Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Tennessee Williams
Ostensibly, The Fugitive Kind has as sure a recipe for success as one could imagine: a talented director in his fresh, up-and-coming days; a screenplay by perhaps the most renowned playwright in American history; and a lead performance from the most revered American screen actor of all time, from when he was still at the very top of his game. (Not to mention Boris Kaufman on cinematography!) And yet, despite delivering on a number of accounts, The Fugitive Kind is relatively obscure for a reason: it’s an ultimate failure of a film.
It’s tough to decide whom to blame for the movie’s lack of success: whether Tennessee Williams, for his messy, meandering play that forgets it’s supposed to be a screenplay, or Sidney Lumet, for not fixing what was so clearly broken. From the film’s beginning, during an uninterrupted five minute confession from the star, Marlon Brando, before a judge, it feels like this is going turn out to be a forgotten classic, but it soon starts to slip and as it goes on it never fully recovers. Brando spends the early scenes traveling between a series of cages, but though the motif is soon abandoned, the film itself never feels like it escaped from the last one.
Adapted by Williams from his failed theater-piece Orpheus Descending, Brando plays Valentin Xavier, though most people just call him Snakeskin, after his emblematic jacket of the same material. (Many years later, Nicolas Cage would pay homage in Wild at Heart.) Right from there you can tell this is going to be a bit messy; maybe characters on the stage can get away with names like that, but in the pictures audiences expect their characters’ names, at the very least, to be a bit more natural. Xavier leaves New Orleans, with nothing but the clothes on his back and his beloved guitar (which he treats rather carelessly and rough for something he treasures so dearly; he doesn't even have a case for it!), and winds up in a sleepy Southern town, where he quickly lands a job as a clerk at The Torrance General Store, run by Lady Torrance (Ana Magnani).
The first two thirds of the film are far too heavy with long talky scenes between Lady and Xavier that don’t really go anywhere, and it’s a bit maddening to try and figure out what the heck this movie’s supposed to be about. I get it, there’s sexual tension, but…so? Even Brando seems a bit confused as to where he’s supposed to be going with it, and at times he exudes an infectious stifled-ness. It’s a well-crafted and well-acted film, but for seemingly no purpose. Starting with a marvelous climax, however, in which calliope music from the street gradually turns dissonant, discordant, and deafening as the drama in the sequence increases, the last act picks up and pulls the picture together, finally bringing in the action, drama and plot that had been previously, repressively denied. Unfortunately, it’s too late, and a bit too little.
Kaufman’s framing and lighting are exceptional, and Lumet coaxes fantastic performances from all his actors, not just from Magnani and Brando, who mumbles through his lines and actually makes Tennessee Williams dialogue sound natural, but also notably from Maureen Stapleton and John Baragrey in supporting roles. (The one exception may be Joanne Woodward, who hits her role a bit too hard, like her character with the sauce.) If Lumet had tightened up the drama in Williams’ script and trimmed the picture by a reel or two through better pacing, this could’ve been a classic—this could’ve been iconic Brando. As it stands, though, it’s merely an historical curiosity.