' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

---I wrote this piece for another site several years ago but upon stumbling into the movie one recent night and being re-blown away, and considering it's the anniversary of Marlon Brando's passing next Wednesday, I thought I'd re-offer it today here at Cinema Romantico.

Based on a play by that great southern purveyor of gothic over-emotion Tennessee Williams, "The Fugitive Kind" (1960) stars Marlon Brando as a guitar playing, snakeskin jacket wearing lothario named, uh, Snakeskin who after a brief stint behind bars for his faultless role in a fiasco down Orleans way rambles into a poe-dunk Louisiana town on a dark and stormy night (literally), takes shelter at the city's ramshackle jail and finds himself explaining to the Warden-ess (Maureen Stapleton) that, you know, he just wants to put the guitar down for awhile and make an honest living.

She promptly introduces him to the spectacularly named Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani), theatrical proprietor of a general store, who agrees to give him the steady job he so desperately seeks. Alas, the straight life won't come so easy and he will also encounter blonde-haired wild child Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) - more on her in a minute, a lot more - who knows Snakeskin from his previous life and exists in an effort to lull Snakeskin back to the wiles of the strings of the guitar.

Because this is Tennessee Williams, melodrama drenches the entire film like humidity in east Texas in the middle of July. This was an early directorial effort from the late Sidney Lumet and as his visual style was often simply not to get in the way (though there is one sequence where he does a bit of nifty trickeration with lighting during an, ahem, melodramatic monologue), the sensation of Williams lingers over everything. This Louisiana town is a town filled and run by men, evil, rotten, no-good men, so no-good that the perpetually sweat-ridden husband of Lady Torrance (Victory Jory) admits to having been part of the mob that killed her father years ago and which still haunts her. And yet even upon this admission people in the town - men and women! - still don't seem to quite grasp why she has such a beef with her spouse.

Thus, into this town of testestrone rides a most feminine man (as already stated, he plays guitar) who not only warms to Carol - such an outcast she's been banned from the county - but begins to maybe sorta romance Lady Torrance with Mr. Torrance right there upstairs. Lady wants him to remain by her side and Carol wants to whisk him back to the bright lights of the Crescent City. Should Snakeskin stay or should he go?

The young Brando is often thought of as a powerful actor, and that's true, but here he re-proves just what a national treasure he truly was back in the day by doing a 180 and spending the entire two hours as a tender, restrained, thoughtful man, someone who perhaps had that streak of rage in him once upon a time and now has locked it away. There are several moments in "The Fugitive Kind" that merely reinforce how Brando was born to recite Tennessee's material. That light-shifting monologue in the general store about birds that sleep on the wind which eventually leads to him telling Carol, not at all ironically "Fly away, little bird. Fly away before you get broke" is, in theory, the latter moment is sheer lunacy, but when Marlon just leaves you marveled. Magnani often seems to be acting as if she's onstage doing the play, not the movie, but I confess that may merely be a major personal bias because, well, how 'bout if at last we discuss Carol Cutrere and Joanne Woodward?

The brilliant film historian David Thomson has written: "I apologize if this seems too candid, or mawkish, for upright citizens. I recognize that it is a level of consideration that serious film critics seldom admit to. And, in one obvious way, it is an admission that could rule the critic out of the order. Yet, I hold to the admission because it is central to film, and to what happens in the dark. Ever since the beginnings of this strange medium, men and women have been drawn to the screen by feeling 'in love with' some of the huge faces put up there." And I mention this epic quote as a way to indicate that I must now take a moment to apologize to the late, great Paul Newman and advise that, sorry, sir, but I'm in love with your wife. Well, in love with a character your wife played.

Oh, they'll tell you the sexiest moment in cinematic history is, say, Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in "Dr. No" or Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate in "The Seven Year Itch", or something of the sort. They're wrong. They're all wrong. The sexiest moment in cinematic history is clear and undisputed and it is this: Brando gets in Woodward's convertible to drive her out of the county from which she's been banned and says "Move your legs to the other side of the gear shift." She moves her right leg, not the left. He says: "Both of 'em." Then she moves the left leg and gives him a satisfied smile and a slight nod that essentially says "How do you like me now?!" that makes me laugh as hard Lloyd Bridges declaring he picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue and makes Sharon Stone's little hoo-rah in the interrogation room in "Basic Instinct" is like a sexless episode of Degrassi Junior High in comparison.

A self-proclaimed exhibitionest who wants to "be seen and noticed and heard and felt", Woodward's Carol Cutrere is an ex "Christ-bitten reformer" and someone who once put on nothing but a potato sack and set out on foot for the state capital as a form of protest. Against what? Eh, she says, but that's not the really the point. No, the point was that she made the march to, you know, be seen and noticed and heard and felt.

Look up most descriptions of Woodward's Cutrere and you will typically find one of two words (or both): Nymph and Alchoholic. Maybe she's bi-polar. Maybe she's just crazy. Whatever, perhaps these are accurate, perhaps these are not, I think they're just lazy shorthand. I think she's a hot-blooded sentimentalist, someone who feeeeeeels everything. I love people who feeeeeeel everything.

There's a great many themes in "The Fugitive Kind", as there is with anything at the mercy of the pen of Tennessee Williams, but the theme perpetrated by Carol Cutrere was my favorite, and while it may be a theme as old as the hills, it is captured entirely through a hard-edged, perfectly melodramatic performance by Woodward. The Living and The Dead. Carol is re-banished from town at which point she promptly takes Snakeskin to a roadside honky tonk and delivers an exquisite, passionate, marching 'round the room monologue on the finer points of "jukin'" (Living) before then taking him to the "local bone orchard" and having a minor breakdown (Dead). And while it might be argued Snakeskin's ultimate fate was inevitable, I would argue the opposite.

Joanne Woodward tries to pull him toward the light of the living. He refuses. His loss.


Anonymous said...

I'm shamed that I haven't seen this, since I love almost all things Tennessee Williams and all things Marlon Brando and here they're together! Great insightful review here.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks! It's taken hits from other critics I know, and I admit my view on it is colored by Joanne Woodward, but I'm still a champion of it. Also, I greatly appreciate all your kind comments the last couple weeks. Means a lot.