Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams, adapted from Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending”

Somewhere after the sheer dynamism of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and the Paul Newman/Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the Sidney Lumet-helmed The Fugitive Kind becomes lost in the flurry of Tennessee Williams’ adaptations that surrounded it.

Lumet chose New York sets to fill in for Williams’ Southern setting – to the fury of many unimaginative critics of the day – to adapt Williams’ 1957 play “Orpheus Descending”, and creates to my mind the most thematically affecting of his adaptations, if not the most bleak.

Marlon Brando – in one of his most forgotten of great roles – is Val Xavier, a reformed drifter who flees from the law in New Orleans and finds himself looking for work at a small-town store owned by an older Italian woman known as Lady (Anna Magnani), and her vicious, bigoted and infirm husband Jabe.

She agrees to give him a job as a cashier, which he thrives at. Women follow Xavier wherever he goes, despite or because of his indifference to them, but his fondness for Lady is evident from the beginning. And despite all that’s stacked against them in this small town, the two inexorably fall in love. She attains a new lease on life in the presence of Val, and even starts plans to build and operate a sweets shop next to the store – something she’s always wanted to do.

Cold-hearted, controlling Jabe concocts a plan to strike back at his wife’s new-found happiness and her young paramour. Enlisting the help of the town’s law – something all too easy considering how virtually every man in town hated Val from the start – he sets up a vicious path of destruction that consumes everything in the film’s tragic conclusion.

Central to the script, co-penned by Meade Roberts and Williams himself, is the relationship between Val and Lady. It is a powerful chemistry that transitions to the screen from the start, and the energy from each is combustible whenever the two share the same screen. When two great actors share so many scenes, it isn’t uncommon for their best, career-defining roles to be forced out.

The Italian actress Magnani is simply astounding in her role as Lady, and produces the best acting from any female role of any Williams’ adaptation. Her story is haunting and her character’s development and decline is deeply emotional. That she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is equally astounding, but simply adds credence to the fact that the movie is, and has been so far, unfairly overlooked.

Brando as Stanley in Streetcar was an animal of unchecked testosterone, and in The Fugitive Kind he still is, but his savagery has been muted, but his God-given looks have been shaped to the point of Romanesque beauty,. Men like Flynn, Gable, Cooper and Grant may have defined what is was to be a good-looking male lead, fawned over by generations of women, but Brando embodies in this film the true sense of “heartthrob” like no other of his day. Indeed the closest earlier comparison would have to be the silent film star Rudolph Valentino, apparently so striking that women in theaters would faint at just the first shot of his face. Brando’s soft-spoken, unassuming Val, doesn’t so much rage as he does gently smolder, only becoming brighter when he falls deeply for Magnani’s older woman, Lady.

Brando, on the film's set circa 1958

The film ending, and the downfall of its only good characters, is deeply upsetting. The film’s very deep, troubling themes craft a story that seems to go along with an unmistakable ominous tone. In Williams’ South, the viewer understands from the very beginning that wronged women like Lady will never get retribution or find happiness, and impossibly handsome, guitar-playing drifters like Val will never find what they’re looking for, especially love.

While not quite illuminating, and certainly not uplifting, The Fugitive Kind is a powerful, unforgettable tale of deeply troubling things. Magnani’s performance alone is enough of a reason for first or multiple viewings, and Brando’s performance and sheer presence should not be forgotten among his many other, more iconic roles.

Images courtesy of dvdbeaver.com, movieline.com and bwcitypaper.

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