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Trouble has a habit of finding Val Xavier (Marlon Brando) even when he goes out of his way to avoid it. He is like a piece of driftwood, washed up in redneck country during a fierce rainstorm. The fact that he spends the night in the cell of a man who was shot trying to escape only hours earlier should have been portentous enough. But Xavier needs work, and finds it, after sweet-talking Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani), the long-suffering wife of a brutal, bullying husband Jabe (Victor Jory) whose body lies ravaged with cancer in the bedroom above the Torrance general store. Wild-child Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) wants Xavier all to herself, but Xavier senses more trouble there and grows closer to Lady. Too close for comfort.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Tennessee Williams' doom-laden melodrama was fore-doomed for failure long before the author himself was booed at the film's New York preview. Its ill-fated metamorphosis began in 1939 with Williams' first play, The Battle of Angels, which flopped on Broadway in 1957 in a revision known as Orpheus Rising. A change to a less pretentious title, The Fugitive Kind, failed to reverse its fortunes.

Brando had declined the role on Broadway and Williams had to permute the character of the Mississippi drifter many times before Brando would reconsider. Even then Brando only accepted the part because he was offered one million dollars (a first for any actor) which he needed to help cover debts on the one film he directed, One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Likewise, Magnani had misgivings about Lady, even though Williams had specially written it for her.

The thickly-accented Egyptian-born Italian was uncomfortable acting in English and her nervousness made her character, during certain emotions, almost incomprehensible, so that at the end of filming she had to come back and loop fifty percent of her lines. A tragedy, really, because in Lady she sews the seeds of a truly great performance, as if trying to inject some life into the black stump that is Brando, who reverts once again to his primeval mumblings.

How Lumet allowed this to happen I'll never know. It was only his fourth film, but he had already made Twelve Angry Men (1957) on debut and he was apparently mesmerized by Brando, or at least his reputation. "Take Marlon," he said in a 1975 interview, "when that motor kicks over and he takes off, it's extraordinary to watch." In truth, Brando is never out of third gear…he sputters, he mutters, he is all "sir" and "ma'am" and when he does time in the Torrance store, he promises to be "steady, honest and hard-working." No wonder Marlon didn't like him…he's a light year from The Wild One we knew. Magnani, of course, doesn't have to act much. Those familiar, deep, dark circles under her eyes mirror all the years of misery that Jabe Torrance (Jory, never no loathsome) has inflicted upon her, but she is brilliant (when we can comprehend her), wary of this guitar-slung stranger who talks soft and smooth (when we can understand him) and then warming to him when her stagnant juices start to stir.

Only she (and Maureen Stapleton in an underwritten role as the kindly Vee, another victim of Mississippi rednecks) are worthy of sympathy…but least of all Woodward's rankling wild-child. "I want to be known and heard and seen and felt," she gushes madly. There is no ambiguity about her, it must be said, but Val Xavier is an enigma we never relate to. He hardly ever plucks that precious guitar and the singing voice is not his. Val rejects Carol when she is desperately keen to take him for a ride: "Get your legs on the other side of the gear shift," he tells the tramp, "both of them," he insists. And he resists what seem to be the older woman's almost imperceptible advances, but his sudden change of heart is hardly justified in the script…unless the symbolic snakeskin jacket he never sheds (until the end) is meant to convey some kind of duplicity. Frankly, it's just another false note in a tale that is riddled with them. I kept thinking of the similarities between it and James M. Cain's silkier, sexier and infinitely more involving The Postman Always Rings Twice, and how Williams' real inspiration might have begun and ended there.

Published February 5, 2004

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(US, 1960)

CAST: Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward

DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet

SCRIPT: Tennessee Williams

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

PRESENTATION: Full screen 1.33:1; dolby digital

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