Poignant and poetic, The Fugitive Kind is a challenging film that works more often than it doesn’t. Based on Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending—a play that had been critically panned and did little business in its original Broadway run—this adaptation boasts terrific performances, atmospheric direction by Sidney Lumet (The Verdict), and excellent cinematography by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront).
As with any Williams work, the film is loaded with subtext and imagery, much of it sexual—including Snakeskin’s beloved Guitar and Vee’s paintings, which are rife with Freudian symbols. For its time, The Fugitive Kind tackles sexuality with surprising frankness, its story of hustlers, nymphomaniacs, illicit relationships, and passions both ignited and unrequited presented straight, not watered down. Williams infuses this story with layers of meaning, and repeat viewings offer different experiences.
But what stands out here is the human drama. As great a writer as he was, Williams’ characters were not always as heartfelt as the people on display here, and even his stronger characters—and the actors who play them—are sometimes overwhelmed by the writer’s stylized, elegant use of language. Like Elia Kazan’s film of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Fugitive Kind gives us a fortuitous combination of actors who can work both with and through Williams’ ethereal prose.
Brando is cast here as the object of everyone’s desire, and it’s almost as if Williams’ story was an allegory about the actor himself. Brando here displays a sensitive, almost feminine side that we rarely see in his performances. He seems to savor Williams’ words, beautifully capturing the rhythms of the text. It’s a subtle, haunting performance, perhaps one of his most underrated.
Magnani never cared for working in English—she’d turned down the chance to do both Orpheus Descending and The Rose Tattoo on Broadway because she was not comfortable with the language (though she starred in the film version of the latter, winning an Oscar for her performance). In The Fugitive Kind, Magnani might not have understood the language, but she understood the character—and the feeling. It’s an interesting choice, casting this earthy, force-of-nature actress as a repressed, down-trodden woman, but Magnani rises to it. While I’ve read that Brando and Magnani did not get along, and their acting styles seemingly at odds, their scenes together are electric.
Woodward is excellent as crazed woman-child Carol, though as written, the character is the most stage-bound. The actress holds together an early scene in a roadhouse in which she has a monologue about “juking” that, in lesser hands, could have sunk the proceedings; instead, it’s a highlight that shows what a skilled actress can do with difficult material. Stapleton does remarkable work in her too-few scenes as the sheriff’s frustrated, alienated wife, and Jory embodies evil as Magnani’s vile husband, who has a few ugly secrets and an especially nasty third-act trick up his sleeve. Link