New York, April 25, 1960
Tennessee Williams powerful, disturbing Broadway stage hit (Orpheus Descending) about a wild itinerant guitarist who sets off a chain reaction of brutality and violence with his arrival in a hot-tempered southern town has been turned into one of the boldest and earthiest screen dramas of the year. Much in the vein of Williams other current film success, Suddenly, Last Summer, this is an absorbing tinder box of high-voltage entertainment, loaded with the kind of motion picture chemistry that definitely guarantees explosive box-office business.
Williams‘ tale is not necessarily a pretty one, and, although he tells of lust, dissipation and sadistic revenge, his themes are not presented merely to shock, but rather, to explore the motivations of troubled and destructive people. True, these are strange, not commonplace, characters, but their frustrations and conflicts are no less valid. They are a society comprised of the lonely and the bitter, tormented in their search for values, begging for understanding and love, yet tragically cursed by undefined and unrealized emotions. They are the physically ill and the mentally disturbed, who seek escape in romantically conceived existences. In the end, they are destroyed, either through irony or their own inability to honestly grasp the reality of life.
It’s a strong and searing tale, sometimes savage, sometimes tender. Recent box-office returns have proven American audiences are desirous of provocative themes intelligently handled, and The Fugitive Kind has the potential to become one of the season’s top attractions. It looks surefire for adult, class audiences in the metropolitan markets, and since Williams, as a result of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, has established himself as a potent marquee personality, response in the general market should also be good. If United Artists backs this one with the familiar brand of hard-hitting promotion, business might soar into the top-grossing range.
In order to infuse these violent, fascinating people with a maximum of credulity, producers Martin Jurow and Richard A. Shepherd have gathered together a truly outstanding and electrifying blockbuster cast in Oscar winners Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. Each produces a power-acting tour de force. Brando is superb as the guitarist called “Snakeskin” who wants to leave his ugly, dissolute past behind him and turn over a new leaf. Against his will he becomes involved in the personal lives of others, and in doing so, brings about the death of Miss Magnani and himself. He is the catalyst in this stirring drama and his range of emotional levels reaffirms his position as one of the finest actors of the day. Miss Magnani, one of the screen’s premiere actresses, surpasses her performance in The Rose Tattoo, creating a character that is nothing short of magnificent. As the embittered, emotionally unsatisfied wife of a cruel, dying man, she seeks vengeance for the men who burned down her father’s wine-garden because he sold liquor to Negroes, and comes to life as a woman again, when she falls in love with Brando. Her sense of controlled fury and violent verbal explosions are without compare. Miss Woodward also turns in an extraordinary performance as the bizarre, outcast daughter of the best family in town who is paid to stay away. A one-time street corner religion spouter, she is now, minus all moral values, a lewd vagrant. The supporting roles are likewise impressive; the outstanding ones being Maureen Stapleton as the sad, frightened wife of the sadistic sheriff; Victor Jory as Miss Magnani evil, cancer-doomed husband, who was responsible for her father’s death, and R. G. Armstrong, as the sheriff.
Academy Award nominee Sidney Lumet has guided this gripping black-and-white journey into doom with unrelenting time-bomb precision. From its opening moments The Fugitive Kind seethes with invisible rumblings which grow in intensity, with Brando‘s arrival in the town, reaching the height of their explosive force in a climax that is absolutely hair-raising. There is virtually no relief from the heavy dramatic atmosphere, except, perhaps, in certain of the love scenes which will remain with the viewer long after the theater lights go on. One of these is the sensual duel between Brando and Miss Woodward in a cemetery at midnight. Other deeply affecting scenes are the violent love clashes between Brando and Miss Magnani, and the horrifying finale when Brando is trapped in an inferno.
The Williams–Meade Roberts script has Brando going to work in the Magnani–Jory mercantile store. Both Miss Magnani and Miss Woodward are attracted to him, but he falls in love with the former. On the night her eagerly-awaited confectionery is to open, Brando is unjustly accused of fooling around with Miss Stapleton and ordered out of town. He begs Miss Magnani to go with him, especially when he learns she is pregnant. But Jory sets fire to the confectionery, shoots Miss Magnani, and a cruel mob, led by sheriff Armstrong, force Brando into the flames and death.