First Time Watch: The Fugitive Kind

OK, so this could be considered part two of my tribute to director Sidney Lumet. After skimming the late, great auteur’s filmography for my last piece, I realized that 1960’s The Fugitive Kind was one of his early films that I somehow missed. Being that it also featured the powerhouse performer known as Marlon Brando, I immediately decided that this was a problem that needed to be remedied. It’s an adaptation of yet another Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, which is actually a reworking of his previous failed stage production called Battle of Angels that was based on the Orpheus of Greek mythology. It just goes to show that all art stems from something else. Anyway, I know very little about the original play, but supposedly Lumet’s film version is incredibly different in a variety of ways (even though Williams also adapted the screenplay with Meade Roberts), and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is unknown to me. Nevertheless, the movie is certainly worth examining for several reasons, including the various stories surrounding the production and how Lumet felt about his end product, in addition to the material itself.

The plot concerns Brando as Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier, a brooding, guitar-playing drifter who arrives in a small, podunk town in the South somewhere outside New Orleans looking to start a new life after his nights as an entertainer get him arrested for a violent outburst at a party. Upon arriving, his animal magnetism, surely stemming at least somewhat from his snakeskin jacket, attracts the attention of several of the town’s women, including Vee (Maureen Stapleton) who helps him get a job at the local five-and-dime type store. The place is run by Lady Torrance, played by Italian actress Anna Magnani. She’s operating it for the real owner, her hateful and mean-spirited husband (Victor Jory) who’s terminally-ill and staying upstairs while bedridden. Magnani is a lonely and neglected woman who finds a kindred spirit in Brando, and the two embark on a tempestuous relationship that vacillates wildly, primarily due to their tough pasts. Also in the mix is Joanne Woodward as Carol, a rebellious socialite from a rich family who has turned herself into a trampy alcoholic vagabond. She knows Brando from his days playing guitar in New Orleans, is also very drawn to him, and eventually tries to seduce him in a graveyard. However, Brando isn’t interested because her nature is the complete opposite of his and her extroverted behavior causes him unwanted attention from the narrow-minded townsfolk. But, Woodward’s character is vital, as she helps to implement the various themes of the film such as loneliness, repressed passion, the courage it takes to ask life’s questions and live defiantly in a corrupt world.

Eventually, Brando delivers a speech about how there are only three types of people in the world. There are those who attempt to subvert the souls of others, or “buy” as he puts it. There are folks who sell out, and finally there are the people who refuse to do either, which is the only real way to live. However, it’s this final group of people who have the hardest time making it in the world. I have to be really careful what I reveal from here on out, for fear of completely spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job so far, so let me just state that the efforts of Brando and Magnani to make a better life for themselves is met with some opposition. But this pat description is part of the movie’s problem. The script is pretty bare-bones, and some critics even cite it as being pretentious, and they may have a point, even though I found the exploration of humanity to be interesting. Lumet’s direction, Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, and the performances of Brando and Magnani seem to make up for some of the screenplay’s florid and minimal qualities, though, even that is up for debate.

Lumet himself has stated that he doesn’t think The Fugitive Kind is a great film. I feel that true artists are sometimes a little too hard themselves, but Mr. Lumet may be on to something here. His problems stem from his relationship with Magnani. Lumet developed his craft in the theater, so he was big on rehearsals… Magnani was not, and she often refused to participate. This supposedly strained Lumet’s ability to work with her and led to him not being able to get what he wanted out of her. It definitely didn’t help matters that Magnani didn’t speak English very well, and was taking audible cues from her fellow actors to deliver her lines. Her performance probably could have been better if Lumet had more time to work with Magnani, but considering the circumstances, I still feel she did a decent job. This leads me to…

It’s alleged that Tennessee Williams was upset with Brando during production because since Magnani needed verbal cues from him to perform optimally, Williams believed that Brando was intentionally mumbling his dialogue to mess her up, causing her performance to suffer even further. The reason for this stems from the allegation that Brando was trying to torture Magnani because she wanted to hook up with him off-camera, but he wasn’t interested. Why Brando would do this is anyone’s guess. He was a bit of an oddball. Anyway, such behind-the-scenes drama! Oh well, expect nothing less from a Williams production, I guess. Maybe Lumet got better performances out of his actors than anyone could ever know. Still, others criticize Lumet’s direction for being incredibly plodding and I wish I could state that those claims are totally false, but sadly, I can’t. The film does tend to crawl along. However, I will say in defense of this approach that it did manage to build some tension between the two leads, and if viewers can power through some of the slower moments, they’ll be rewarded.

Alright, now there are a few more matters worthy of mention. While Woodward’s character was indeed an important one, I wasn’t all that pleased with her performance. I like her, but she tried a little too hard to be a bad girl in this role, resulting in a turn that was a little too over-the-top. Furthermore, once again I was a bit disappointed with the ending on a personal level. Even in 1960, films were still having trouble with their endings. What is it about productions from the ’50s and early part of the ’60s that were so intent on ending abruptly? Without getting into specifics and ruining things, the film’s sudden harshness of a resolution didn’t utilize Brando well enough, and I was left holding my hands out and exclaiming, “Really?!” HOWEVER: I do fully appreciate that the producers, etc. resisted the urge to tie everything up in a nice, neat little bow. Overall, I’m going to give the film three stars out of five. It could have been better, and it could have been worse. It certainly doesn’t shake my view of Sidney Lumet, and I can’t escape the feeling that this movie may grow on me over time. Despite the lukewarm rating, by no means should anyone avoid this film, with the exception of maybe folks who are extremely sensitive to slow-developing plots. The subject matter is extremely interesting. Furthermore, while this definitely wasn’t Brando’s finest work, what everyone always says about him is true: “There’s just something about the guy.” His screen presence is completely commanding, and I really want to go out and buy a snakeskin jacket now.