Poetic but grim, The Fugitive Kind is years ahead of the competition when it comes to slightly pretentious American Art filmmaking. If Tennessee Williams' dramatics weren't quite so exaggerated and the overall message not so depressing, the picture might enjoy a better reputation. In 1959 the big upsurge in foreign imports hadn't happened yet, or at least not to the point where influential critics were lauding everything that came out of Italy or Sweden. That makes The Fugitive Kind all the more interesting now - its creative crew are mostly New York intellectuals. They delve into Southern gothic territory as if it were a mythical land of the Gods.
Most reviewers conclude that The Fugitive Kind is no damn good, and maybe they're right. From the moment the picture starts we're in gloomy Southern Gothic territory, in a town run by petty vermin and a nasty-minded citizenry apparently crazy from inbreeding. The rural south is a favorite locale for sordid goings-on, cruel injustice and ingrown prejudice, and The Fugitive Kind doesn't disappoint. R.G. Armstrong's sheriff is as mean as a snake. Rich old Jabe Torrance is described as lingering in a yellow 'death sweat,' literally stewing in ugly thoughts as he imagines his younger wife Lady carrying on with the good-looking hired hand. The town doesn't lack for nattering biddies and snickering teens. The title of Tennessee Williams' original play was Orpheus Descending and this place does indeed resemble a human hell.
Whether the play or the movie is junk or art depends on what kinds of people struggle against the hell, and the weakness of The Fugitive Kind is that its characters just seem too familiar. Brando's Valentine Xavier (Williams keeps coming up with these exotic names) sincerely seeks a straight life after so much dissipation: "Thirty is old if you've been on a party since you were fifteen." The script will not for a moment allow him to prevail against the evil around him, as he goes about his dramatic business of transforming the lives of three women. He's a might' pow'ful female magnet and knows it. At one point Xavier describes himself as a stud, making us think that the whole reason for the play would be for the playwright to meet the kind of men qualified to play the role.
It would help if the show had an unpredictable aspect but The Fugitive Kind goes by the book. Val shows Maureen Stapleton's emotionally crippled jailer's wife compassion and generosity, describing himself as a fragile wandering bird that cannot land. He's The Fugitive Kind, you see, and has no place in the world. 1 Joanne Woodward's exhibitionist floozie is weirded-out in a different direction. To Val she represents the wild New Orleans world he wants to put behind him, but he shows her consideration while resisting her come-ons. The third woman to be 'cured' by Val's masculinity is Anna Magnani's Lady. She's playing out the final chapters in the requisite 'curse from the past,' in this case the murder of her Italian-American father and the burning of his property for the crime of selling liquor to blacks. She's just found out that her monster of a husband was part of the mob that did the deed. Lady wants victory over her horrible past, to which end she's constructed an Italian-themed drinking parlor behind the store. She hopes that Val will stay with her until Jabe dies, and make her victory real.
This being the world of Tennesse Williams all these dreams are doomed from the start, and The Fugitive Kind luxuriates in the misery. The normally over-articulate Val is too noble to answer unjust accusations, and stands by while jealousy and spite run amuck. He's given more than one opportunity to square himself with the sheriff or Jabe but instead stays mute, encouraging them to feed their private fantasies and assume the worst. The end comes in a fiery finish similar to one of Vincent Price's Edgar Allan Poe pictures - just as emotions come to a boil, most everyone ends up shot or burned to death. A great time is not had by all.
This is a great picture for acting. Brando clearly believes in the character and convinces us that he's much more than a roaming seducer of women. When he waxes poetic or puts sincerity into his words, we believe him. Anna Magnani is once again a marvel to watch, making us feel a character that's half classical allusion and half writer's conceit. Her performance, by the way, was thoroughly coached by Mickey Knox, the Italian-English dubbing master who helped her do all of her English roles by phonetic imitation - Magnani never got a handle on the language. Only an odd line here and there seem forced; she's really very, very good. Victor Jory is hideous as the bedridden husband and R.G. Armstrong is a beady-eyed devil of a sheriff. Maureen Stapleton is effective as the sensitive Vee but the editing (script?) curtails her role -- when we see her last she's stumbling hysterically into the street, and we never find out exactly why.
Joanne Woodward is quite the spectacle as Carol, the unkempt and rebellious local girl. The year of the movie shows in Carol's efforts to suggest lewd behavior where none can be shown. So there's a veiled reference here and there, and a pointed substitution of an invented verb ("juke") for something else; in every other way it's a both-hands-where-we-can-see-them picture. Brando stands there like cat-bait and the women all breathe harder than normal but nothing ever really happens, at least not on camera. It's a little bit like making Hamburger Hamlet, The Movie! while sticking strictly to vegetarian principles.
Ruby Lightfoot, the Cajun owner of a roadhouse is played by the mysterious actress Madame Spivy, one of the tea-time ladies in the surreal garden club meeting in The Manchurian Candidate. Carol Cutrere's drunken brother David is played by interesting actor John Baragrey, known to fantasy film fans from The Colossus of New York.
Sony's DVD (released under the MGM banner) of The Fugitive Kind is a disappointing non-enhanced 1:66 letterboxed transfer that doesn't allow what looks like some atmospheric photography to shine as it might. Audio is okay, with Kenyon Hopkins' dramatic score making its usual good impression (Hopkins did the music for the much-desired Fox/Kazan movie Wild River. The rest of the creative crew is a who's who of notable talent - Richard Sylbert, Carl Lerner, Boris Kaufman. The disc has no extras, nothing. As with the Paramount Anna Magnani film The Rose Tattoo, the opportunity for a potentially terrific commentary has been lost; dialogue coach and actor Mickey Knox is alive and well and overflowing with interesting stories and personal memories about these movies that may never be recorded.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fugitive Kind rates:
1. In Savant's limited range of cultural references, the footless bird described by Xavier is a match for Marianne Faithful's pop song "This Little Bird". The fable seems to be identical, at the very least. It's fragile and its wings are so thin the sun shines through. It sleeps on the wind and cannot land until it dies.