Criterion // 1959 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // April 22nd, 2010
"They say that a woman can burn a man down...but I can burn a woman down."
"There's two kinds of people in this world...the buyers, and the ones that got bought."
Drifter and musician Valentine Xavier (Marlon Brando, The Nightcomers) -- a.k.a. "Snakeskin" -- finds himself in Two Rivers County after fleeing New Orleans to escape the law and a lifestyle he can no longer abide. Snakeskin's good looks and sexual magnetic have helped him survive, but the life of a "party boy" is destroying him.
When his car breaks down in a rainstorm, he's offered shelter by Vee Talbot (Maureen Stapleton, Reds), the wife of the sheriff. Vee, who paints religious pictures, recognizes Snakeskin's artistic soul and helps him get work at the local store, run by the unhappily married Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo) and her husband Jabe (Victor Jory, Gone With the Wind), a nasty, bitter man who is dying of cancer.
At first, Lady -- a proud Italian woman who's been beaten down by life with her cruel husband in this stifling town -- doesn't trust Snakeskin, though she is unquestionably attracted to him. She takes him on, and the two become closer. Lady wants Snakeskin to help her realize her dream, opening a confectionery behind the store, one that would harken back to the wine grove her bootlegger father had before it was burned down by marauders angry that he'd sold liquor to blacks. Lady and Snakeskin become lovers while her husband seethes and decays upstairs, under the watchful eye of his nurse.
But another woman wants Snakeskin's attention: Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward, Rachel, Rachel), the black sheep daughter of the wealthiest family in the county. Carol's a crazed, promiscuous drunk who'd met Snakeskin during his party-boy days and now sees him as a kind of salvation.
Outsiders aren't welcome in places like Two Rivers, even when they're long-time residents like Lady and Carol. Will these damaged creatures find solace and a place to land, or are they already the condemned?
Poignant and poetic, The Fugitive Kind is a challenging film that works more often than it doesn't. Based on Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending -- a play that had been critically panned and did little business in its original Broadway run -- this adaptation boasts terrific performances, atmospheric direction by Sidney Lumet (The Verdict), and excellent cinematography by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront).
As with any Williams work, the film is loaded with subtext and imagery, much of it sexual -- including Snakeskin's beloved Guitar and Vee's paintings, which are rife with Freudian symbols. For its time, The Fugitive Kind tackles sexuality with surprising frankness, its story of hustlers, nymphomaniacs, illicit relationships, and passions both ignited and unrequited presented straight, not watered down. Williams infuses this story with layers of meaning, and repeat viewings offer different experiences.
But what stands out here is the human drama. As great a writer as he was, Williams' characters were not always as heartfelt as the people on display here, and even his stronger characters -- and the actors who play them -- are sometimes overwhelmed by the writer's stylized, elegant use of language. Like Elia Kazan's film of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Fugitive Kind gives us a fortuitous combination of actors who can work both with and through Williams' ethereal prose.
Brando is cast here as the object of everyone's desire, and it's almost as if Williams' story was an allegory about the actor himself. Brando here displays a sensitive, almost feminine side that we rarely see in his performances. He seems to savor Williams' words, beautifully capturing the rhythms of the text. It's a subtle, haunting performance, perhaps one of his most underrated.
Magnani never cared for working in English -- she'd turned down the chance to do both Orpheus Descending and The Rose Tattoo on Broadway because she was not comfortable with the language (though she starred in the film version of the latter, winning an Oscar for her performance). In The Fugitive Kind, Magnani might not have understood the language, but she understood the character -- and the feeling. It's an interesting choice, casting this earthy, force-of-nature actress as a repressed, down-trodden woman, but Magnani rises to it. While I've read that Brando and Magnani did not get along, and their acting styles seemingly at odds, their scenes together are electric.
Woodward is excellent as crazed woman-child Carol, though as written, the character is the most stage-bound. The actress holds together an early scene in a roadhouse in which she has a monologue about "juking" that, in lesser hands, could have sunk the proceedings; instead, it's a highlight that shows what a skilled actress can do with difficult material. Stapleton does remarkable work in her too-few scenes as the sheriff's frustrated, alienated wife, and Jory embodies evil as Magnani's vile husband, who has a few ugly secrets and an especially nasty third-act trick up his sleeve.
An earlier MGM release of The Fugitive Kind offered a non-anamorphic transfer and a bare-bones disc; this being a Criterion, the package is considerably improved.
The widescreen, black and white image looks good -- probably as good as it's going to look -- but here and there are signs of fading and softness. It's a decent picture for its age, but not a revelation. Audio is the original mono track, and it's solid.
There's no commentary here, which is a shame, but we do get some great supplements. Sidney Lumet offers a wonderful recollection of directing the film and working with Williams, Brando, Magnani, and Woodward. With so many contemporary "director interviews" are just back-slapping, glad-handing wastes of time, so listening to this long-time craftsman reminisce is a real treat. "Hollywood's Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind" gives us Robert Bray and R. Barton Palmer, authors of a book on Williams, discussing the playwright's Hollywood experience with an emphasis on The Fugitive Kind. "Three Plays by Tennessee Williams" is just that -- a trio of one-acts directed by Lumet for Kraft Television Theatre in 1958. The plays presented here -- Moody's Kid Don't Cry, The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, and This Property Is Condemned -- feature Ben Gazzara, Lee Grant, Zina Bethune, and Gene Saks, and are a great watch, even if the tech is only fair (what you'd expect from a live television broadcast more than 50 years old). Rounding out the set is a booklet with stills and essay by film writer David Thomson, "When Sidney Went to Tennessee," about the making of The Fugitive Kind.
This is an impressive set that makes up in density what it lacks in volume. The Fugitive Kind might not be to every taste, but it's a moody, well-made, adult film that boasts strong performances and the kind of writing they just don't do anymore. Recommended.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* One-Act Plays