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Fugitive Kind, The (DVD Review)

26 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/27/10
$39.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton.

Certain things in life are basically a slam-dunk to elicit a risible reaction. One of them is seeing Marlon Brando in snakeskin, slinging a guitar and going by the name of “Valentine Xavier” (a credit to Tennessee Williams’ fecund imagination when it came to handles).

It all happens in this movie version of Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, which was in turn a re-write of another play Williams did very early in his career. As Fugitive director Sidney Lumet notes in the fine, recently conducted DVD interview here, it flopped in both versions. So did the movie (which Lumet wasn’t under any state order to reveal here) — a financial stinger, no doubt, because it reportedly made Brando the first actor ever to receive a million dollar salary.

There are additional distinctions mostly divorced from the dramatic story being told, which is probably the best way to enjoy an awkward two hours. For one thing, this was one of the very few movies of its day to headline three actors who had won lead Oscars within the preceding five years (Billy Wilder’s Sabrina also comes to mind). And this is when stars were stars. The three here were Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward — the last an instigating player in another Fugitive distinction, the bit where Woodward’s character (“Carol Cutrere”) briefly attempts oral sex on Brando (its one Hollywood antecedent, as far as I know, being a scene between Richard Conte and Jean Wallace in 1955’s The Big Combo, a much better movie).

Is arcane film history fun or what?

Brando plays a reforming party boy who, after barely avoiding extended slammer time in New Orleans, ends up in a Mississippi burg selling women’s shoes in a general store. This is at least as surreal as the scene in 1993’s Arizona Dream (profiled here last week) in which we see Jerry Lewis at work at his car dealership.

Brando is 35 here, though already looking puffy; Magnani a looking-it 51 and (despite her ’55 Oscar for The Rose Tattoo) alien to English; and Woodward is forced to wear extreme freak-show makeup that almost makes her look like a circus performer. They’re fun to watch individually but rarely connect as a unit — though I do love one bit Woodward has slinging thigh over a car gearshift (Lumet says he loves it, too) when Brando is not in the mood for any hi-jinks.

Magnani’s character is all but a slave to a bigoted cancer-ridden husband played by Victor Jory (previously the key heavy in Gone with the Wind, which is either intentionally or unintentionally poetic Dixie casting). Just home from the hospital, he foils his wife’s attempts to upgrade the store and suspects something is going on between her and Brando even before there is. Sick or not, he’s a thorough crud whose past Magnani transgression (a whopper) is eventually revealed.

Shot in New York state, the film has no feeling for the Mississippi milieu — though, to be fair, Williams and Lumet weren’t exactly going for realism here. Yet it’s interesting that Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) — with which it shares Williams as screenwriter and the great Boris Kaufman as cinematographer — does, and it’s a movie even more outrageously overheated. The work here by Kaufman, who seemingly shot every major New York based or filmed production of the era, is outstanding and its rendering improves significantly on the old no-frills MGM release, which got heavily drubbed by reviewers in 2005 for the way the image was cropped and other visual shortcomings.

The movie is so weird that I’ve seen it three or four times without particularly liking it. The talent is imposing (if, in this case, mostly on paper), and the subject matter at least assumes a grown-up audience, which a fair share of 1960 Hollywood releases did not. In addition to the interview with Lumet (delightfully spry at 85), the DVD includes an essay, a filmed portrait of Williams and a kinescope of 1958’s Lumet-directed Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, which aired on NBC’s “Kraft Television Theatre” (the last presentation in its 11-year run). The middle one-acter, about an aging traveling salesman, has some poignant moments. And the last, This Property Is Condemned, is of interest because it was a property later expanded for the big screen in the eponymous 1966 version with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford — giving Francis Ford Coppola his first major screenwriting credit.

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