MGM // 1959 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // November 14th, 2005
"Wild things leave skins behind. They leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them. And these are tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind." -- Carol Cutrere
In 1940, Tennessee Williams's play Battle of Angels premiered in Boston with disastrous results. Not only were the reviews poor, but on opening night, the climactic conflagration sent smoke throughout the theater and the audience into the street. Williams eventually retooled and retitled the play and, in 1957, Orpheus Descending opened on Broadway, but after tepid reviews, it ran for only 28 performances.
About the same time, movie adaptations of Tennessee Williams's dramas were both popular and controversial, raking in big bucks at the box office and sparking further interest in the playwright's work. Richard Brooks's version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) earned six Academy Awards nominations and considerable recognition. Perhaps, it was time to bring Orpheus Descending to the screen.
For more commercial appeal, the title was again changed, to The Fugitive Kind. The film boasted a high-power cast of three Oscar winners, Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), Anna Magnani (The Rose Tattoo), and Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve), along with a screenplay by Williams and a talented new director, Sidney Lumet, who had made an astonishing film debut with 12 Angry Men (1957), which was also adapted from the stage.
Would this third version be the charm, or another doomed production?
Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier (Marlon Brando) is an itinerant guitar player whose notorious backstage "entertainin'" gets him jailed and booted out of New Orleans. His car breaks down in Two Rivers County, Miss., and Vee Talbot (Maureen Stapleton, Plaza Suite), the sheriff's wife, invites him to stay the night in the lockup. Vee has a soft heart for strangers, especially ones with artistic talent. Val likens his guitar playing to her new hobby of painting. Both offer the chance for self-expression and emotional release and, for Vee, it's also an outlet for her self-imposed religious convictions and sexual frustration, since most of her drawings feature churches with huge, phallic steeples.
Vee suggests that Val take a job clerking at the Torrance Mercantile Store. She knows that Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani) will need help because her husband, Jabe (Victor Jory, Dodge City), has just returned from the hospital and is dying of cancer. Lady makes it clear to Val that "you mean no more to me than the air you stand in," but she soon tells him he can save money by sleeping in a back room. Although feeble and doped up with morphine, Jabe still musters enough suspicion and resentment toward Val to question Lady's motives. But Lady's real goal is to open a confectionery behind the store, "one like the wine garden of my father. The one the vigilantes burned down because he sold wine to Negroes. My father died in that fire."
Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) is the slatternly reject of a wealthy Southern dynasty. She's been arrested several times for lewd vagrancy and continues to remind everyone "just how lewd and lewd vagrant can be." Her brother, David (John Baragrey, Shockproof) pays her to stay out of the county and has ordered the shopkeepers to have no dealings with her. But Carol still speeds through town, raising hell. She recognizes Val from one of her forays to New Orleans and wants to joy ride and go "jukin'," but Val has just turned 30, deciding to change his ways because "I been on a party since I was 15."
Val, Lady, and Carol are all outcasts in Two River County. Val is an intruder, Lady is the rejected daughter of an Italian immigrant, and Carol regularly flusters the town with her immoral and crude behavior. This leads to blistering confrontations with the townspeople, the law, and each other as buried secrets are unearthed, sparking revenge and violence.
The Fugitive Kind is Tennessee Williams's Southern Gothic twist on the Greek myth of Orpheus and his descent into Hades to rescue Eurydice. Orpheus was a great musician who could enchant wild animals and even inspire stones to move and plants to lilt in time with the golden chords of his lyre. One of Val's trademarks is his guitar, and he calls it his "life's companion." The guitar is autographed with the names of famous jazz and blues legends like Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson. To augment the Orpheus connection, Val tells Lady that Leadbelly was the greatest man who ever played a 12-string guitar. "He played so good that he broke the stone-cold heart of a Texas governor and won himself a pardon out of jail. His name is written in the stars." Along with the "stone" reference, the constellation Lyra is named after Orpheus's lyre that was placed in the sky by The Muses as a starlit memorial to him.
Lady, of course, is Eurydice, and she is suffering in a personal Hades. Throughout the course of the film, we learn that a young lover jilted her, then she lost his child during a pregnancy she never told him about. She watched her father burn to death and can't pass a man in the street without wondering if he was one of the vigilantes that killed him. Now she is bound by marriage to a man she despises, one that "makes my skin crawl every time you touch me!" It doesn't take her long to perceive Val as a potential lover once he covers her chilly shoulders and arms with his snakeskin jacket. "It's still warm from my body. My temperature is always a few degrees above normal. They say a woman can burn down a man. Well, I can burn down a woman."
He goes on to mesmerize Lady with the story of a rare bird he claims to have seen:
"You know there's this kind of bird that don't have no legs, so it can't light on nothing and has to stay all its life on its wings in the sky. I seen one once, and its body was tiny as your little finger, but its wings spread out this wide, and they was transparent and you could see the sky right through them. The hawks can't catch them because they don't see 'em, They live their whole lives on the wing, they sleep on the wind -- and never light on this earth but one time when they die."
Lady wishes she had the freedom that metaphorical bird represents, because "I live with a son of a bitch who bought me at a fire sale! And not in 15 years have I had a single good dream!" The bird is also a harbinger of doom for Val, who is constantly on the move, "flying" from one town to another, never staying long enough for his past to catch up with him. If he "lights on this earth" in one place for too long and tries to establish roots, he's destined to die, too.
The set design by Gene Callahan (The Hustler and art direction by Richard Sylbert (The Pawnbroker) emphasize the prison-like atmosphere to which Lady is confined. The railing of the upstairs hallway is covered with thick, floor-to-ceiling latticework. Although they sleep in separate bedrooms, this symbolizes Lady's forced marital coupling with Jabe and her inability to escape. The main level of the mercantile store is a maze of shelves, cabinets, and counters that keeps Lady boxed inside. Even when she builds her confectionery, it has the look of a giant bird cage, conjuring up the imagery of Val's story. In the prologue, we first see Val behind bars in a jail cell awaiting a hearing. When he arrives in Two Rivers County, the only place Vee has for him to sleep is in the lockup. And when Lady offers him a place to live in her store, it's a cramped alcove with barely enough room for a cot. The themes of confinement and claustrophobia are evident in almost every scene.
Carol Cutrere is the only real "free bird" in the film, but she's abused her independence and is looked upon as a social pariah. She's a vulgar exhibitionist who once donned a potato sack and walked barefoot for six miles as a form of protest and "was hooted at, jeered at and spit on every step of the way." She tries to seduce Val, but he tells her, "I don't run with your crowd anymore, and I don't run to the places they run to." As soon as Val starts working for Lady, he's required to wear a suit and Carol resents the change. "You've taken off that snakeskin jacket that said, 'I'm wild and I'm alone,' and put on the nice blue uniform of a convict!" Gradually, she starts to see Val in a different light. Instead of flaunting her sexuality, she tries to appeal to his emotions. "I wish I could hold on to something the way you hold your guitar, with such tender protection. I'd like to hold you that way, Snakeskin." Val tells her she isn't built for passion. "What's this, a wrist bone? I could snap it like a twig. Fly away, little bird -- before you get broke."
In the original Battle of Angels, this character was named Cassandra, again harkening back to Greek mythology. Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy and then later cursed so that no one would believe her predictions. Carol Cutrere warns Val that "there is danger here in this town if you stay." But Val doesn't believe her. It's only after the sheriff and his cronies threaten him with violence that he realizes it's time to go. Val tells Lady that he's in "a bad situation" and must be across the county line by sunrise. She insists that he stay for the opening of the confectionery that night, then tells him he's given her a new life: She's pregnant with his child and she's overjoyed. "All my life I've been waiting for someone to come and take me out of this hell! You hear that? That's Death upstairs knocking for me, and Death must die! But not before he sees the confectionery. I want him to see it while he's dying."
Water imagery is persistent through the film. Val arrives at the Talbot's home on a typical "dark and stormy night," indicating he's trouble. The county of Two Rivers suggests a proverbial fork in the road where you must decide which route to take in life. Lady's father had his wine garden on the edge of Moon Lake. Carol Cutrere is paid to stay outside the boundaries of those two rivers, but her brother and sister-in law have just "made me a marvelous offer provided I go -- and stay gone! -- at least across one entire ocean and not just these two rivers. It includes a Mediterranean villa, perched like the nest of a sea bird over the coast they call Divina Costiera." When the local Conjure Man, Uncle Pleasant, brings a bone into Lady's store, Carol tells him, "I know it's the breastbone of a small bird, but it's still tainted with corruption. Leave it for a long time on a rock in the rain until every sign of corruption has been washed away. Then it will be a good charm." And at the end of the film, the sheriff's posse forces Val into an inferno with blasts from high-powered fire hoses.
Williams even composed the lyrics to "Heavy Blanket Roll," a song Val plays when he decides to leave the county. "Crossing the river" is yet another reference to the myth of Orpheus.
Last night I crossed the river
With a heavy blanket roll
I took nobody with me
Not a soul
I took a few provisions
Some for hunger, some for cold
But I took nobody with me
Not a soul
Tennessee Williams's dialogue often sounds too ornate and lyrical for most people; it's almost an acquired taste, as are Edward Albee's subjectivist confrontations and Harold Pinter's taciturn oblique conversations. But in The Fugitive Kind, Williams offers a harsher and more abrasive tone than usual because there is almost no one to immediately engage our sympathies. We're introduced to three main characters that are despairing and angry at the world, but who hang on tenaciously hoping for something better. As Carol notes, "Lady, you are my sister, you know that if you want something in this world you have got to grab it and hold on to it tight until your fingers are broken." The dialogue gradually softens as we get to know these people more intimately.
The last 20 minutes of The Fugitive Kind packs such an emotional wallop that it is almost hard to watch, yet you can't close your eyes to the visions of so many lives being brutally destroyed by hate, small town prejudice, injustice, and vengeance. The entire cast is electrifying in bringing these damned and distraught characters to life. Brando, Magnani, and Woodward are in top form, generating a dynamic chemistry. This is one of Brando's best performances of the 1950s, his peak decade, and it's on a par with his work in Streetcar and On the Waterfront. The volatile Anna Magnani dominates the film, leaving the viewer feeling purged and drained. Woodward reprises her "Eve Black face," but allows the hot-to-trot party girl, Carol Cutrere, to develop more sincerity so that by the end of the film we feel more pity for her than resentment.
Victor Jory personifies Jabe's relentless cruelty and abusiveness. His cancer can be seen as a metaphor for the corruption that is rampant throughout the entire town, and the "death sweat" that increasingly covers his face may be considered as part of Williams's allusions to water, as Jabe wallows in negativity and corruption. R.G. Armstrong (Stay Hungry) plays Sheriff Talbot with redneck authority, and Maureen Stapleton makes the most out of the trimmed role of Vee.
The moody cinematography by Boris Kaufman (Long Day's Journey Into Night) is superb, and a richly textured score by Kenyon Hopkins (Wild River) is finely tuned to the script. Dreamy interludes are cut short with ominous percussive notes that carry over into Jabe's thumping the floor for Lady. The circus calliope announcing the opening of Lady's confectionery goes berserk as Hopkins forces the instrument to go wildly out-of-tune at the film's horrific climax. Sidney Lumet has done an outstanding job of bringing this scorching drama to the screen. Instead of limiting the action to Lady's store, he's opened up the play to give a view of the entire county with in raw detail by including scenes set in local gambling and juke joints, and exteriors, such as Lady's visit to her father's burned down wine garden. Lumet directs the cast with a sure hand and blocks out their movements with precision.
MGM's 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer holds up well. Most of the artifacting and projection cues that marred their VHS release are gone. Totally dark scenes, however, occasionally have a flat, muddy look, but Lumet and Kaufman have manipulated the staging and lighting for maximum effect. This is one of the best looking and most dramatically imaginative black-and-white films I've seen. I don't think it would have hurt Kaufman's compositions if MGM had decided to horizontally crop the film and present it in a 1.78:1 widescreen anamorphic ratio. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono strongly supports both the dialogue and the score. There are no extras, not even the film's original theatrical trailer. An icon for "Previews," just brings you to an annoying, MTV-edited three-minute montage of about two-dozen westerns in the MGM library aimed at "the cowboy on the couch."
In the 1980s, I saw a beautifully mounted revival of Battle of Angels with an excellent off-Broadway cast. In 1989 Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson starred as Lady and Val in successful sold-out limited engagement on Broadway. It's available on an overpriced, out-of-print VHS but has yet to make it to DVD.
After watching the The Fugitive Kind again, I think it's the best version of the three and has the best and most representative title. Highly recommended!
Not guilty! The original lobby cards for the The Fugitive Kind declared: "Their fire, their fever, their desire! And now the screen is struck by lightning!" Pick up this DVD and experience it in your own living room.
Review content copyright © 2005 George Hatch; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Tennessee Williams Information Resource
* Sidney Lumet at Classic Films
* Marlon Brando at The Golden Years
* Anna Magnani at The Golden Years
* Joanne Woodward at The Golden Years