One of the most personal (and personally frustrating) of Tennessee Williams’ many plays was Orpheus Descending which opened on Broadway in 1957 and closed after 68 performances: a “modest success” or “a flop,” depending on viewpoint. Williams’ first version of the play, titled Battle of Angels, had opened and closed in Boston 17 years earlier, a spectacular flop despite screen actress Miriam Hopkins’ attempt to reignite her career, as Williams tried to jump-start his.
In 1960, Williams must have been hoping “they” would finally get it right. Under the title The Fugitive Kind, it was going to the big screen. Headed by Marlon Brando, who pocketed Hollywood’s first million-dollar contract for a single film, and Anna Magnani (Oscar-winner for Williams’ The Rose Tattoo), the entire cast is dynamite.
Williams and Meade Roberts co-wrote the screenplay; directing chores fell to Sidney Lumet, at that time most distinguished for several TV dramas as well as the film version of 12 Angry Men. But neither audiences nor critics much bought it: the film didn’t get one single nomination in any category among the major awards circuits of the day.
The story is about guitar-totin’ drifter Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Brando) who ends up in a small Mississippi town, trying to get it together. He works in a drygoods store owned by Jabe Torrence (Victor Jory), who’s dying and also a creep. The store’s run by his middle-aged, frustrated, Italian wife Lady (Magnani). A gigolo of sorts in his early days in New Orleans, Val swore to put the past behind him, and achieve a new kind of personal dignity and independence.
As he quickly finds out, though, a man’s identity is not easily set aside. For one thing, there’s Sheriff Talbot (R.G. Armstrong), a nasty bigot with a badge and a gun, and wild child Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), an acquaintance from the “old days” who idolizes him as much as she despises her high-class brother and family, rich and proper folks from a better part of the state.
Most important, there is Lady, a daughter embittered by her father’s murder. A Sicilian, his wine garden had been burned and destroyed by a mob. Now married to the man who, unknown to her, was responsible for her father’s death, Lady has succumbed to living with despair. Then Val appears, with a promise of love and a new life—literally.
Caught in a net by conflicting needs and pressures, Val is ultimately doomed to play out the part of sacrificial victim. Williams seldom wrote happy endings. There’s a faint note of hope when Carol rescues Val’s snakeskin jacket from an inferno of hatred that destroys Lady and Val: the symbol survives, but not the people.
Available now in a two-disc package from Criterion Collection, The Fugitive Kind can be appreciated for its considerable accomplishments while still acknowledging its minor failures. Brando is magnificent, Magnani is Magnani, and Woodward (already an Oscar-winner for The Three Faces of Eve) is spectacular in an unusual role.
Mention should also be made of Maureen Stapleton as Vee Talbot, wife of Armstrong’s redneck sheriff and one of the few characters in the film sympathetic to Val. She’s also one of Williams’ recurring artist figures, this time playing a painter.
The Fugitive Kind is an actor’s showcase. Brando is brilliant, commanding the camera in nearly every scene, his line-readings supplemented by riveting tics, gestures and movements. Magnani is completely natural and credible as the emotionally ravaged Lady, as is Woodward as the good “bad girl.”
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Magnani and Brando isn’t remotely believable, partly due to the actress’ age. She’s simply too old for the role. It’s said Magnani gave director Lumet fits, one rumor claims she insisted he shoot her from only one side. Lumet later complained the film’s static feel was due in part from trying to meet such unreasonable demands.
Yet the film’s considerable strengths—most especially performances by everyone involved—make The Fugitive Kind an absolute must, especially for Tennessee Williams fans.
Final note: There is some evidence that Elvis Presley was being considered for Val, a character whom Williams might well have modeled on the boy from Tupelo. Just imagine!