Tuesday, September 8, 2009


This particular review is in the way of a request. Sidney Lumet's film of Tennessee Williams's play Orpheus Descending was recommended to me by Crhymethinc, one of my oldest friends and a fellow movie fan whose opinions have appeared sporadically here and more often on The Think 3 Institute, my political blog. I hope he'll add his thoughts to our discussion of this film. Starting from a shared interest with me in cult cinema (he saw Goodbye Uncle Tom the same time I did for the first time, for instance), Crhymethinc has been moving toward a greater appreciation of Classic Hollywood. He enjoys outrageousness nearly as much as I do, and sometimes more so, but he ultimately holds movies to a literary standard: story counts the most. His blooming interest in Williams may be a way of having it both ways, combining strong literary credentials with often outrageous subject matter. He comes to this particular film, however, because of an additional interest in the career of Marlon Brando. Brando and Williams are a combination that happened only once before, and that was A Streetcar Named Desire, which should need no introduction here. But Fugitive Kind is not as well remembered, and was an unexpected flop with reviewers and public alike when it appeared. So what's the difference?

The first thing that struck me about this movie is that it's the last appearance of the archetypal young Brando: the sullen stud from Streetcar, The Wild One and (perhaps less sullenly) On the Waterfront. His pre-credits entrance into a police court to explain his arrest for disorderly conduct and plead for a chance to start fresh elsewhere promises a return to primal Brando after the accented extravagances of Teahouse of the August Moon, Sayonara and The Young Lions. It's a riveting scene in the reticent classical style, as it makes clear without stating explicitly that this would-be guitar hero has ended up playing a male prostitute in New Orleans, providing "entertainment" that doesn't require his musical instrument. Genuine shame combines with the usual instinct to sweet-talk the judge, and it works for the actor and the character, Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier, who's allowed to leave the mean old city and try his luck elsewhere. Brando works as well to leave you a little doubtful of Xavier's sincerity.

But Xavier is one of the "fugitive kind," a term only heard at the end of the film as a synonym for what the man himself describes as a sort of footless bird who floats through life and touches earth only to die. The emphasis on the fugitive-kind concept is a change from the classical symbolism that comes with the play's original title, and the movie title strikes me as being more appropriate to the story. "Orpheus Descending" implies that Xavier's arrival in a small Mississippi town is going to be like the mythological bard's trip to the netherworld, but the parallel is complicated by the availability of a number of Eurydices for our hero to choose from. There's Maureen Stapleton as the sheriff's wife, a would-be visionary painter. There's Joanne Woodward in crazy mode as the community's "lewd vagrant" who happens to know more about Xavier than he wanted. Most importantly, there's Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance, ambitious and frustrated wife of general store owner Jabe Torrance (Victory Jory), a mean old cancerous cripple who shares a guilty past with the sheriff. The men don't like the competition when the young stud blows in and almost unconsciously draws the women like a magnet.

Joanne Woodward is the nearest thing to comedy relief in The Fugitive Kind, whether she meant to be or not.

Something doesn't quite work here. Brando is still young and handsome enough to be plausible in this role, but his is a passive performance, and his talk about birds has primed us to think of Xavier as a transient who's ready to quit town at any moment. The actor labors under a huge handicap, as what we presume must be a big part of Xavier's appeal is unavailable to Brando: his music. The labors of Samuel Goldwyn and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in Guys & Dolls only barely concealed the brute fact that Brando had not a musical bone in his body, and in Fugitive Kind his character's one attempt at singing is dubbed by another actor. The cumulative effect is to confirm what the riff-raff of New Orleans believed; that Xavier's natural talent is purely physical and sensual, not artistic. I understand that the character gets to sing more in the play, as is only right with Orpheus in the title, and something is probably missing in the film when he doesn't, despite Williams's efforts as co-adaptor to make up the difference. The movie leaves you with the impression that Xavier's musical pretensions (his guitar autographed by blues legends is his most prized possession) are little more than a pose, and he can't help coming off as a bit of a loser as a result. There's nothing wrong with a loser as a protagonist, but it throws his appeal to the ladies into question. Crhymethinc, I think, was on the mark when he suggested that a darker Elvis Presley might have been ideal for this story.

But the story isn't about the power of music. More likely, it's about the impossibility of escape into any sort of rural idyll. If Xavier sees himself fleeing from the corruption of the big city, he finds at least as much corruption where he lands. The town is a depraved, racist patriarchy, where Lady's father was lynched because he dared sell alcohol to black people. She may have her problems with her husband, but at least he wasn't involved in that atrocity -- or was he? In any event, her revenge on the community is to build and run her own "confectionery" next door to her husband's shop. That project coincides with her simmering romance with Xavier, who initially goes to work as a shop clerk but becomes, resentfully, Lady's kept man. He's heading toward leaving when important revelations, including the full lit-up promise of the confectionery, convince him to commit himself to Lady. He touches earth -- mistake! But maybe he's only disproving the whole fugitive kind/footless bird concept and is acknowledging that he's just a man. The only one still talking about the fugitive kind at the end, after all, is a madwoman.

To state the obvious, Tennessee Williams is a theatrical writer. He is not a social realist. His characters are theatrical in all senses of the word; they self-dramatize and they speechify. This makes him a tough sell to some viewers, but used as I am to unconventional acting styles, the only jarring aspect of it all in The Fugitive Kind is the presence of unorthodox thespianism in what is clearly an A picture. The mighty Brando is mostly upstaged by the more flamboyant female characters: Stapleton's neurotic painter; Woodward's nutjob; and the patently tempestuous Magnani. She's a Williams veteran, having won an Oscar for The Rose Tattoo, but apart from one reference to her as a "dago" you're left wondering whether Lady is supposed to be Italian or if this is some gigantic piece of miscasting. But I suppose she's not inappropriate for a character who has a sort of non-violent vendetta against the town fathers, and she has an impressive range of emotion from steely entrepreneurship to weepy despair under assault from an embittered Xavier. By comparison, Woodward, who won her Oscar playing schizo in The Three Faces of Eve, is a sort of specialty mad act, a pseudo-Eurydice who ends up more like the chorus of the tragedy.

It's up to Sidney Lumet to hold it all together. The man has a 50 year track record of quality from Twelve Angry Men to Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, and here he does a great job establishing the grungy setting of the town. This is a dirty film in the sense that it looks like everything needs a good sweeping and dusting. This is necessary to set up the contrast when Lady turns on the lights at the confectionery for the first time, turning it into a kind of fairy palace that finally bewitches Xavier. That in turn sets up the illusion-smashing brutality of the climax. Throughout the show, Boris Kaufman's cinematography is atmospheric and beautiful when it needs to be without being self-consciously arty, which would be wrong for the subject matter.

Lumet makes an arguably prophetic use of fire hoses as tools of oppression as Brando is victimized by villains who are firemen in something like the Fahrenheit 451 sense of the term.

Overall, the story seems compromised by Brando's limitations, but it's also sometimes enlivened by his strengths. His particular presence may throw the narrative out of balance, but The Fugitive Kind remains an intriguing balancing act as an attempt by Hollywood to come to grips with the scandal of the South. Landing somewhere between classic cinema and white-trash exploitation, it has ample material of interest to both camps.


Anonymous said...

I think what drew me to this particular movie in the first place was the match between a Tennessee Williams script with Brando, which worked so well in Streetcar. I love/loath Williams work in as much as he seems to write about decadent, corrupt souther white trash. It's like reading a train wreck. You know it's going to end badly, but you can't help but to watch.

In this movie in particular, not one of the characters was sympathetic. They all seemed diseased in some way or another. The entire town seemed to be an emotional leper colony.

Although I think having Elvis as the main character would have done more to establish "Snakeskin" as a troubador, I doubt Elvis had the talent as an actor to make the character what he needed to be. Of course, my favorite film from classic Hollywood is still (and probably always will be) Sunset Boulevard, but this one is definitely worth catching - if you're in to watching train wrecks.

Jean Floressas des Esseintes said...

Very accurate review. I agree with the shoddiness of the pretense, but in a way, the very dreary and shambolic nature of the story seems to condone such irregularities in the fabric of the character's acting. Maybe it was some time since I watched a Brando movie, but I'd say that for me this movie was a revelation. I'd rank it second best movie of Brando after "The Last Tango in Paris". I say this because, even though Brando gave superior performances in films such as Godfather, Waterfront and Streetcar, this movie's story seems both understated and intriguing, it catches the viewer on a personal level almost. The leitmotif of this movie is an undecided character, drifting and looking for a safe haven. The lewd attractive girl disgusts him, as he'd like to find a steady job. Moreover, he seems to have drifted for too long to even remember that he has the capacity to stay put, hence the metaphor "bird without legs". A sartorialist dressing style when he works in the store goes to cement brando's desire to impress, be it through roughness or through ellegance. He may not have had a musical talent, but we can get to believe that the character uses music as merely a pretense, as the review notes, whilst being a sort of "Midnight Cowboy" in the big city, "entertaining" old women for their money. I really enjoyed this movie, as well as your review of it.