Adapted from the Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending, this unsettling drama is full of oddball characters. Marlon Brando is Val (Valentine) Xavier, a drifter from New Orleans finding himself in a small Mississippi town among the alcoholic Carol (Joanne Woodward), the mis-matched couple Jabe and Lady Torrance (Victor Jory and Anna Magnani) and Sheriff Jordan and Vee Talbot (R.G. Armstrong and Maureen Stapleton). David (John Baragery) is Carol’s brother.
The initial court scene establishes that Val is both a lost soul and attached only to his guitar. As his car gives out after crossing the state line, he agrees, bizarrely, to sleep in a cell his first night, as the sheriff’s station is the only place open. Vee wants to help him get a job locally, at the Torrence’s store.
Apparently, the whole town seems to await Jabe’s return–he’s been in Memphis, having surgery. But Carol arrives first, in a once-fancy but very beat-up sports car. Carol strikes up a conversation with Val; she remembers him from New Orleans. Lady and Jabe start arguing immediately. For not so subtle reasons, Carol is persona no grata in town. There’s a clue when Brando offers to drive her; he has to ask her a couple of times to keep her legs on the other side of the gearshift. She describes the problem as “lewd vagrancy.”
They go to a roadhouse. She’s even kicked out of there; her brother’s there, not enjoying her making a spectacle of herself. “I’m an exhibitionist. I want people to know I’m alive” she admits to Val. He: “I just want to live.” They drive to the cemetery. “Who you trying to fool beside yourself?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically, as she’s lost in her thoughts.
She wants him to take her to New Orleans. He’s not interested. Back at the store, Lady’s trying to get some help for Jabe. Val makes a good pitch to Lady; “boys like you don’t work” is her estimation of his skill set, but she warms up to him. What’s interesting is that Val seems to be more grounded than just about anyone else. When talking about types of people he says “there’s a kind that don’t belong anyplace at all.”
Just as she shows Val a bunch of junk outside, and talks about her father’s orchard, Jabe is literally pounding for her help and attention. The next scene he’s still pounding; Val is busy clerking the store. Jabe automatically thinks that she’s fooling around with Val. Just as she has it out with Val, there’s another Carol ‘disturbance.’ Actually, she’s attacked by the filling station guy when she’s refused service there. Again, Val rescues her–he’s the model of fairness and decency–at least in public. Her comment about him exchanging his “wild” snakeskin jacket for “convict” garb (shirt and tie) is apt, in her eyes he’s sold-out to mainstream society.
Back to Lady. There’s an interesting exchange between her and David (who’s in town to put his sister in her place); when Jabe was in the hospital, he and Lady had an affair, and she’s having David’s baby. Jordan looks in on Jabe; naturally they talk about Val. Jabe half taunts Val, and mockingly asks of Lady: “Are you satisfied?…Or are you dissatisfied? (with Val)” In a scene reminiscent of the earlier one with Carol in the cemetery, she has Val take her to an abandoned house; she talks about her father again and how he was killed by vigilantes.
Val’s got something of the healer about him, he’s big on touching: “All we know is the skin surface of another…Nobody ever gets to know anybody. We’re all sentenced to solitary confinement.” Next thing, we’re back at the roadhouse, playing dice. Val says he’s leaving town; sure enough, he’s riding in the back of a produce truck. But only back to the store at first. He’s taking money out of the till. He wants to have Lady too. He correctly sizes her up as hiring him for “double-duty.”
After some not so nice thrashing about, they’re happily kissing. Again, he says he’s going to leave. Jabe’s up and about to check up on things; Val and Lady have added to the shop–it’s a “confectionery” (looks more like an aviary). Turns out Jabe was one of the vigilantes who destroyed her father’s orchard and killed him. For selling liquor to ‘n****rs’. Almost at once, he has a heart attack and seems near death. Suddenly, Vee is running hysterically through the rainy street. Then, the sheriff pulls up and rousts him. So, Val is told he’s got to leave town.
Carol shows up looking for Val. He tells Lady about the sheriff’s threat. But she’s not listening to him “I will not be defeated again!” she says, revenge on Jabe is more important to her than anything. The nurse knows that she’s pregnant. Very gratuitously, or maybe because he knows he’s dying, Jabe sets fire to the ‘confectionary,’ and shoots Lady. Val is forced by the firehoses into the flames. Carol looks on, horrified. The Conjure Man shows up and salvages the snakeskin jacket. It seems now that Carol is the only rational one left.
Most of The Fugitive Kind is intriguing, if not puzzling. The last part exposes so much raw hatred, that it’s very difficult to watch. A bold statement for the era–certainly on race–and on small-mindedness and mental illness as well. There isn’t one person in town that doesn’t have something strange about them; for the most part, the men are violence-prone, the women ditzy.
Brando’s character is somewhat like his Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire. But he’s less focused, and he’s the victim rather than the victimizer. Woodward’s performance is really something–seductive and off-putting at the same time. Armstrong is the closest to a type–the small town sheriff; Jory, much more intensely, is nothing less than a bed-ridden version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
Magnani’s role is maybe even more complex than Woodward’s. It’s a bit difficult to buy that she didn’t know about Jabe’s role as a vigilante; it’s even difficult to see her with him if he were the last man on earth. Nonetheless, his revelation about his past just destroys Lady; her murder is almost redundant.
The Fugitive Kind tells a unsavory story with a dreamlike peculiarity. It’s almost as though we need the bizarre to mask the horror. Of course, it’s the very bizarreness of the characters that creates their horrible and destructive actions. Definitely a well-made movie that makes you think.