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The Fugitive Kind

The Fugitive Kind(1960)

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When we think of Marlon Brando's signature performances, we immediately conjure up images of the late actor as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire or Vito Corleone in The Godfather. If Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier, his character in Sidney Lumet's oddly overlooked 1959 drama The Fugitive Kind, doesn't quite deserve a place in this Brando pantheon, he certainly merits a slot just beneath them.

Why is The Fugitive Kind relatively obscure and less appreciated than it should be? Like Streetcar, it's also based on a Tennessee Williams play, but unlike that star-making Broadway production, it was never a stage hit in its day, flopping in both 1940 (in an early incarnation as Battle of Angels, with Miriam Hopkins) and, after years of rewrites, as Orpheus Descending in 1957. The movie adaptation similarly made little impact, borne out by the fact that it didn't nab a single Academy Award nomination, despite a screenplay co-written by Williams and a cast that also includes Anna Magnani (who'd already won an Oscar® for her role in the film of Williams' The Rose Tattoo), Joanne Woodward and Maureen Stapleton (who'd played the Magnani role onstage).

Of course, it's no surprise when a brooding movie like The Fugitive Kind, full of forlorn characters, flops. It often says little about the movie, and more about marketing and Hollywood's shaping of public tastes. Over the years, The Fugitive Kind has been a semi-regular at revival houses and had a Broadway revival in the late 1980s, yet it still is far down on the list of the best-known Williams film adaptations. But The Fugitive Kind offers the same overheated, symbol-laden, heightened reality of the better-known Baby Doll, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Night of the Iguana.

Brando's Val is the charismatic and tragic Orpheus descending of the play's title, a New Orleans "entertainer" who, fittingly, starts the movie in a jail lock-up, after starting a disturbance at a party that police raided. In a very striking opening in which Lumet keeps the camera on Brando, Val tells the unseen judge, in near-monologue, how he suddenly became disgusted with his life of carousing. The judge tells him to get out of the city, and Val gladly complies. His old car dies in a small Mississippi town, though, and he catches a break when the local sheriff's wife (Stapleton) puts in a word for him at the town's general store, run by Lady Torrance (Magnani). Val is anxious to turn over a new leaf and take a clerk's job there, but he's rightly cautious of the situation into which he's stepped: embittered Lady is locked in a loveless marriage with ornery Jabe (Victor Jory), who's bedridden in the living quarters above the store, while the sheriff (R.G. Armstrong) eyes Val like he's fitting him for a noose and rich, wild child Carol Cutrere (Woodward), who knows Val from his entertaining days, keeps trying to seduce him back into the lifestyle he's trying to escape.

It's the air of intolerance and suspicion that makes The Fugitive Kind so rich. It's not just the mentions of racism, like the defining moment of Lady's life being when a mob burned down her immigrant father's wine garden and killed him for selling liquor to blacks. It's also the frightened look in the sheriff's wife's eyes, the beaten-down slump in Lady's posture and the drunken party Carol tries to forever sustain to forget the injustice around her. It's in the way Val knows to keep looking over his shoulder to watch for those who won't just let him quietly live, too. "We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement in our own lonely skins," Val says sadly, in one of the movie's many quotable lines. Of course, many of them would sound silly out of context, but that's Williams for you.

As a romance blooms between Val and Lady, whose outlook on life brightens as a consequence (with Magnani giving a typically earthy performance), their happiness heads for a collision course with the forces around them—specifically her suspicious husband and the husband's buddy, the sheriff. No one gets out alive, figuratively speaking, when the sheriff tells Val to get out of town on the same day Lady plans to open a wine garden as a tribute to her father and a shot at Jabe, who still tries to maintain control of the store. Just as mythology's Orpheus ran into trouble while trying to save his love, Val's efforts to rescue Lady from her plight result in disaster on the climactic day. Unlike Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the ending of The Fugitive Kind was not watered down from its stage version. It's a potent, almost eerie resolution.

Unfortunately, Sony's DVD of The Fugitive Kind contains just the movie, so it's hardly likely to bring many people unfamiliar with the movie to it. That's a shame, especially considering Warner Home Video has a six-movie, bonus-filled Tennessee Williams boxed set scheduled for May release. Like the sad, lonely people it salutes, The Fugitive Kind is likely to be overshadowed yet more, and still search for respect.

For more information about The Fugitive Kind, visit Sony Pictures. To order The Fugitive Kind, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman
Tennessee Williams' plays made history on Broadway but his cinematic reputation was established early on with Elia Kazan's film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. 1959's The Fugitive Kind is adapted from Orpheus Descending, which is not one of the author's best works. But the talent involved couldn't be more ideal. On only his fourth film, former stage actor and director Sidney Lumet was a hot property for his claustrophobic Twelve Angry Men, a film set almost entirely in one jury room. Carried over from the Broadway cast of Orpheus are actors R.G Armstrong and Maureen Stapleton, who had played the lead role on stage. Tennessee Williams was so impressed by the remarkable Italian Anna Magnani, he had already written an entire play just for her. Marlon Brando was of course considered the ideal Williams leading man. Beyond his status as a hot star commodity and his prowess as a male sex symbol, Brando was one of the few candidates who could put across Williams' crowded thematic agenda.

Although the stage play had failed in two attempts spread over twenty years, The Fugitive Kind works rather well as a film. Sidney Lumet's realistic approach softens some of Williams' classical allusions and mythological overtones. Marlon Brando is the melancholy, rootless musician Valentine Xavier (read: "Lover - Savior"). Val describes himself through a fable about a strange bird with no feet that must live and sleep on the wind without ever touching the ground.   1  Banished from New Orleans by a judge, Val lands in a tiny Mississippi town seemingly founded on greed and racism. Vee (Maureen Stapleton), the addled and skittish wife of Sheriff Talbott (R.G. Armstrong), takes Val in out of a storm and lets him sleep in a jail cell. The sheriff is in a good mood, as he has just shot dead an escaping prisoner.

Val gets a job clerking in a general store and is soon involved with two more women. Lady (Anna Magnani) runs the store but hates her life, as her husband Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory) is a domineering tyrant confined to his sickbed. Free to run the store as she sees fit, Lady sees Val as a good partner in her plan to open an Italian-themed wine garden behind the store. Also loitering around the attractive Val is Carol Cutrere, a local scandal from a privileged family. Carol tries to seduce Val, who advises her not to run so wild. Lady and Carol don't get along, because Carol's rich brother David (John Baragrey) threw Lady over years ago in favor of a more socially advantageous marriage. Things heat up as Torrance becomes aware that his wife and Val are having an affair. Both he and Sheriff Talbott hate everything Val Xavier stands for.

A series of dark character collisions that can only lead to tragedy, The Fugitive Kind is organized around poetic harmonies. Val Xavier's leather jacket has earned him the name Snakeskin, and his undisclosed crime back in New Orleans has something to do with wild "parties" that sickened even him. Val tells Vee that, "you're not young at thirty if you've been on a party since you were fifteen". He's aware of his effect on women and assures Lady that he "can burn a woman down". In Tennessee Williams terms, Val is of course a symbol of life that the corrupt world must crush.

Personal freedom is the issue with the women in Val's life as well. Italian immigrant Lady is trying desperately to recover the happiness she lost years ago. Because Lady's father sold liquor to blacks, local racists torched his house, orchard and wine garden. The old man died in the fire. After being jilted by David Cutrere, Lady submitted to a soul-crushing marriage to the horrible Jabe Torrance. The highly sensual Anna Magnani is an even more arresting screen presence than Marlon Brando.

Wearing a ratty dress and driving a dirty sports car, Carol Cutrere is perpetually drunk and in trouble. She makes a lewd spectacle of herself in a diner, and later receives a bloody nose in an altercation with a gas station owner. Carol's rich relatives consider her an embarrassment and pay her to stay away from home. We learn that Carol's antisocial behavior began after an attempt at civil rights activism. One of her companions now is Uncle Pleasant (Emory Richardson) a speechless vagrant "Conjure Man". In an unusual role, Joanne Woodward seems genuinely uninhibited and out of control as the reckless Carol.

Sidney Lumet maintains a reasonably naturalistic look for The Fugitive Kind, but for certain dramatic highlights cameraman Boris Kaufman employs more stylized lighting and framing. Val enters town in a rainstorm and takes a midnight trip with Carol to a spooky cemetery. Circus music from a calliope gives the final act a dreamlike tone, enhancing Lady's enchantment with her new wine garden. The vineyard decorations trigger Lady's memory of better times. Draping herself with tinsel, Lady compares herself to a barren fig tree from her youth. When the tree finally bore fruit, she decorated it in celebration. Aided by the film's visuals, the characters "become" the symbols playwright Williams lays out for them.

Other more earthy dramatic moments are handled without embellishment, as when Val accuses Lady of trying to set him up as a live-in gigolo, and when Lady protests that Val is leaving to run away with Carol. Accounts of the filming vary as to how well the stars did or didn't get along with each other, but the on-screen fireworks are as good as anything either actor has done. Brando negotiated the first million-dollar actor's salary for The Fugitive Kind. He hadn't yet become bored with acting, and is definitely engaged with the role.

The conclusion is somewhat abrupt. The hatred mounting against Val and Lady explodes in a blur of fire, water and gunshots, closing the show with a rather unoriginal conflagration. Much more notably disturbing is a brief scene in which Vee Talbott staggers down Main Street in a panic because she's suddenly been struck blind. Only viewers familiar with the play Orpheus Descending will know what has happened, but the movie's lack of a direct explanation makes The Fugitive Kind seem even more unbalanced.

Criterion's DVD of The Fugitive Kind easily bests MGM's old Region 1 release, which had been mastered full screen. The enhanced 1:66 compositions properly frame the actors and display the lighting better; tilted shots no longer look like a mistake.

The extras are presented on a second disc. Sidney Lumet offers his memories of the shoot in a new video piece, while a second video hosted by authors Robert Bray and R. Barton Palmer examines Tennessee Williams' work in Hollywood and his attitude toward the movies. After Elia Kazan's film ofA Streetcar Named Desire vastly increased the playwright's audience, Williams later became critical of Kazan, and named Sidney Lumet as his preferred director.

A Television show from 1958, Three Plays by Tennesee Williams appears as a B&W Kinescope. The three one-acts lead off with a domestic scene between Lee Grant and Ben Gazarra; Williams introduces the show by telling the audience that the plays were written long ago, when his name was simply Tom Williams. David Thomson contributes an essay for the insert booklet. Criterion's disc producer is Abbey Lustgarten.

1. Calling Marianne Faithful: her classic song This Little Bird is this exact same fable, right down to a description of the bird's transparent wings.

For more information about The Fugitive Kind, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Fugitive Kind, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson