The American Society of Cinematographers

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I Am Love
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Doctor Zhivago
The Fugitive Kind
ASC Close-Up
The Fugitive Kind (1960)
1.66: 1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Mono
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

By the 1950s, Tennessee Williams was arguably the most famous writer both on Broadway and in Hollywood, thanks to A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Yet his first produced play, Battle of Angels, was a flop when it was originally staged in 1940. Nevertheless, there was something about the story of drifter Val Xavier and his interaction with a Southern town that obsessed Williams in spite of the production’s failure; in 1957, he rewrote the play as Orpheus Descending, and it failed again. Then he brought the tale to the screen as The Fugitive Kind. Director Sidney Lumet helmed the production and assembled a stellar cast: Marlon Brando plays Xavier, an ex-con who tries to go straight by taking a sales job in a Southern store; Anna Magnani plays the store’s married owner, whose feelings for Xavier eventually lead to tragedy; and Joanne Woodward plays local wild girl Carol Cutere. The film was not a commercial success, marking the third strike for Williams’ material.

Today The Fugitive Kind can be appreciated both as an exemplary Southern melodrama and as a key film in Lumet’s and Williams’ careers. Xavier is an early prototype for what would eventually become the standard Lumet protagonist; like the heroes of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City and other Lumet pictures, he is an outsider on the margins of society, struggling in vain to find some sort of stability. Yet The Fugitive Kind is in many ways an atypical film for Lumet, a director known for gritty social realism. Although there is a sense of documentary reality in the location work and sets, The Fugitive Kind is much more stylized and operatic than Lumet’s other work.

Lumet called upon veteran director of photography Boris Kaufman, ASC, to find a visual corollary for Williams’ ornate language. Kaufman had photographed Brando in On the Waterfront and brought another Tennessee Williams piece to life when he shot Baby Doll. He also shot Lumet’s first feature, 12 Angry Men, and his third, That Hamilton Woman. The Fugitive Kind remains a high point of their partnership. Throughout the film, Kaufman finds expressionistic ways of reinforcing the script’s emotions, as in a rhyming effect he uses in two monologues. In the first, by Xavier, Kaufman slowly reduces the light around Brando until he has just one spot on him; then, much later in the film, Kaufman reverses the effect when Magnani gives a speech of equal significance. The light around her increases, implying that something profound is passing from Xavier to the woman who has fallen in love with him. This relationship is expressed through lenses and composition as well; the movie begins with different focal lengths on Brando and Magnani, but Lumet and Kaufman gradually give the actress more long-lens close-ups that mirror Brando’s, an approach that underlines the characters’ growing connection.  

This DVD presentation is up to Criterion’s usual high standards, with strong contrast and sharp detail in the blacks. Williams once criticized the dark look of the film by saying everyone looked dipped in chocolate, but this pristine transfer conveys the subtle and meticulous gradations of Kaufman’s intentionally gloomy photography. The monaural soundtrack is pristine as well, and a second disc contains three outstanding supplements. First is a new 30-minute interview with Lumet in which he discusses every aspect of the production, including Kaufman’s cinematography. Next is “Hollywood’s Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind,” a half-hour documentary on Williams’ screen career featuring interviews with scholar Robert Bray and film historian R. Barton Palmer. The final supplement is an hour-long episode of Kraft Television Theatre from 1958: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” contains three one-acts written by Williams and directed by Lumet, with lighting by Leo Farrenkopf. These provide an invaluable look at Lumet’s early work and will delight fans of the golden age of live television. A booklet containing an insightful essay by critic David Thomson completes the package.

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