The original Broadway version opened a year after the resounding success of Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1948), and though it doesn't match "Streetcar" in brilliance (what does???), it has a luminosity all its own, with Geraldine Page, arguably the finest American theater actress of her time, providing most of the wattage. Page is one of the more fortunate stage stars to have had the honor of recreating a Williams' heroine for the screen. She did so again a couple years later with the equally potent "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Ms. Page portrays prim, genteel Alma Winemiller ("Miss Alma"), a minister's daughter chided as a youth by her school mates for being such. Far removed from experiencing life's libidinous pleasures, the grown up Alma has consigned herself to living a respectable, straight-laced, unbearably lonely existence as one of the town's more prideful, eccentric symbols of religious piety. Still living at home, her drab life consists of teaching voice lessons and leading bible studies with matronly ladies twice her age. Adding to the drudgery is the obligation of caring for her elderly parents, especially her emotionally erratic mother who delights in taunting Alma with cruel remarks while humiliating her in front of town folk with random acts of shoplifting. The malcontent but dutiful Alma bravely bears up under the weight, living a spinster's life way before her time.
Enter Laurence Harvey's John Buchanan, an exceptionally handsome, hard-living playboy who lives on life's edge. A next-door neighbor to Alma, whose first passionate schoolyard crush was Buchanan, the prodigal son has been sent back home to straighten out his reckless ways. But life's sinful pleasures prove far too tempting and soon he is back to his old habits of cathouse carousing and cockfighting matches. Buchanan's return rekindles Alma's youthful stirrings, for underneath the thick, confining layers of corsets and bustles still lies a heart teeming with unbridled desire.
As she reinserts herself slightly into Buchanan's life under the religious guise of soul-saving, the effort leads to a brief, life-altering romantic interlude for Miss Alma. To witness the bipolar directions the two end up taking is the essence and fascination of Williams' elegiac piece.
Geraldine Page (Oscar-nominated) is spellbinding as Alma, showing brilliant range and delicate power as the fading wallflower who suddenly over-blooms. Laurence Harvey gives a remote, synthetic performance as the roving Lothario which, I suppose, is consistent with the character, yet his rakish good looks and polished charm cannot be denied.
As Alma's maddening mother who reverts to childlike behavior, Una Merkel stands out among the supporting cast with a brittle, flavorful Oscar-nominated performance. Malcolm Atterbury appropriately shows unflinching, old-town values as her stiff, aloof minister of a father. Beautiful Pamela Tiffin, in her early career, plays Alma's young songbird student and object of attraction for Harvey with youthful vibrance. And having just won an Oscar for "West Side Story," Rita Moreno unfortunately returns true to form in one of her many spitfire stereotypes as Harvey's jealous, round-heeled paramour. John McIntire is all gruff and grimace as Harvey's deprecating old man, while young energetic Earl Holliman has a poignant, show-stopping scene with Page in the final reel as a traveling salesman.
Leisurely paced with fine, frilly attention to period detail and atmosphere, the film earned Oscar-nominations for its art direction and lovely, lyrical Elmer Bernstein score.
Required viewing for Tennessee Williams fans and a must for those who love to lose themselves in costumed romantic drama.