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.
John, an interesting take on “The Fugitive Kind.” I saw this many years ago on TV in an undoubtedly butchered print, and your post makes me want to take another look at it. David Thomson calls it the best movie made from a Tennessee Williams work, which considering “A Streetcar Named Desire” and some of the other quite good movies, surprises me. That is one great cast, and Lumet was always very good with actors. Have you seen the version directed by Peter Hall based on the London/Broadway revival c. 1990? It’s quite good, with Vanessa Redgrave (an unlikely choice but still excellent) in the Magnani role and Miriam Margolyes in the Stapleton role. “Baby Doll” was also beautifully shot by Kaufman (who later did such a great job for Lumet in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”) and has a prominent Italian-American character played by Eli Wallach. It’s surprising how many movies like this one that were dismissed on release are now being re-evaluated favorably by later critics.
R.D. The David Thompson statement is quite surprising, I would not go that far. I have not seen the Peter Hall version but am definitely interested in catching it now. And I totally forgot about Eli Wallach’s role in “Baby Doll” which I have seen but not in many years. Again I thank you R.D. for your comments!!!
I found this a very interesting review – I like Tennessee Williams and watched ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ fairly recently. Would be interested to see this too – given that Lumet is the director and it has such a great cast, I’m surprised it isn’t better known.
John, for some reason I find your 24 Frames site keeps coming up strangely for me on Internet Explorer with chunks of text missing and I have to look at it in Google Chrome – I haven’t the foggiest why and hopefully it is just me affected, but thought I’d alert you just in case!
thanks again Judy. Well, this film is not in the same class as STREETCAR but it certainly should not be dismissed. The performances are just to good.
This is the first I am hearing of the problem you are having viewing 24frames. I have no idea what is causing that to happen. Hmmm.
I do NOT remotely agree with Thomson, as (in addition to STREETCAR) THE GLASS MENAGERIE is stronger, and a case could certainly be made for NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. But while THE FUGITIVE KIND is rather minor Williams and minor Lumet, it has admittedly risen in reputation, and this fascinating account of the film’s inception, Williams’ own plans for the stage version, and the revelations about Brando and Magnani, both fiery performers. As far as this, I quite agree:
“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.”
I’d love to see this on stage at some point, but nothing has been forthcoming. I’d say it’s a fair enough film (and the Criterion DVD is extraordinary) but not of the top-ranking, which your review most certainly IS!
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