For about a dozen years, starting with the 1950 adaptation of The Glass Menagerie, moviegoers had a tough time avoiding Tennessee Williams. His plays were already Broadway sensations back when Broadway hits had national impact. Filmmakers and audiences alike were drawn by his visions of a dewy, secret-filled American South where unfettered passions lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday, the skeletons of the past refuse to stay in the closet, and every line of dialogue arrives pregnant with symbolic meaning. Well, they were drawn most of the time. An adaptation of Orpheus Descending—a rare theatrical flop for Williams—The Fugitive Kind attracted little attention in 1960, even though it gave a leading role to Marlon Brando, who made his name starring in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire onstage and onscreen. Watching it today, it isn’t hard to see why. It’s an overheated, uncomfortable film that inflates Williams’ pet themes to the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon. That should be an invitation to some and fair warning to others.
There’s much to recommend The Fugitive Kind, even for those not completely in sync with Williams’ singular gothic vision. A couple of years off 12 Angry Men, director Sidney Lumet brings a similar claustrophobic intensity to the film’s few locations. (Regional flavor eludes him, however, given that the film was shot in upstate New York.) Most of the action takes place in a sad, small-town general store overseen by a dying patriarch (Victor Jory) who turns his tapping cane into the sound of an angry, thunderous god. Anna Magnani (Open City) co-stars as his Italian-American wife, a passionate woman deep into middle age and fearful of what’s to come. Out of a mixture of compassion and passion, she hires a guitar-toting, snakeskin-jacket-wearing drifter named Valentine Xavier (Brando) to help around the shop, but his barely bridled sensuality threatens to upset what little peace Magnani has been able to bring to her home.
Magnani and Joanne Woodward (as a young aristocrat who’s given up idealism for debauchery) deliver memorable performances, though they often seem to be following a more florid vision than Lumet or Brando. The latter is remarkable here, playing a role that’s isn’t Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski so much as a grown-up version of his Wild One anti-hero made sad by years fighting against a world determined to grind him down. First seen disavowing his life as a New Orleans party entertainer—the script leaves the sort of parties and the variety of entertainment provided to viewers’ imagination—he spends the rest of the film trying to fit in quietly and bring a bit of beauty and comfort to those he encounters. It’s not to be, of course. The world doesn’t want it, and neither does the playwright pulling the strings.
Key features: A Lumet interview, a video documentary about Williams in Hollywood, and three short Williams plays directed by Lumet for a 1958 TV special.