Director: Sidney Lumet
By Roderick Heath
For a time in the 1950s and ’60s, it seemed as if by act of Congress everything Tennessee Williams wrote just had to be filmed. Small wonder: Hollywood was famished for the distinctive and potent blend of sexy melodrama and compensatory artsy poeticism Williams’ plays offered, no matter how euphemistic and bowdlerised the results. A legendary sprawl of adaptations resulted, from heavyweight directors like Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958, and Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962), John Huston (Night of the Iguana, 1964), Daniel Mann (The Rose Tattoo, 1955), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959). But my own personal favourite for some time now has been Sidney Lumet’s relatively neglected version of Orpheus Descending, redubbed The Fugitive Kind, and Lumet’s fourth feature film.
By the time of films like Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Lumet would be known as a director who specialised in a carefully manipulated veneer of gritty realism. But early in his career, Hollywood leaned on his capacity to inflect stagy, verbal dramas with cinematic language of tightly orchestrated camera movement, while still retaining their dramatic unity and structure—a talent evident from his electric debut, Twelve Angry Men (1957). Williams himself cowrote the screenplay for this film, for which he substituted the title of an apprentice play he’d written in the ’30s. The result was, according to Lumet, a nightmare to shoot, with Marlon Brando proving a handful on set as he entered the long phase where he’d become alienated from Hollywood and his film career whilst never abandoning it. The initial audience reception for The Fugitive Kind was lukewarm.
Yet Lumet’s film captures and explicates something vital within Williams’ writing that other film versions fail to (except perhaps for the hallucinatory flashback finale of Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer). Lumet’s vision of Williams’ gothic South treads an appropriately fine line between exotic expressionism and rancid realism, high theatre and cinematic articulacy. An air of dreamy, post-midnight melancholia pervades the screen, with the inestimable contributions of Boris Kaufman’s brilliant chiaroscuro photography and Kenyon Hopkins’ lilting score. Williams’ material here, like most of his oeuvre, would seem indigestible if it weren’t for the sleights of hand that blend frank reportage and magic-realist humbug, in Williams’ postcards from the edge of what his native society could expose and admit to itself.
The Fugitive Kind is also perhaps the most pointed and bleak commentary both Williams and any mainstream American filmmaker ever made on the society in which they were rooted, and the film now seems like a contorted fever dream from the most evil days of the civil-rights-era South. Evil in the film is so endemic you almost wish someone would drop the bomb and wipe out some of the specimens of human cockroach on display. Lumet kicks the film off with a pretitle sequence—an arty touch for the time—that immediately strikes a note hovering between realism and the otherworldly, as Valentine Xavier (Brando) is extracted from a holding tank and placed in front of a judge never glimpsed: the disembodied voice grills the exhausted, morally anguished young man as both a voice of petty parochial attitudes and godlike judgement. Brando’s first appearance comes in the wire cage of the night court lock-up, idly picking his ear clean whilst waiting: such a barely noticeable, yet telling Brando flourish solidifies his otherwise almost numinous character as a corporeal being before he utters a word.
Before the judge, Val, nicknamed “Snakeskin” because of his trademark hide jacket, confesses how he finished up in custody with what seems to be an almost angelic, certainly philosophical, air of reckoning in his fatigued state. Val, a blues-picking entertainer with his guitar in hock, took up a friend’s offer to attend a sleazy soiree with the hope of getting enough cash to redeem his instrument, but he lost his cool in what is clearly signaled as some serious decadence where he was supposed to whore himself out, and started smashing up the place. Val vows to the judge that he’s going to leave the city forever, and that’s what he does. Lumet reduces his journey to a single shot, over which the credits then roll, of a lonely rural road, reeds wavering in silhouette against a grey sky, a distant car’s headlights approaching and yet never seeming to get closer as Hopkins’ forlorn music plays.
Val’s beat-up old car finally dies in a gruesome little Southern shithole, and he is allowed to sleep out what’s left of the night in another jail cell, in the sheriff’s house, by the sheriff’s charitable, artistic, slightly cracked wife Vee Talbot (a captivating minor role for Maureen Stapleton). The cell is free because she trusted its previous inmate momentarily, and in the stormy night outside can be heard the sounds of howling bloodhounds and gunshots. “That boy said, ‘Thank you,’” she plaintively protests to her husband, and a less likely partner for her than the bristling barbarian Jordan Talbot (R.G. Armstrong) is harder to imagine.
Val seeks work and hospitality, anxious to get any kind of foothold in the regular world. Vee puts him on to a possible job as a clerk in the department store owned by cancerous old creep Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory, looking like you could catch something off of him just by watching him too long) and his Italian wife, known to all and sundry as Lady (Anna Magnani). Lady is something like a sleeper agent, not for any government, but for herself and, in a way, for human aspiration itself, carrying on an underground guerrilla resistance against the down-home fascism represented by her husband and Talbot. Years before, her immigrant father had built a wine garden, an outpost of temperate Mediterranean humanity, before it was burned down and her father incinerated alive after he sold liquor to some local blacks.
Lady married Torrance only for the chance to take over his business and remake it into something like her father’s dream, a confectionary she’s coming close to launching now that Torrance is slowly dying. Val charms and bewilders Lady sufficiently to be given the job, and business immediately booms as all the local females flock to get an eyeful. Val eventually finds himself with a choice of equally thorny romantic entanglements. He flirts mercilessly with the suspicious yet simpatico Lady, and resists the attentions of Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), a hard-living plantation princess. Woodward comes close to walking off with The Fugitive Kind in the film’s first half, where her role as a raucous, needling, horny, drunken, desperate mess of a girl dominates. Carol stalks across a seamy bar extolling the virtues of “juking” your way through epic nights of debauchery. Carol speaks with laughing despair of her past as a “church-bitten reformer” who once mounted a campaign of dissent against the county’s vicious racism and lynch-mob mentality before her spirit broke and she gave herself up to frazzled hedonism. “They picked me up for lewd vagrancy,” she laughingly recounts of one of her more colourful protests, “Now I’m just a lewd vagrant.”
Carol’s brother, David (John Baragrey), just as big a sot as her but a married, more circumspect one, eventually offers to pay to send her to live in Europe to remove her blight on the family name. At one poin, she finishes up prostrate on the ground outside the local cemetery, breathily declaring to Val that the dead “can only say one word…over and over…live!” before trying to give him a blow job, a sexual favour Val contemptuously refuses. Val is fully aware of his sexual magnetism, but resists being turned into a “male at stud,” as he characterises Carol’s interest in him. He seems just as much appalled by Carol’s knowledge of his place in the scheme of things in New Orleans and her own air of flagrant, showy defeat: when she first appears in the film, she almost falls out of her hot roadster, helped out of the gutter by the old, black conjure man, Uncle Pleasant (Emory Richardson), who stalks the county delivered from all its evils by his simplicity. Instead of responding to Carol’s urgent flirtation, Val drifts slowly but surely into an affair with Lady.
The Fugitive Kind is quintessential Williams and rather offbeat Lumet, as the director conjures an atmosphere of perpetual early-morning blear even in daylight, and a limpid magic-realism that was largely foreign to the director’s career. As usual with Williams’ material, there’s a feeling that the boundaries of past and present, real and fantastical might melt away, as present-day squalor and struggle suddenly segue into medieval troubadour imagery or Grecian myth. The veil comes close to breaking when Val recounts to Lady a wispy, poetic metaphor about birds with no feet who have to spend their life on the wing avoiding hawks; Lady, like the audience, both senses the silliness of Val’s visions and yet is utterly captivated by them, as Lumet and Kaufman pull off a shift of cinematic and theatrical legerdemain, as the shop space around the couple falls into shadows and turns into a cathedral of pagan mystique.
The original title of the play indicates the basis of the story in the tales of Orpheus, and like this model, Val travels into his veritable Hades; rather than be torn apart by the women who hunger for his love, he’s bound to be done in by a society that’s rotten at the core. “This land used to be wild!” Carol cries at one point, “Now it’s just drunk!” Lumet offers glimpses of the world around Lady’s store and the muddy main street of the town, including the honky-tonk run by the grossly corporeal Persephone of the local nightlife, Ruby Lightfoot (Madame Spivy), where Val goes to gamble away money he steals from Lady in a calculated attempt to alienate her, only to get into a winning streak as Ruby treats his snakeskin jacket like a religious totem. Val gets a lift back across the dark-drowned landscape to the town and to his fate with Lady whilst listlessly playing a blues song in the film’s most oddly affecting interlude, completely without narrative function except to offer an islet of listless beauty and evoke the spirit of the blues, which Val treats as a religion in itself. “His name is written in the stars,” Val says of Leadbelly, one of the great bluesmen to have autographed his instrument.
It could all seem a bit airy-fairy if it weresn’t for the way Lumet’s and Williams’ eye and ear for black humour, specific observation, and salty language keep the film tethered to the immediate. Beneath every scene lurks an indescribable menace and smouldering emotions: the final act becomes almost unbearably tense even as the film slows down to linger finally on the image of Lady and Val dancing in her little wonderland of a confectionary just before, at last, all hell suddenly breaks loose. Moreover, the film’s clear basis in the torturous process of achieving civil rights gives it urgency, even if it is white outsiders who are being abused. A constant stream of seedy innuendo chases Val around, balanced by his smouldering mixture of an assumed humility, which Carol registers as self-imposed castration, a rejection of his previously inviolable wildness that carried an aura of invulnerability with it, whilst Lady fends off the world with an arch and haughty Italian stoicism that cracks when lovers old and new offend her.
That quality rears its head especially in her bruising confrontation with David, who was once her lover and made her pregnant, only to abandon her after her father’s tragedy, as the story conjures exactly the right atmosphere of incestuous, suffocating small towns where everybody has a good idea where the skeletons are buried. Lady has lived in disgust and fear of every man in the county, wandering if they might have helped kill her father and simply acquiesced gutlessly to it, and in the final gross irony, Torrance lets slip that he was one of the hands-on men. Lady’s war of vengeance is nearly won as she prepares her confectionary for opening, and Torrance, despite his malignant clinging to life, seems actually to be dying. The calliope she hires to announce the opening rings out with hollow promise as Talbot threatens Val’s life, and it becomes clear the confectionary will not be allowed to open. Val glimpses Vee stumbling down the street, blind and dazed, screaming that she’s had a vision: when he goes to help her, Talbot’s goons apprehend him and Talbot advises Val to take a cue from a quaint billboard in another town that reads, “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this county.”
The concluding tragedy comes about as the townsfolk begin to sniff out Lady and Val’s relationship, and her complete contempt for her husband, made plain to his nurse (the creepy Virgilia Chew), provides tinder for a bonfire. Brando and Magnani had, of course, become well known to American moviegoers through their performances in Williams works—Brando in Streetcar and Magnani in The Rose Tattoo. Brando gives a freakishly marvellous performance in a part for which he might seem slightly ill-fit. He was certainly good-looking enough to get away with playing one of Williams’ signature man-whores, but he’s not the sort of faintly ambiguous lover boy, like the younger Montgomery Clift, one would think more natural for the part. Also, unlike many of Brando’s characterisations of the era, he lacks an air of latent physical violence, and possesses eloquence, however florid and indirect, usually out of reach for his heroes who struggle in vain to articulate things within themselves. But Brando puts his signature gifts to work in his constantly evasive, almost supernaturally suggestive performance full of intuitive advances and retreats.
Val’s sensitivity and expressiveness are matched by an air of physical solidity, and when women try to manipulate him, he does occasionally remind them of his strength as something not to be provoked. “Little girl, a man holding himself against you would break you like a bundle of sticks,” he tells Carol when she comes on to him. Although her accent is so thick at times you can’t understand what’s she saying, Magnani keeps pace with a beautifully measured performance, full of tiny flourishes of brilliance, like her reaction to Val’s “male at stud” line, ejaculating a startled sound and seeming to resist a physical impulse to jerk in every direction at once before taking refuge in a resuming a phone conversation, or a few moments later when the local pharmacist, complaining about being called out late to give Lady some sleeping pills, gets the store door slammed in his face with Lady’s growl of sublime Italian contempt.
The young Brando’s air of genuine physical power makes the final images of Val all the more painful as he contorts under the streams of fire hoses turned on him by Talbot’s and Torrance’s goons, pushing him back into the flames consuming Lady’s confectionary, as Lady, who was pregnant by him, expires from a bullet Torrance puts in her gut after firebombing her dream. It also fits in very well with Brando’s famous streak of playing masochistic antiheroes who get beaten up and die, and anticipates Brando’s return to the milieu with Arthur Penn’s similarly bleak and gamy The Chase (1966). The blunt final message confirmed in the mad conflagration with which the film concludes—that society can always crush its rebels—is mitigated by a certainty that it never wins completely. Carol and Uncle Pleasant wander the burnt-out remains of the confectionary and retrieve the snakeskin jacket, and Carol resolves to flee in search of a better place. It’s an upbeat note in the sense that at least someone is left to keep living and searching for hope, but it also means that one more corner of the world now belongs only to the creeps and the cretins.