For all the different types of great classic movies I watch for this blog, it's pretty remarkable how long it's been since I've reviewed a genuine Hollywood product here. Scanning through my list of reviews, I'd say Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which I wrote up last December, was the last one, and that's owing more to the star power of Kirk Douglas than anything else about the film. So that probably explains just how different it felt for me to watch and blog here about The Fugitive Kind, replete with its glossy sheen, its tastefully calculated touches of scandal and adult subject matter and the world class talents of Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani on the screen, Sidney Lumet as director and Tennessee Williams in charge of the screenplay. Throw in some strong supporting performances from Joanne Woodward and others, and you have something that stands out a little uniquely within the Criterion Collection - one of a very small number of titles they've released over the years that actually have actor credits on the cover, above the name of the film itself. Not a big deal in the marketing scheme of your average DVD release, but a shrewd adjustment from the norm as far as Criterion is concerned.
With that illustrious lineup, and given my practically inexcusable lack of familiarity with the work of Tennessee Williams in comparison to his reputation, influence and on-going relevance in American theatrical arts, I had fairly high expectations going in, and for the most part, I was not at all disappointed as to the quality of craftsmanship or intelligence I encountered. But I was indeed reminded as to why I had never felt compelled to delve much deeper than the standard high school English class compulsory exposure to Williams that most students in this country have received over the past few decades. Simply put, I just don't really enjoy my visits to the milieu he found so fascinating - that sweaty, nasty, grubby Southern cesspool of overwrought emotions and twangy drawling lyricism that made him such a popular marvel and sensation back in the prime of his career and continues to draw new admirers and enthusiasts to this day. Same reason that I never got into William Faulkner. I know it's my bias and not a very justifiable one at that, but really I would have no problem with a scenario involving a cavalry charge of runaway bulldozers just plowing through the sleazy little hamlet that Williams constructed here and shoving all these characters off into oblivion... in fact, I'd probably find just a bit more satisfaction from watching that than I was able to glean from viewing this admittedly well-executed but occasionally overblown bit of stagecraft on film.
The Fugitive Kind's story involves a man, Valentine Xavier, who lives up to his clumsily/cleverly conceived name by become a romantic savior of sorts to two hot-blooded but badly misunderstood and henceforth love-starved women. He rolls into town on his 30th birthday, turning his back on fifteen years of raucous living as a traveling guitar player working the Mississippi and Louisiana juke joint circuit, after running afoul of the law and having an epiphany on the futility of his ways in close proximity to his testimony before a judge. Doing what he can to pick up honest work, but unable to fully smother the raw animal magnetism that served him well on and off the stage, he takes a job as a clerk in a small-town mercantile shop run by an Italian woman named Lady Torrance, who married Jabe, the store's owner, an older man who's now bedridden and dying of cancer. He's a vile, cruel and suspicious old bastard who seems to have no pleasures left in life beyond inflicting misery on those nearest to him, particularly his wife Lady whom he knows from his own experience is prone to promiscuity, especially with him laid up and out of her sight for hours at a time.
Jabe quickly catches on to the obvious dangers that a good looking young drifter with a guitar poses to his possessive claim on Lady (not for the sake of love or affection, mind you, just ownership, since they both gave up on each other as partners and lovers quite a long time ago.) Jabe's role is to throw malignant obstacles in the way that impede anyone's progress toward freedom, happiness, fulfillment or just about any other contentment a person might experience in life. And though Lady and Val put up an honorable enough resistance to keep their relationship within its proper and respectable limits, it's pretty obvious that they're going to get together for at least one night of illicit ecstasy before the drama reaches its inevitably tragic, calamitous conclusion. Especially when one remembers that this is just a Southern Gothic retelling of the Orpheus myth.
The other woman caught up in this passionate thicket is Carol Cutrere, a full-blown floozy who was born to one of the leading families in town but has been busy heaping shame upon their good name ever since she came of age. Her first offense seems to have been an inordinate degree of concern (given her social status and the prevailing racism of the community) with the lack of justice experienced by most of the black folks in the region. She'd gotten caught up in marching for civil rights, but was quickly railroaded and made an object of scorn, at least in part due to her rebellion against the efforts to shame her into silence. Now her objective was to live down to the low, trampy expectations that the authorities, including her own brother, had set for her. She knows some of the lowdown dirt on Val that could get him in trouble with the local sheriff, Jabe Torrance or anyone else looking askance at the good looking stranger in town, but she's too busy scheming how to get him alone and all to herself to risk saying anything that might get him locked up or banished from the county.
So with those three roles occupied by the steamy brooding hunk Marlon Brando, the hot-blooded, aging but still voluptuous Anna Magnani and the curvaceous bleach blond wild woman-child Joanne Woodward, The Fugitive Kind packed the promise of sufficient sex appeal, it would seem, to hold the attention of anyone whose taste or vocabulary failed to fully engage with the rather unrealistic, rhapsodic dialogues and monologues that were voiced by the assembled actors. But despite those advantages, this film didn't really do very well upon its initial release. For one, it's really not all that sexy after all - the three actors are charismatic enough in their own way, but the chemistry between them never really ignites as brightly as it ought and they each carry such an excessive load of emotional baggage that just giving themselves over to simple love, or even lust, seems too big a stretch for most viewers to sufficiently believe and empathize with. The dark tones and harsh social critique of small-minded corruption and prejudice might have been too undiluted to catch on with the general public at that time as well; there's a lot of mean-spiritedness to overcome, and much of it feels just a bit too cleverly contrived to fit the demands of the script than reflective of typical human behavior. Throw in some middlebrow symbolic gestures and more than a few examples of excessively chewed up scenery and we're left with a film that is certainly admirable and interesting, both then and now, but not one that seems likely to generate much positive "you gotta see this!" word of mouth.
So after watching The Fugitive Kind a couple times through over this past week, and learning more about him through the helpful supplements on this 2-disc set released last year, just before Criterion started releasing everything new in Blu-ray format, I'm left with an opinion of moderate respect for Tennessee Williams. That assessment, I'm certain, sells him considerably short of the credit he's due for his distinguished career achievements and enduring popularity, but from what I've seen, he's a bit too soapy and grandiose in his characterizations to persuade me to spend more time in his world. If anyone thinks I'm missing the boat here, that I owe it to myself to dig deeper into his works, I could be pretty easy to convince in that regard. It wouldn't be the first time that I've reversed an initial mediocre/"not for me" impression.
I don't have a strong enough passion for Tennessee Williams either way for me to consider myself a fan or a hater, and I understand that The Fugitive Kind was based on an early play of his that he reworked over the course of more than a decade before it reached its final form. So I can indulge some of the blatant theatricality and artifice, the far from realistic dialog and the transparent constructions that Williams used to put his characters in dramatic tension with each other, not only in this film but also from the very early trio of one-act plays included on Disc 2 that, in their own way, provide even more abundant entertainment value than the main feature. Coming from the same era that produced The Golden Age of Television, Criterion's amazing box set of early live-on-TV teleplays, I definitely came to appreciate Williams' talent as a wordsmith and his capacity for conjuring up hot bubbling cauldrons of rampant emotionalism for popular consumption - he clearly sought to stir things up within his audience and I tip my hat to him for taking a big swing at the repressive forces that weighed so heavily down on creative talents in the 1950s. I've linked to a very helpful review about the Three Plays by Tennessee Williams that I'm happy to recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the background to that program.
Despite my lukewarm, mixed reaction to the film, I'm still glad to have The Fugitive Kind on my shelf and easily see why it deserves its spot in the collection. For starters, it's yet another variation on the Orphic legend, such a source of inspiration for other great Criterion films! Then there's Brando (giving the world's first million-dollar-per-film acting performance)... Magnani... Lumet... and an overlooked prime piece of work from a pivotal playwright and screenwriter of his era - they're all Hall of Famers and there's enough packed in this set to reward further examination and reflection later on. Here's a short clip featuring Brando and Magnani, with one of the most impressive word-pictures to be found in the film as Val uses verbal flourishes, some mannered head nods and eye rolls, and is assisted by mood lighting of a rare caliber and unflinching nerve, to speak of himself and others like him as a bird who sleeps on the wind...