With its overheated, Southern Gothic dishevelment and its trio of desperate women, The Fugitive Kind (out now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection) is undeniably some Tennessee Williams shit. But with a director, Sidney Lumet, who insists on treating it like a social realist drama and only one member of the cast–Joanne Woodward, who smolders just like her eye shadow–vibrating at the material’s proper frequency, the result is more the bad kind of camp than the good kind of camp, the likes of which can be found in Joseph Losey’s 1968 Williams adaptation, Boom!
Marlon Brando stars as Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (hey, leave some cool names for the rest of us, huh?), a nightclub musician who has recently split New Orleans after some trouble with the law. When his car breaks down in the rain, he knocks on the door of Vee (Maureen Stapleton), the wife of the local sheriff (R.G. Armstrong). Taken with this sensitive loner, Vee helps Snakeskin get a job a the local general store, whose proprietor, Lady (Anna Magnani), has been running it by herself since her cruel husband (Victor Jory) took ill and confined himself to his bedroom. There, he attracts the affections of both Lady and Carol (Woodward), whom I will affectionately describe as the local harlot.
At a superficial glance, then, it would seem that Snakeskin is the cause of the chaos that gradually ensues. But, through an increasingly batty series of gasping monologues, Williams slowly reveals that the town’s rot and sickness is the result of generations of ignorance, jealousy, hatred and violence. Snakeskin’s arrival only punctured the bloated carcass.
If you were feeling charitable, then, you could attribute The Fugitive Kind‘s sluggishness to its characters’ existential maladies and liken its inertia to a rattlesnake in the sun, dormant but dangerous. Really, though, it’s far more like the whole movie has been drugged. By the time Snakeskin spends what feels like five minutes talking about whether or not he’s going to go have a look in the other room, any drawling enticement has worn off. If you’re familiar with Williams, you won’t be surprised that things end badly but you might be surprised at how relieved you are when they finally do.
Criterion’s transfer was made from a fine grain, with dirt removal done at MTI, who have done good work as usual. The picture is clear and consistent. The black and white cinematography is well served by the contrast and the color timing. The mono soundtrack is quite clear, which is helpful since Brando mumbles the whole time.
Special features include a 2009 interview with Lumet, a 1958 television adaption of three of Williams’ one-act plays, a featurette on Williams’ movies and a booklet with an essay by David Thomson.