Fugitive Memories of Sidney Lumet

by on April 10, 2011Posted in: Alt Screen


From the May/June 2010 issue of Film Comment magazine:

Urban realist Sidney Lumet was an unlikely match for Tennessee Williams’ interpretation of the Orpheus myth, but grounds it with actors who voice the playwright’s rich metaphorical prose like their own. There are two roosters in this chicken coop: with no pre-shoot rehearsals the advance-retreat of Marlon Brando’s snakeskin-clad minstrel about Anna Magnani’s combustible fortress is bracingly raw. MAGNANI! (as Williams entombs her into print), is crudely named “Lady,” so that every address seems a sign of disrespect. Despite her intimidation by Brando’s domineering beauty, Magnani’s undereye pockets, deep pools of infinite suffering, speak volumes. The two briefly gild the county – Upstate New York stands-in as a Southern anytown – with tinsel and the powers of sexual healing. But Lady’s cancer-stricken husband keeps tapping from upstairs, while Joanne Woodward‘s juke-joint junkie orbits the proceedings as a full-bodied howl to the heavens. The film, riddled with punctuations as offbeat as Brando’s line readings, is a valiant hymn of the peculiar and easily bruised.


The above is my capsule dvd review (pre-edits, natch) for the Criterion Collection release of Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. If the writing flows rather crudely, seems overreaching or overblown, well, those are qualities shared by the film itself.

The expansive fifty-year film career of Lumet, who died this Saturday at the age of 86, remains controversial among cinephiles (incidentally, usually for his restraint  among other objections). I do not feel qualified to reflect on his oeuvre  in full, but The Fugitive Kind reminds us of many virtues: Lumet’s adventurousness and commitment, his nurturing of larger-than-life thespians which rivaled that of Elia Kazan, his vigorous illumination of thoroughly lived-in realms for his characters, and, more abstractly, how even deeply flawed films can sometimes emerge more affecting and haunting than their more well-oiled, well-respected  peers.


“I want to be Seen and Noticed and Felt!” Joanne cries to Brando and the film itself achieves these aims on a hypnotically primal level. When I wrote about it, I kept returning to it most powerful and strange scenes again and again.


Nothing was really right with The Fugitive Kind, the pairing of Lumet with master metaphortician Tennessee Williams, of Brando in his prime with the elder Magnani in her non-English-speaking state of anxiety (under the watchful eye of co-star Maureen Stapleton, who originated the role on-stage), of a Southern tale with a Northeastern shooting locale.  Williams retinkered the source text play on-and-off throughout his life, so it was an opened-ended work in progress when Lumet etched it to celluloid. “Its to me the finest of [Williams’] pieces,”  Lumet said, but clarified, “thematically – I’m not talking about the dramatic completion of it.”  It sets up a wildly charged emotional premise that can’t quite resolve itself, and so the narrative space  literally caves in on itself.  However, these discordant harmonies, the hints of inevitable doom, the clashes of sincere commitment with frustrated egos and brimming neuroses, resonate strongly within and outside of the narrative.


I had the pleasure of co-producing an evening  of clips and conversation with Lumet at Film Forum, and witnessed a gruff ebullience and hyperarticulate concern for his profession. Peter Bogdanovich transcribes a two-part interview with Lumet in Who the Devil Made It? Conversations with Legendary Filmmakers, in which he asks his fellow director what he’s learned about filmmaking in the thirty-four years that have transpired since they last conversed, and Lumet’s answer encapsulates the grasping-at-straws nature of the filmmaking process. It mirrors the desperate attempts of the characters, and crew, of The Fugitive Kind to form a whole from a series of disparate parts, gritty and metaphorical, bruised and battered, confident and lost:


I think its like making a mosaic. You take each little tile and polish and color it, and you just do the best you can on each little individual tile and it’s not until you’ve literally glued them all together that you know whether or not you’ve got something.


Those of us who have had good work can admit the truth, which is: good work is an accident. That’s not being falsely modest, there’s a reason that the accidents are going to happen to some of us and will never happen to other people: we’ve got some sort of knowledge, or instinct, of how to prepare the ground for the accident to happen. Because some people work in a way that they shortcut any chance of the accident happening.


It is not perhaps in the way that Lumet intended but almost as if by accident, The Fugitive Kind, in its failures, became a masterpiece.

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