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Val Xavier, a drifter of obscure origins arrives at a small town and gets a job in a store run by Lady Torrence, a sex-starved woman whose husband Jabe M. Torrance is dying of cancer upstairs. Val is pursued by Carol Cutere, the enigmatic local tramp-of-good-family, who covets his snakeskin jacket as much as his body and tries to seduce him in the cemetery. Val is more attracted to the mature Lady and gets her pregnant. Written by
"Battle of Angels", the original version of Tennesse Williams play "Orpheus Descending" that the movie is based on, flopped in Boston in 1940 and did not make it to Broadway. The 1957 Broadway production of the reworked play, starring Cliff Robertson and Maureen Stapleton as Val and Lady Torrance, also was a flop. It wasn't until the 1989 revival starring Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Torrance that the play was a success on Broadway. See more »
[Xavier and Carol are driving at night in her sports car. She tells him to pull over at what appears to be the entrance to the local cemetery, "Wisteria Hills"]
Pull over here.
Valentine 'Snakeskin' Xavier:
[Unaware of where they are]
You live around here?
Nobody lives around here! This is the local bone orchard!
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I suspect that Tennessee Williams probably agreed to change the title of his classically sounding play Orpheus Descending to The Fugitive Kind in order to insure box office. Possibly some of Marlon Brando's fans garnered from The Wild One might pay their admissions thinking they were seeing something like that. I can think of worst ways to be exposed to one of America's most respected playwrights.
This was Brando's second time doing Williams for the screen, the first time being A Streetcar Named Desire. Curiously enough this was Anna Magnani's second time doing Tennessee Williams for the screen as well, she won an Oscar in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo. So the combination of Brando and Magnani seemed a natural for the screen. I don't think The Fugitive Kind is as good as Streetcar or The Rose Tattoo, but the parts are meaty enough roles for both these honored players.
Characters seem to drift in to The Fugitive Kind from other Williams work. Brando's Val Xavier is quite like Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth, in fact in the review's title is the illusion Brando himself makes of his character. He's an early 30 something drifter with a talent for sex and music, the former probably more than the latter.
Unlike Chance, Xavier doesn't have a female keeper, but he'd like to find one. He passes up liaison with the town trollop played by a third Oscar winner in the cast, Joanne Woodward for the older and married Anna Magnani.
Magnani is trapped in a loveless marriage to a dying Victor Jory, a petty tyrant who runs the town general store. Like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jory is dying of cancer at a much more advanced stage of the disease than Burl Ives had. Picture Big Mama from that play hot to trot for Chance Wayne and you've got the essence of The Fugitive Kind.
Joanne Woodward has an interesting part. Part of her loose behavior is in rebellion against the time honored tradition of institutional racism that is the south that Tennessee Williams grew up in. I'm not an expert on Tennessee Williams, but of the works I've seen that are revived frequently, this is the only one where Williams directly brings up racism.
Orpheus Descending on Broadway only ran 68 performances in 1957. Two members from the Broadway cast made it to the screen, R.G. Armstrong as the sheriff repeating his role and Maureen Stapleton who had Joanne Woodward's part on stage, essays the part of the sheriff's wife who also is married to another middle aged tyrant. Considered a lesser work of Williams at first, Orpheus Descending is now revived frequently by stock theater companies everywhere. A critically acclaimed revival on Broadway in 1989 with Vanessa Redgrave and Tammy Grimes and Kevin Anderson helped bring Orpheus Descending into its proper place in the sun.
Maybe if a remake is ever done, it will even be done under its proper original title. Till then we can be well satisfied with this version.
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