My experience with Tennessee Williams’s work is limited to multiple viewings of both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I love both of those films and still have yet to entirely crack into the rest of my Tennessee Williams Collection from 2006 to get more acquainted, but after watching Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of The Fugitive Kind I am certainly more likely to do so.
Starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, The Fugitive Kind swallows you whole. It’s an atmospheric romance of class and conflict that slowly warms but has enough restraint to never boil over even if its players might. Brando stars as the drifter Valentine Xavier. Just released from jail, Val finds himself caught in a torrential downpour when he is offered a place to stay for the night by Vee Talbot (Maureen Stapleton). Vee helps him find work in his effort to “turn over a new leaf.”
Referred to as “Snakeskin” for the snakeskin jacket he wears, many of the men look at Val as just that, a snake slithering into their small Mississippi town, corrupting the women that live there. Director Sidney Lumet, in an exclusive interview provided on this collection’s second disc adds further character speculation addressing the meaning of his name, Valentine Xavier. Lumet notes the similarity of Xavier to “savior”. An excellent observation as Val is seen as something of a romantic savior of sorts. He takes easily to the women of the town, notably Lady Torrance played by Magnani (Rome Open City), the wife and current operator of the local mercantile store as her bed-ridden husband (Victor Jory) has just returned home from the hospital.
Val begins working at the store and a relationship between he and Lady begins to bloom, just as much out of need and loneliness as well as a believable mutual admiration. Boris Kaufman’s stark black-and-white photography adds to the mood of the piece, nearly shrouding all intentions as the white face of Magnani can be seen peering from a black background adding mystery and occasional menace to an otherwise innocent scene.
Val’s gender equivalent is played by Joanne Woodward in an uninhibited performance as Carol Cutrere. However, Carol Cutrere doesn’t carry the same appeal to the opposite sex Val does. Instead she’s been banished, not even allowed to fill her car with gas. Other performances of note include Maureen Stapleton in a perfectly pleasant performance and Victor Jory playing Lady’s husband Jabe, a despicable man if there ever was one and a character not at all hard to hate.
Enjoying the film as much as I did, the supplemental features are icing on the cake. Criterion has released this as a two disc set allowing the two hour feature to make up all of the dual-layered first disc creating an exemplary image, though there are certain murky close-ups that lead me to believe they are the reason Criterion didn’t release this on Blu-ray. For a film that seems to have been largely forgotten when talking about Tennessee Williams, I presume it hasn’t been as well preserved as others, but the presentation here is great, other than those few instances where you look at the picture and assume, “That must be the best they could do.”
The features on disc two include the 30-minute interview with Lumet I mentioned earlier where he delivered a fantastic line regarding the making of the film saying, “Nobody knew enough about anything to tell you no.” It’s for this reason I think so many films from 40 and 50 years ago are so uninhibited compared to today’s test audience approved efforts. Couple this with the equally fascinating “Hollywood’s Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind” with interviews by R. Barton Palmer and Robert Bray who wrote “Hollywood’s Tennessee: The Williams Films and Postwar America” and offer up plenty of information about both the film and Tennessee Williams’s effect on Hollywood.
Equally impressive is David Thomson’s essay “The Fugitive Kind: When Sidney Went to Tennessee”. In most instances I find Thomson to be effusive and unnecessarily wordy, but this essay (which you can read online right here) is to the point and loaded with fascinating information. My favorite being the snippet with Stapleton’s comment regarding Brando I have included below.
The location was Milton, New York, up the Hudson near Poughkeepsie, but the small town was mobbed with kids, eager for a glimpse of Brando. He and Joanne Woodward did not get along, for reasons never made clear. And there was a further problem: Maureen Stapleton-the star of the stage production-had been offered the supporting role of Vee Talbot in the film, so Magnani had to work under the eye of the role’s expert. According to Brando biographer Peter Manso, Williams would ask Stapleton how they had done a thing onstage, and the good-natured actress would admit tactfully, “You know, I can’t remember, Ten.” On one occasion, in a scene with Brando, as he paused without quite cuing her, Stapleton said, “Marlon, you’re a genius, I’m not. While you’re waiting, I don’t know what to do.” Meanwhile, Lumet noted, Brando would test him early on by offering two takes of each scene-one okay, technically exact; one untidy but heartfelt, brilliant-and waiting to see which way the director would go.
The final feature is “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” a 55-minute collection of one act plays directed by Lumet that aired on NBC in 1958. There wasn’t anything wrong with this addition, but it just didn’t grab me. However, the humorous Cracker Barrel commercial that followed the program along with an advertisement urging viewers to buy brand names gave me a laugh.
There is plenty more to learn about the film from this collection and the one hour of specific interview footage dedicated to it and I can’t urge you more strongly to give it some consideration. This is a film made for repeat viewings. It washes over you and sets a mood. After watching it once you will know when the proper time to revisit it will be and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are inclined to watch it twice in one sitting.