of the vast, luxurious offices where the action takes place, enhanced by the panoramic view of the skyscrapers. But there are shots where verticals reappear, taking on a great importance simply because of their rarity. For example, in the quarry sequence, where one character is at the top of the image and the other at the bottom. I thought of this while making A Girl Is A Gun, when I placed Rachel Kesterber in the upper part of the frame, overlooking Jean-Pierre Léaud who has fallen to the bottom of the Saint-Christol sinkhole, before she saves him with a rope. I also thought of Vidor’s film when I filmed, in a tilt shot, the tall insurance building in Iowa (The Belly of America), the one at the Carrefour Pleyel in Barres where metro turnstiles would be made, and the building with the pay-slip vendors around which my Comédie du travail revolves. It was to show their interminable quality. That is the impression given by Roark’s gigantic constructions, especially in the final sequence.

It is true that many of the skyscrapers in the film, designed by Roark and the other architects, have a phallic appearance, but they are not emblematic of the art of Wright, who, despite some exceptional skyscrapers, remains above all a specialist of low-rise houses, spread out over a considerable area close to the ground.

However, until the last sequence, verticals are perceived in static shots, which do not bring the verticals to life, but place them in an antagonistic relationship. Hence the abundance of high- and low-angle shots—the very opposite of the eye-level cinema praised by Hawks. These are effects that express domination and subjugation. High-angle shots also help limit the expenditure in street scenes: the visual field is narrower.

There are also diagonals: canted shots, people and objects in a slanted position, owing particularly to the perspective. Diagonals imply crisis, strangeness, conflict between two worlds, the displaced outcast. They have a temporary value and cannot last. They are there to surprise, not to settle down. Otherwise they would become banal.

A very extensive, very inventive work: Carlos Señor wrote that this film had “the best black and white photography in the history of cinema.”[3]


The film is edited by David Weisbart, who later produced some interesting films at Fox, directed by Fleischer or Webb.

We notice a large number of shots cut into three or four during the editing. The editing is nervous, but also lyrical, since the return to the initial shot isn’t based on the dramatic evolution of the story. It creates a kind of music of its own. The repetition here doesn’t constitute a rehash. It surprises us because it is not so much in the style of Hollywood films of the time.

The original découpage of the film, dated 20 June 1948, twenty days before shooting, consists of two hundred and thirty-seven shots, while in the final cut there will be six hundred and ninety-three edits. The difference doesn’t seem to owe solely to the work of the editor. This découpage turns out to be a little lazy: it includes many master shots, some of which would have been impossible to shoot as they are, such as shot 228, with one hundred and thirty lines of text for Gary Cooper.

During the shooting, there were many tighter shots within the master shots, photographed with a second camera or filmed just afterwards, or even made with an optical printer (unlikely hypothesis). Vidor, this old pro, had no need for a precise and constraining storyboard.

Note the amazing close-ups, or extreme close-ups, of Patricia Neal above all, the music going one up on them. Most of them are set against a plain background, sometimes in front of an opaque sky. This might suggest that they are retakes, those extra shots filmed after the actual shooting, but I don’t really believe this.

There are very few scenes that are entirely deleted, just a discussion between Roark and one of his workers on a crane, in the air, near one of his construction sites (probably because it would have cost too much), a short montage sequence showing a wide variety of people reading Toohey’s attacks on Roark in The Banner, Roark beginning to sketch a construction project on sand (probably too difficult for the viewer to read), a shot of a delivery van of The Banner that has been overturned and set on fire and, before the trial, three scenes or parts of scenes slowing down the rhythm (Wynand breaking up with Roark, Roark forgiving him…). This tallies with the fact that the film was one hundred and sixteen minutes long at the first screening on 8 January 1949 and one hundred and fourteen minutes when it was released in June.

The editing follows the logic of Warner’s films of the thirties: a rapid pace, but applied to a more fertile material, showing much more ambition. Everything is done to reduce the duration as much as possible. There are, particularly at the beginning, dissolves of only six or ten frames, sequences boldly linked together by a sound effect: for instance, when Roark leaves the Civic Opera where he has just been refused a project. He waits for the lift. But a police siren catches his attention: the car arrives in front of the St. Charles Hotel, from which the two newlyweds, Wynand and Dominique, emerge with great pomp (a scene that is reprised in Ruby Gentry, with the wedding of the heroine and the local tycoon). A double bitterness, clearly underlined by Max Steiner. But after all, the Civic Opera could be right next door to the hotel, why not?

That brings me back to the quick succession of shots that take us from models of buildings to the finished buildings themselves (which are very often models too).

This is effective in terms of rhythm, which is very galvanising. The buildings seem to be ready at the push of a button. But this contradicts reality. Here is a film about architecture where you see nothing of the architect’s work, no reflection on design problems, no precise discussion on budgets, no hesitations on the choice of materials and companies, no quarrels with the subordinates, no smiles or small gifts to the project manager’s secretary (which is sometimes the most important thing), no on-site inspection during construction which often lasts for years. In this respect, even Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs is much more precise, more realistic. The Fountainhead is an abstract film, like the buildings Roark makes. This owes to the fact that Ayn Rand was not a specialist in architecture, although she worked for a while as a typist for a well-known architect, Ely Jacques Kahn, and also to the fact that Warner Bros. did not want Wright to collaborate as a technical advisor (he asked for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, almost as much as Cooper) as Rand and Vidor wanted, and especially to the increase of budget—an already very large budget—that filming buildings under construction would have entailed. We see Roark at construction sites, but these are the sites on which other architects are working, shown at the foundation level.

Another inconsistency: at the quarry, from one day to the next, Roark always drills the same hole in the same rock…

Principles of Mise en scène

In addition to these tendencies, which can be perceived in the various creative departments, there are a few principles of pure mise en scene at work.

In order to humanise a text that is highly pared down compared to the book, but still copious at times, in order to make it easier to accept, Vidor often chooses to start with a shot where you can’t see the characters who are speaking, before reframing on them and sometimes finishing on others. This is more lively and less systematic than having the entire action and dialogue in the frame, in full view and static shots, provided, of course, that during this off-screen text there is something interesting, or in violent contradiction—or in harmony—with the text.

In order to vary this, he proliferates the changes in actor position in the shot. A discussion around architectural strategy begins with Toohey lying down, before he straightens up. Sometimes, when she disagrees with her interlocutor, Dominique looks alternately at her interlocutor and at us or into the distance, glimpsing only a distant ideal.

In meetings, with a crowd, with twelve shareholders or members of the board of directors in the frame, the shot will often start from one character and go on to reframe all the others, or vice versa—a technique that reveals the relationship between the individual and the collective, the primary subject of the film, just like the framing strategy with the protagonist in the foreground, seen from behind, facing others.

There are many brief back-and-forth movements on a main character. It appears that Vidor used, for the first time I believe, a dolly, which permits all kinds of movement, and thus contrasts with the style of his previous films for MGM, which were much more frontal.

The camera frequently switches from people to still lifes, models, newspapers, various other papers, revolver (or the other way round), which makes it easier to link one sequence to another. We are successively presented with the thought, the decision and its consequence. Vidor resorts to showing dates flipping on a calendar, an old-fashioned trick to depict the passage of time. More inventive is the metamorphosis that opens the film, where we go from the cover of the book The Fountainhead to the façade of a building.


[1] Lorenzo Codelli, “The infinite integrity of the individualist artist”, Positif, issue no. 163, November 1974.

[2] George Nelson, “Mr. Roark goes to Hollywood”, Interiors, April 1949, p. 10-11.

[3] Carlos Señor, King Vidor, Barcelona, 1977, p. 161.