The Fugitive Kind is a film that holds a pedigree with a capitol “P”. The direction comes courtesy of stalwart Sidney Lumet, the now 86-year-old director who was responsible for bringing to Hollywood such classic theatrical adaptations as 12 Angry Men (1957) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962). Lumet reinterpreted these essentially stage-bound stories into cinematic classics. He would later go on to direct landmark films such as the one-two punch of 1975 and 76’s Dog Day Afternoon and Network, and most recently knocked it out of the park with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a film that is as modern, interesting, relevent and well-made as any by a contemporary younger director.
Lumet, who envisioned Katharine Hepburn as a morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey, Al Pacino as a sweetly bumbling bank robber looking to pay for his partner’s sex change operation in Dog Day Afternoon, and Melanie Griffith as an undercover police woman masquerading as a Hasidic Jew in A Stranger Among Us, has always had a inspired eye for casting. Sometimes this works. Jane Fonda as an alcoholic actress in The Morning After and Vin Diesel in Find Me Guilty are surprisingly strong, for example.
Other times this quirky casting blows up in the director’s face, such as the colossally bad decision to cast Griffith, who went on national television to promote the film by proclaiming she didn’t know about the Nazis or the Holocaust, as somebody who could pass for a devout Hasidic woman or Sharon Stone’s pure ham and cheese on rye in the ill-advised remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria. In casting Williams’ characters for The Fugitive Kind, Lumet’s daring to spring outside of the box takes the shape of both a blessing a curse.
In the role of smoldery Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier, a ne’er do well with a twinkle in his eye looking to settle down in a small town with a sugar mama, Lumet unfortunately went with the most obvious choice: Marlon Brando. Though arguably one of the finest, if not the finest screen actors of that particular time period (and possibly ever), two time Oscar winner Brando (On the Waterfront and The Godfather) would be paid a record $1 million to star in The Fugitive Kind. The actor would be competing with the ghosts of his previous bravura success with Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire as Stanley Kowalski.
The roughly textured, almost flinty chemistry Brando shared with co-star Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois served as a catalyst for both actors – who were coming from very different schools and acting backgrounds— to ingite their latent sparks and project these fiery differences onto their characters to produce a compelling, disturbing narrative of sexual depravity. It just worked.
For a leading lady in The Fugitive Kind, Brando is unfortunately saddled with Oscar winner Anna Magnani, who won Best Actress in 1955 for another misguided Williams Southern Gothic melodrama, The Rose Tattoo. The Italian actress, despite her Academy Award win, was said to be self-conscious about her English and felt anxious working with an actor of Brando’s caliber and reputation. On the extras disc included with this new edition, Lumet recounts that the tempestuous actress likely “expected” a sexual relationship with Brando because of the nature of their onscreen roles and his reputation for sleeping around. When the actor did not, in fact, put out, she became moody, according to the director.
The jealousy, the moodiness and the anxiousness all come across and aide the actresses’ erratic, almost maniacally exasperated performance as Lady Torrance, wife of the dying town magnate Jabe (a slimy Victor Jory). Her nerves are practically visible in the haunting close-ups of her face, but she never manages to convince as a romantic foil, or object of lust and desire for the virile, beautiful Brando because of her hardness, because of the actresses’ own inner turmoil and pronounced neuroses.
Though the stars did not align completely for Brando and Magnani, there are two other Oscar-winning bright spots filling out this pedigreed cast. First up is consummate character actress Maureen Stapleton (Reds) who tears into her smallish role as Vee Talbot, a local woman who is kind to Val with the typical thoughtful gusto with which she approached all of her work. Second, Lumet cast Joanne Woodward (who had just won Best Actress for Three Faces of Eve) in an atypical role as Carol, a drunken floozy with running mascara, a penchant for picking up men and a combative attitude. Woodward struts and vamps and howls her way to greatness in her big scenes opposite Brando and out of the cast is without a doubt the MVP.
However good Woodward is in her supporting role, and however much I adore the work of Brando, Williams and Lumet, it pains me then to say that I am not entirely sure what to make of Lumet’s film version of The Fugitive Kind, which lands on Criterion this month. Perhaps when it is played for the stage as it was intended, it becomes more alive? Perhaps with his commanding and evolving knowledge of how the medium and tools of filmmaking change, Lumet could have made a more stylistically-intriguing or provacative film today? Perhaps with a better leading lady things could have been completely different?
Something feels very off in this 1960 take, whether it is the indulgent way in which Magnani gestures, which feels anachronistic to the period and to the region or the simple way in which the atmosphere – which is key for any Williams play – just doesn’t crackle with visual energy as it should (at least until the very end when in the final 20 minutes). It is in the final sequence that Lumet reaches levels of nirvana with gorgeous, noirish images blended with a roaring fire. But the other hour and a half prior to that, in the beginning, the great director fails to connect by deploying expected, bordering-on-dull melodrama with little style and overflowing with tired stylistic cliches about the Deep South that were done better in every other Williams film of the time from Baby Doll to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The film slowly builds to its grand guignol climax but along the way loses purpose and probably half of the audience with overly-talky, not terribly compelling monologues and asides, so the ultimate burden of this adaptation must ultimately fall onto Williams’ shoulders. The writer doesn’t invest much into these characters and as the author of the script as well as the play, it feels as though he is simply a novice trying on a form that he does not yet fully understand the nuance of, at least in the way he understands the nuances of the damaged belles, sprawling manses, steamy streets and family secrets of his fiction.
By the film’s end there were some outright dazzling moments, visually, and this is the direction the film should have gone in from the first frame. The direction becomes secondary, even a bit all over the place and I think that probably has to do with the fact that this play, Orpheus Descending, is not generally regarded as one of Williams’ best. The acting ranges from good (Brando) to wildly inconsistent with flashes of brilliance (surprise! Magnani!) to electric and wild with Woodward playing the slutty vagrant. The Fugitive Kind is entertaining to be sure, but I just couldn’t love it like I usually do with the major work I’ve seen of Williams, Lumet, Woodward and Brando.