Recently released on DVD by Criterion this little seen film is a revelation. Based on Tennessee Williams play “Orpheus Descending” the film focuses on Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Marlon Brando), a drifter whose sexual magnetism disrupts life in a small Mississippi town. Interesting enough Williams wanted Brando and co-star Anna Magnani to be in the play. Both declined and the roles eventually went to Maureen Stapleton and the less than charismatic Cliff Robertson. The play was a flop financially, Williams first major bomb closing after only 68 performances, still the producers were able to make a deal with United Artists to make the film with Sidney Lumet who only had four films to his credit as a director. Anna Magnani agreed to do the movie as long as Anthony Franciosa, who she was having an affair with at the time, was awarded the role of “Snakeskin.” Franciosa potentially would have been good in the role, however he was not a big enough star to get UA to provide the budget needed to make the film. The producers wanted Brando and offered him one million dollars, at the time the highest salary ever, if he accepted the role. Brando just finished directing his first and only film, “One Eyed Jacks.” Financially he was in a hole. His production was in the red due to the slow pace he worked while directing the western. Additionally, he was in the middle of a divorce. Needless to say, he quickly accepted the deal. Later he would claim he sold his soul when agreeing to make this film. The producers now had two “Snakeskins” and had to get rid of one, namely Tony Franciosa. The question was how was the fiery Anna Magnani going to respond. To the surprise of all, she was okay with it, deciding that she too would dump the unfortunate Franciosa and planned to begin an affair with Brando her new co-star. The problem was Brando was not interested. This caused much friction on the set between the hot-tempered Magnani and the rebellious million dollar star, with the young director in the middle.
As the film opens, Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier is run out of one town by a judge. He arrives one dark rainy night in a small town in Mississippi. His only possessions are his guitar and his snakeskin jacket (one wonders if this was the inspiration for Nick Cage’s character in “Wild at Heart?”). The women in town are attracted to the enigmatic stranger. There is the young and wild Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) and Vee Talbott (Maureen Stapleton), the wife of the brutish town sheriff, who will find her artistic calling after meeting Val. Of all the women in town, it is Lady Torrance who is most affected byVal’s attention. She gives him a job at her husband’s general store. Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory) is a racist and an abusive husband who does not let the fact that he is slowly dying stop him from being an ornery SOB. Lady, an outsider herself, is trapped in unloving marriage, in a town filled with narrow-minded conventionality and bigotry. With Val her passions for sex, love and life are rewakened. She views this awakening as her refuge from her bored existence ignoring the potential consequences that may result.
The story is filled with what one expects from Tennessee Williams, the gothic south, sexual frustration, repression and a bit of madness all rolled up into to one big wet mint julep. The pace of the film is unhurried, it just adds to the slow boiling volcanic eruption that you can feel is about to take place before the film ends.
Sidney Lumet, best known for his New York films, veered away to the South for this, just his fourth film (he actually went north, upstate New York near Poughkeepsie to a small town called Milton that was made up to look like a small southern town). With the help of cinematographer Boris Kaufman whose stark black and white images gives the film’s visuals a gothic noirish quality at times reminding one of “The Night of the Hunter.” Brando looks great, his performance filled with a powerful intensity and the animal magnetism the role requires. Anna Magnani is mesmerizing with her fierce personality and Joanne Woodward, in a role that is as unguarded and dangerous as anything she has ever done verges on the edge of going overboard but never quite does. Victor Jory is the face of nasty evil and R.G. Armstrong is perfectly cast as the sadistic sheriff. If for no other reason, watch this movie for the acting alone.
As an Italian-American, for me one of the more interesting aspects of this work is the treatment of the Lady Torrence character. Like Val, Lady Torrance is an outsider; she is even treated by her tyrannical husband with no respect. One has to remember that the source material was written before the civil rights movement where Blacks, and Italians, were treated as second class citizens in the South. When many Black people began to move up North in hopes of a better life, Italians were brought in to replace them as cheap laborers. They were looked down upon and treated as second class citizens by the locals. Growing up in the South, Williams would have been well aware of this. He also had an Italian character in his play, “The Rose Tattoo” (again played by Magnani).
Over the years, most critics have damned this film as minor Williams, a twice failed play; the original version was called “Battle of Angels” which closed in Boston never reaching Broadway. Years later he rewrote the play renaming it, “Orpheus Descending.” As a movie, the story was given a third chance at life . “The Fugitive Kind” is one of those films that just gets better with age.