It’s distressing to note that when critics talk about Sidney Lumet’s films, they almost always emphasize what’s commonly referred to as the cold functionality of his technique. Lumet himself has always emphasized the way he approaches craft as a matter of marrying form with function. This, however, has led critics to talk about The Fugitive Kind as if its sultry content, co-adapted and based on a play by Tennessee Williams, were atypical of Lumet. Even David Thomson, whose essay “When Sidney Went to Tennessee” is featured in the Criterion Collection’s new release of the film, talks about Lumet as if he were a plumber—very serviceable and diligent at his craft but hardly “poetic.” He writes: “He is a master of complex working situations, of limited time and space, of plot intrigue, of real-life settings and natural drama. Fantasy, expressionism, the deliberate splash of poetry are seldom felt in his pictures; it’s easy to see in hindsight that people lost in love are not his favorite subject.”
What exactly Thomson means by “complex working situations” or “natural drama” is unclear (is the latter synonymous with the “naturalistic” drama of 12 Angry Men that he briefly mentions just before the above quote?), let alone why Lumet might be allergic to stories about “people lost in love” (correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Dog Day Afternoon and Network to some extent about “people lost in love?”). Instead, Thomson uses this strange notion to fuel his essay’s thesis, which is that Fugitive Kind is an exceptional unsung collaboration for everyone involved, especially Williams, whose original play Orpheus Descending was panned and quickly boarded up when it was originally on tour. It’s a valid argument to an extent, but the film also shows many signs of why Lumet’s chameleon-like style is the very essence of the film.
In fact, one can read Fugitive Kind as a treatise on the clash between Williams’s “poetic” expressionism and Lumet’s “natural”—perhaps even technical but no less soulful—sense of atmosphere. The film is after all not a straightforward melodrama, but rather a clash of differing philosophies about emotions. Armed with his acoustic guitar and clad in a snakeskin jacket, Valentine Xavier (Marlon Brando), the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in David Lynch’s traumatizing Wild at Heart, is a “wild” man, as would-be hellcat Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) remarks admiringly. And that makes the women in his life little more than liabilities waiting to happen.
Cage’s character in Wild at Heart fetishistically idolizes his own snakeskin blazer as a “symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom,” but Xavier is growing uncomfortable with how it’s become synonymous with his identity. He doesn’t want to be a carefree bohemian like Carol anymore even if he sometimes still acts like one and he’s certainly not the “two-bit stud” that everybody assumes he is, looking like and carrying himself like Adonis as he does. Xavier wants to be tied down to a steady job and to distance himself from the labels of typically hospitable Southerners’ gossip without having to sacrifice his ability to express himself (i.e. the guitar stays, but the jacket’s got to go).
But Xavier can’t nor does he seem to want to be totally rid of his bad-boy identity, just its limitations. He finds the job he’s looking for working for Lady Torrance (a transfixing Anna Magnani), an outsider with an abusive, ailing husband and big dreams, but with no viable outlet to express them because of the intolerance of the local “vigilantes.” And for a time, Xavier is content to help Lady until the nosy locals remind him that he is, in their community, who they say he is. And keeping the wrong company as he does and looking as attractive and secretive as he does, the people do eventually start to talk and it does eventually get under his snakeskin.
No “fresh start” can change Xavier’s situation, and secretly he knows that. He tells Lady as much in Brando’s most soulful speech, during which he compares himself to a rare breed of bird that only touches down when it’s about to die. Accordingly, he refuses to allow Lady to destroy herself by fruitlessly rebelling against her sickly tyrant of a husband because he knows that, just like him, she can’t be an individual amongst a community (it’s kind of an oxymoron). Eventually, Xavier’s suit is the only defense he’s got against a mob that knows it has him pegged. And he wears it, just to prove the mob wrong. John Lydon ain’t got nothing on this kid.
Just as it’s in Xavier’s nature to retreat into his snakeskin, Lumet’s career has become defined by his tendency to bring whatever is needed for the project at hand. While Thomson argues that “Lumet knew that the Williams material used the grittiness of reality as camouflage for a high-flown poetic symbolism,” Lumet actually does the opposite. Like the necessarily convoluted monologues Brando and Magnani are challenged with (as Thomson notes, the pair soft-shoed their first read-through of the material, unsure of how to swallow, let alone emote, such dense material), Lumet tasks director of photography Boris Kaufman with creating hauntingly lurid, downright noirish lighting cues, countless subtlely expressive close-ups, and even a handful of graceful tracking shots to make the characters’ inner worlds visible.
Fugitive Kind is about the way the artist cannot make reality conform to his/her ideals, a lesson that Lumet has not only embraced but triumphantly turned into his own kind of rich and ever-changing aesthetic. Confuse that approach with sterile pragmatism at your own risk.
The Criterion Collection digitally restored a print of the film under Sidney Lumet's supervision, manually removing grain and wear so the film looks about as good as it can possibly get. The mono audio soundtrack is likewise very sturdy and without any stray pops, hisses, or other obvious signs of wear.
Apart from a booklet featuring David Thomson's essay and stills from The Fugitive Kind, the Criterion Collection has put together a trifecta of essential special features here for the DVD set's second disc. First they have Lumet discuss the film at some length specifically for the new DVD. Lumet's no Bogdonavich, but he is a wonderful raconteur in his own right, and is as lucid as ever in his memories of how he dealt with the actors and what was at stake with the project. Secondly, Robert Bray and R. Barton Palmer, co-authors of Hollywood's Tennessee: The Williams Films and Postwar America, give a rough overview of Williams's film adaptations and Fugitive Kind's place among them. This is very interesting stuff, but it's obviously heavily truncated oral form of what is surely a much more involving text.
Finally, the most exciting of the three supplementary features on the film's second disc is a collection of three 20-minute one-act plays by Williams that Lumet directed for NBC under the banner of Three Plays by Tennessee Williams. The first one, Moony's Kid Don't Cry, features a typically pulverizing performance from Ben Gazzara and a stellar supporting one from Lee Grant, appearing as a blue-collar couple on the skids. Watching Gazzara lope around a small set is mesmerizing, but the film isn't that remarkable (he's irresponsible, drinks, and is a romantic while she's got her hands full with the housework and their kid—kitchen sink connect-the-dots). Next is the best of the three plays, The Last of My Gold Watches, a Miller-esque story about an older shoes salesman that laments to a young peer about how degraded everything is. The third one-act, This Property Is Condemned is a fairly negligible, stale dry run for A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Fugitive Kind is an across-the-board success, but it has enough flickers of brilliance to make it essential viewing for fans of its cast, Sidney Lumet, and/or Tennessee Williams.