Marlon Brando has a hulking figure. His sleepy-eyes and broad shoulders give him the presence to dominate any woman who stands in his way. The Fugitive Kind, part of the BFI’s Southern Gothic season this month, exhibits the challenges of the established roles within a small-town, as the looming Brando showcases how powerful he is.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, his long-takes, close-ups and character-driven plot pulls us in deep, as we decipher the intention of each character. The criminal trying to go straight; the wife of a dying man; the town’s local drunk. They all have a key to this puzzle and it is fascinating figuring it out.
Brando is Val ‘Snakeskin’ Xavier, his nickname derived from his snakeskin jacket. Travelling the towns, he plays his guitar, hustling and gambling his money into the night. Fleeing New Orleans, Xavier arrives in a dusty old town, and finds support from the God-fearing wife of the Sheriff, Mrs Talbot (Maureen Stapleton). Her trust in ‘Snakeskin’ results in a job at a local store, whereby Lady Torrence (Anna Magnani), a cynical older woman, is charmed by his convincing intent to turn his back on a criminal lifestyle. But the men of the town – the Sheriff, his crones and Lady Torrence’s dying spouse – all believe they see through his lies. They see him take pity on the local drunkard Carol (Joanne Woodward) and envy the gaze he gains from the local women. Inevitably, their distrust turns to active malice, leading to a tragic conclusion that leaves you cold.
For such a small story, it is powerful how hard a punch it packs. Written by Tennessee Williams, his intimate script challenges our sense of morality. Redemption and forgiveness are challenging in a world whereby the locals will forever remember your sins. Relationships that change prompt urges that cannot be repressed. Age and sexuality are inextricably intertwined. Themes that leak into Williams established classics, A Streetcar named Desire and The Glass Menagerie for example, feature again here – and it only serves to strengthen his passionate stance.
We witness the struggling women and stubborn men who are in constant conflict. Outside of Brando’s Val, you rarely see the driving masculine forces that fight him. One man lurks on the floor above the shop, in a grave-begging sweat. The Sheriff and his hounds appear when there’s trouble – and seem to only appear to create more. In fact, our first introduction to them is after they’ve shot down an escaped felon. They chug back drinks and chat comfortably about it, writing up the coroner report as if it were a shopping list. It’s no surprise that Mrs Talbot looks away in such a haunting manner: how can a life be worth so little?
The Fugitive Kind humanises the criminal, in the same manner as Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon does years later. The opening monologue, as Brando mumbles and meanders his way through a crime he has clearly committed is a permanent coping mechanism – a way to dismiss the people who will never understand him. He will always be animalistic and on the move. But The Fugitive Kind tackles so much more than crime. It confronts masculinity and feminity – and our own insatiable appetite for love, whoever we are.
The Fugitive Kind is playing as part of the BFI’s ‘Southern Gothic: Love, Death and Religion in the American Deep South’ season. For more information and other screenings, click here
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth in May 2015