The Fugitive Kind

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts (based on the play Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams)
Stars: Marlon Brando (Valentine 'Xavier), Anna Magnani (Lady Torrance), Joanne Woodward (Carol Cutrere), Maureen Stapleton (Vee Talbot), Victor Jory (Jabe M. Torrance), R.G. Armstrong (Sheriff Jordan Talbott), Emory Richardson (Uncle Pleasant, the Conjure Man), Madame Spivy (Ruby Lightfoot), Sally Gracie (Dolly Hamma), Lucille Benson (Beulah Binnings), John Baragrey (David Cutrere)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: U.S.
The Fugitive Kind Criterion Collection DVD
The Fugitive KindIt is perhaps easier to recognize the merits of The Fugitive Kind from our vantage point today, some 50 years after its initial release, than it was when it first played in theaters. At that time, the movie industry was in Tennessee Williams overload, having produced six films in nine years, five of which were adapted from his plays (including 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and one of which was written directly for the screen (1956’s scandalous Baby Doll). As a result, critics and audiences were beginning to feel overwhelmed by the recurring themes and archetypes that populate Williams’ work--all the sweaty, oversexed men, familial tensions, heady symbolism, and twisted Southern backdrops. Critics at the time were less than generous to The Fugitive Kind, not only because it arrived at the tail-end of so many other Williams-penned films, but also because it was derived from his less-than-successful 1957 play Orpheus Descending, which was itself a rewrite of his first play, a general failure called Battle of Angels, thus suggesting that Hollywood was starting to scrape the bottom of the Tennessee Williams barrel.

And, to be fair, it is not one of the best films derived from Williams’ work, nor is it one of director Sidney Lumet’s best films. It is a bit too ponderous, heavy-handed, and literal in its pretensions, especially since most of Williams’ mythic overtones have been scrapped in the transition from stage to screen, rendering the story’s perversities more one-dimensionally perverse. Yet, at the same time, it is an intriguing film, one that draws you slowly but surely into its doomsday scenario that ends with all the fire and brimstone you might expect. Lumet, who was still best known as a live television director despite having made three previous theatrical films, keeps the style simple and direct, relying heavily on the strength of his outstanding cast and the subtle, but emotionally expressive shifts in lighting designed by veteran cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who had experience working with both Lumet (1957’s 12 Angry Men), Williams (1956’s Baby Doll), and star Marlon Brando (1954’s On the Waterfront).

The film begins with what is probably its best scene, a bravura long take that follows Brando’s Val Xavier, a rootless young musician, from his New Orleans jail cell to a judge’s bench, where he has to explain himself to the judge and to us why he has been arrested and what he plans to do with himself. Having led a less than noble life, he wants to turn it around and find peace, an endeavor at which, in Williams’ sordid universe, he is all but guaranteed to fail. Seeking a new beginning, he finds himself in a small Southern town where he first meets Vee Talbot (Maureen Stapleton), the offbeat wife of the sheriff (R.G. Armstrong), who suggests that he try to get a job clerking at the local mercantile store. The store is run by Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani, the unconventional neorealist beauty who had won an Oscar for her role in Williams’ The Rose Tattoo), an earthy and sexually repressed Italian woman whose bitter husband Jabe (Victor Jory) is recovering from surgery upstairs. Bringing Val’s undeniable sexual allure (a trait he can’t help but emanate, even when taken out of his feral snakeskin jacket and stuffed into a “respectable” button-down suit) and Lady’s repression into the same room is mathematically calculated to result in the kind of slow-burn sensuality for which Williams is rightly famous, but it is here that the film ultimately comes up a bit short. Despite their powerful combined screen presence, Brando and Magnani never quite make the screen boil; perhaps their archetypal characters are too clearly designed to fit together like missing puzzle pieces, so there is no true sense of spontaneity. It’s all preordained.

Their growing relationship is complicated by other factors, included Joanne Woodward’s Carol Cutrere, a wild-child social outcast whose unabashed lustiness is overshadowed only by her support for racial equality (this is the pre-Civil Rights South, after all). Carol is on fire for Val, and she pops in from time to time to remind him of it, as does Vee, who is so enraptured by him that she is struck with visions and eventually blindness. And all the while Jabe is stewing in his sweaty bed above the store, clearly aware of what is happening between his wife and the handsome stranger who now works for him. A typical Williams grotesque, Jabe is the ultimate cuckolded husband, impotent both physically and emotionally, but always capable of drawing from a deep well of anger and resentment that is like a barrel of gunpowder just waiting for ignition.

And ignite it does, bringing us to an inferno of a climax that would be positively ludicrous if it didn’t play as such a perfectly modulated culmination of all the building tensions in the previous two hours. Known for his realism, Lumet seems to give in to the symbolic intensity of Williams’ melodrama, essentially letting it all burn down in a blaze of tragedy, rather than glory. It elucidates in a particularly visceral way a theme that tends to burn beneath the surface of most of Williams’ plays: a character of great sexual power to whom others are drawn, but must ultimately be punished for that very power. Seeing Marlon Brando still at the young, Method-fueled heights of his career makes the film imminently watchable, and it also makes you realize (sadly) how much audiences at the time took him for granted, not knowing how precarious his talent really was.

The Fugitive Kind Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • New video interview with director Sidney Lumet
  • “Hollywood’s Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind” featurette
  • Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, an hour-long television presentation of one-act plays, directed by Lumet in 1958, with Ben Gazarra and Lee Grant, among others
  • Essay by film critic David Thomson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 27, 2010

    Although his films typically veer toward strict realism, director Sidney Lumet allowed for all kinds of expressionist lighting and imagery in The Fugitive Kind, which looks fantastic in Criterion’s new high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive that was digitally restored and approved by director Sidney Lumet. The black-and-white image features strong contrast, which gives the image an impressively edgy look that plays well with the psychodrama. The image is clean and clear throughout, with virtually no dirt or defects to suggest that the film is 50 years old and has been largely neglected in that time. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical track from the composite print and digitally restored, likewise sounds good, with virtually no ambient hiss or aural defects. Of course, that doesn’t mean you might not still have to turn on the subtitles once in a while to catch the dialogue, which is sometimes difficult to hear given Marlon Brando’s Method mumbling and Anna Magnani’s heavy Italian accent.
    Considering that The Fugitive Kind has been largely dismissed and forgotten since its initial theatrical release despite its star power both behind and in front of the camera, Criterion has given it a nice array of supplements to remind us of the film’s relative importance. We start with an informative new 17-minute video interview with director Sidney Lumet, in which he discusses the film’s production, working with Marlon Brando, the contributions of cinematographer Boris Kaufman, and what he sees as the film’s primary merits. To better understand the film in relationship to Tennessee Williams’ career, we have the 17-minute featurette “Hollywood’s Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind,” which features new interviews with Williams historian Arthur Bray and film historian R. Barton Palmer, co-authors of the book Hollywood’s Tennessee. Most interesting is the inclusion of Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, an hour-long live television program from 1958 that features three of Williams’ one-act plays directed by Lumet (the cast includes Ben Gazarra and Lee Grant, among others, and is introduced by Williams himself, who looks very uncomfortable in front of the camera). Given Criterion’s recent release of The Golden Age of Television box set, it seems that they are in a position to become an important repository or classical television’s greatest works.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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