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Monday, 21 July 2008

The Fugitive Kind (1959)

Valentine Xavier would seem to be a memorable name for a character, even in a film full of characters with memorable names (Dog Hamma, Ruby Lightfoot, Uncle Pleasant), but he goes by Snakeskin. He's played by Marlon Brando, who is always great in situations like the one we see him in first: explaining himself to a new Orleans judge. He promises to get out of town and he does, taking his guitar with him, but when his car breaks down, he promptly ends up straight back in jail. At least this time he's just sleeping the night in a dry cell with the door open, with the blessings of the sheriff's wife, and he isn't in trouble in the slightest. At least not yet.

Vee Talbot, the sheriff's wife, has a trusting heart and she trusts that Snakeskin is going to turn over a new leaf, so gets him a job in a store run by Lady Torrance. Her husband is about to return from a spell in the hospital and won't be able to work himself, so Lady's going to need some help. But this is Brando and his character is called Snakeskin so it can't be too much of a surprise to find that he ends up bucking everyone's expectations and becoming a catalyst through whom they find resolution in their lives. Just as he appears to become conventional, in flits Carol Cutrere, a wild free spirit who's been banned from what seems like everywhere. She recognises him from a new year's party, and promptly shakes up everything.

She's played by Joanne Woodward and she's the sort of flighty character who steals scenes left and right, flouncing around in a bar that she shouldn't be in, stirring up everyone and leaving people on the floor when she leaves. She reminds me of Courtney Love, and the shock of blonde hair helps the comparison. Yet she's playing opposite Brando, who has a knack of stopping people stealing his scenes by simply being in them. I'm not a worshipper at the altars of the cult of Brando, but he was certainly a very powerful presence and the charisma just dripped off him.

Here he plays a very Brando type of role, though that seems strange to say given that he was such a versatile talent. He's quiet but strong, like a powderkeg; he's outwardly polite, but always giving the impression that it's done not through courtesy but necessity; and he does a lot of explaining, as if to define who he is and why he's there. He talks about a kind of person who 'don't belong no place at all', and illustrates the concept with a story about a bird that has no legs and so lives on the wing, only touching ground when it dies. I'm sure that This Little Bird, a song I know by Jewel but apparently written by Marianne Faithfull, must have referenced this story, unless they both reference a common source.

It's a powerful film and it builds very well indeed but it has flaws and characters who don't go anywhere, and the ending is disappointing. Brando is dominant here and Woodward is excellent also in the other lead. Anna Magnani is the real co-star though as Lady Torrance, and she's a worthy foil for Brando, with some serious fire raging between the pair of them on screen. As her vicious husband, Victor Jory has a bizarre role given that he's covered in sweat for the entire film. Maureen Stapleton is the other name to watch, as the sheriff's wife who is out of place in the small town herself, but the other one to really pay attention to is the one behind the writing.

This is a Tennessee Williams play, one that he obviously cared deeply for because he worked at it for a long while. He wrote it as Battle of Angels in 1939, though it wasn't produced until it had become Orpheus Descending in 1957. He then turned it into a screenplay himself for Sidney Lumet to film, and its as tumultuous as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Night of the Iguana. Lumet still doesn't have an Oscar to his name, beyond a honorary award in 2005, though he has directed a seriously powerful set of films over sixty years. By this point he had directed 12 Angry Men, which ought to be enough for anyone, but would go on to Long Day's Journey into Night, The Hill, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Murder on the Orient Express and The Verdict. I guess we can forgive him The Wiz.

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