There are moments of genius in the relatively non-descript “The Fugitive Kind” (1960), namely the genius of Marlon Brando in his prime.
Brando’s glove-play with Eva Marie Saint in “On the Waterfront” marked him as the master of “business” but it’s not the only time he got busy on screen. In “The Fugitive Kind,” Brando plays Val “Snakeskin” Xavier, a not-so-bad boy drifter/musician who wants to settle down and go straight in a small Mississippi town. Brando plays tough-shy Val with a loping solemnity until he abruptly changes gear in one scene. While trying to convince his prospective boss and soon-to-be love interest Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani) to hire him to work in her general store, he rummages through his pockets for a letter of recommendation. Brando uncrumples the envelope then struggles to tear it open. Like a sunburst through grey shroud, he suddenly flashes Magnani a beaming smile and chuckles to himself, one of the displays of levity in the movie. It has all the feel of the “real” Brando bordering on blooper-reel territory but it may have also been planned to the tee just that way. It doesn’t matter. It’s a radiant moment, the kind that sticks in your memory forever. If you remain skeptical about Brando’s status in the pantheon after watching this scene, there’s no helping you.
Unfortunately the movie doesn’t offer much else to supplement Brando’s masterstrokes. Let me admit for the record that I can’t stand Tennessee Williams. I am aware that my opinion about a venerated playwright holds no water nor should it, but there it is. I find his dialogue so tin-eared it’s sometimes downright embarrassing (“Wild things leave skins behind them.”) and many of his characters (especially his women) so overwrought that I have no desire to spend any time with them. I would sooner analyze the entire oeuvre of Dr. Uwe Boll on a shot-by-shot basis than be subjected to another ten minutes of “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.” I am in the distinct minority. I do not claim to be correct.
“The Fugitive Kind” was adapted for the screen by Tennessee Williams from his play “Orpheus Descending,” one of his few stage failures of the time. A young whippersnapper who had cut his teeth in television was brought on board to direct. Sidney Lumet had just hit it big with his debut feature film “12 Angry Men” (1957) but still had to prove that he was capable of working with big name stars Marlon Brando and Italian sensation Anna Magnani. By all reports he more than held his own on set with these outsized egos.
It’s probably an exaggeration to say that he coaxed a great performance out of Brando. More likely he gracefully stood out of his way and let him riff, but as great as Brando was he didn’t excel in every role and he delivers some of his best work here. Magnani is a somewhat different story. Her penchant for big, big performances was exacerbated both by her lack of confidence in her command of English and the task of sharing the screen with Brando, fifteen years her younger and so white-hot charismatic that he stole every scene by simply being here. But her histrionics make a nice counter-balance to Brando’s mumbly downshift and set the smoldering groundwork for the film’s climactic conflagration.
The romantic pairing of Magnani (51 and playing slightly older) and Brando (35 and playing younger) was a daring one that didn’t pay off at the box office but makes for some productively tense moments on screen. However, Williams’ attempt at Southern mythmaking doesn’t offer much else to appeal and Lumet’s portrayal of a dysfunctional, repressed Southern small town is inert, as are the supporting characters. Joanne Woodward is gamely uninhibited, but as the town’s “lewd vagrant” she is asked to chew the scenery time and again, straining patience. Maureen Stapleton, who played the role of Lady on Broadway, is more credible but her character ultimately serves as an awkward prop to get Val into hot water with the local constabulary, an ending which feels badly forced and squanders everything that is interesting about Val and Lady’s relationship. And then there’s that Williams’ dialogue, words that, for me, might read well but were never mean to be spoken by man or woman. But, again, I am in the teeth-gritting, chalkboard-nails minority.
The legendary Boris Kauffman delivers a beautifully photographed film even though he’s often restricted to blocky, static sets. In the aforementioned envelope scene, the subtle soft lighting on Brando’s face, almost feminizing him, predicts that angelic smile about to explode on the scene. I may not have enjoyed the movie overall but for this moment alone I am grateful to have seen it.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer. The progressive transfer has a wonderfully grainy look to it, but the black and white contrast isn’t quite as sharp as the best Criterion offerings and it looks just a shade too dark at times so that some of the expected detail isn’t visible.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound mix is pretty straightforward and is very clean. I would say that the dialogue is all clearly audible but this is Brando we’re talking about so there’s plenty of mumbling but that’s what the optional English subtitles are for.
All of the extras in this two-disc edition are included on the second disc.
A 27-minute interview with Sidney Lumet was recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2010.
“Hollywood’s Tennessee and ‘The Fugitive Kind'” (27 min.), produced by Criterion, consists of interviews with Tennessee Williams historian Robert Bray and film historian R. Barton Palmer. It’s an excellent feature with concise, valuable information about Williams’ involvement with Hollywood and Lumet’s direction of “The Fugitive Kind.”
The extras conclude with three one-act Tennessee Williams’ plays directed by Lumet in 1958 for an episode of “Kraft Television Theatre.” The plays are “Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry,” “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches,” and “This Property is Condemned.” Actors include Ben Gazzara, Lee Grant, Thomas Chalmers and Gene Saks. Williams introduces the program. The show was recorded by Kinetoscope and the video quality is poor but still watchable. This is obviously an archival treasure for Williams’ aficionados. Total running time is 55 minutes.
The 18-page insert booklet consists of an essay by David Thomson.
“The Fugitive Kind” was not well-received by audiences or most critics during its release and hasn’t exactly been rehabilitated by subsequent generations of critics as an overlooked masterpiece. However, it has many obvious selling points that make it a significant part of film history: a Tennessee Williams’ adaptation, an early film by Sidney Lumet, one of Marlon Brando’s great performances, and the presence of Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, and Maureen Stapleton. It’s not a personal favorite, but Criterion has done their usual sterling job by offering a strong transfer (if not their best) and excellent supplemental material.