This week, through April 19th, University Theatre presents a rarely performed early Tennessee Williams’ play Not About Nightingales at the Krannert Center’s Studio Theatre. Another underappreciated early Williams’ work that was eventually adapted into a film was Sidney Lumet’s 1960 gem The Fugitive Kind. It was based on Williams’ Orpheus Descending, a story of misfits Val “Snakeskin” Xavier and Lady Torrence.
The Fugitive Kind is a not so strange film that has a strange history though. It began as Williams’ unsuccessful 1940 play Battle of Angels, then was carefully rethought and turned into Orpheus Descending, which had a short two month Broadway run in 1957, featuring Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson. By the time Lumet took control of the film adaptation, now called The Fugitive Kind, the decade of the ‘50s had been swamped with exceptional film adaptations of Williams’ works: Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer gave a handful of actors much praise and several Oscar nominations and awards.
The pre-production expectations were high for the film because Lumet got two A-list Oscar winning leads. Marlon Brando would be Val, someone who Williams always liked since the smash success of Streetcar Named Desire and Italian actress, Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance, the actress Williams originally wanted in the play’s production. Broadway actresses Maureen Stapleton and Joanne Woodward were also cast in smaller roles. Williams and Meade Roberts adapted the play to the screen, but unfortunately audiences didn’t take to the film’s dark themes and drab, often rain soaked, visual style.
Val is a 30 year old drifter, who plays a guitar, and who is looking for steady work, after being released from jail for causing trouble and fighting at a party. Lady Torrance runs a small town mercantile store, which her ailing husband Jabe (Victor Jory) owns. Mrs. Torrance is a middle aged, world weary woman who can’t sleep and seems tired of tending to her elderly husband, who’s confined upstairs above the store, and who periodically pounds his cane for attention. Lady finds the young Val appealing and handsome, but shows no initial outward interest in him. He offers to do odd jobs and electrical repairs. But soon tensions arise.
While the film lacks a lot of dramatic movement, Brando’s performance as Val is quite, calm and philosophically cool. It is one of his most effectively understated characters. Val sees the world of three types of people—“buyers and ones who get bought, and the kind that don’t belong—no place at all.” Magnani’s Lady provides a desperate, but hopeful spirit, who not only wants to improve her store and add on a confectionary shop. She tells Val he is her hope, “I need you to live, to go on living.”
But the local sheriff, suspicious of drifters like Val, and a free spirited gal, Carol Cutrere (Woodward) who pops into town making drunken noisy disturbances, soon makes demands that these fugitive kinds head out of town toward the nearest county line.
While The Fugitive Kind received only a mixed critical praise and was not a box office hit, Brando became the first actor, according to Williams’ biographer John Lahr, to receive a million dollar film contract. Over the years the film holds up very well and features some of Williams finer, more overlooked and underappreciated characters.