Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Tennessee Williams (play and screenplay) and Meade Roberts (screenplay)
Cinematographer: Boris Kaufman
by Jon Cvack
I know I’m watching a Tennessee Williams play when there’s an erratic and mentally unstable woman, struggling against a world that seems to despise her. In this case that woman is Carol Cutrere, played by the sexy and frightening Joanne Woodward, as a drifter who bounces from bar to bar, always looking for the next man, and always returning back to her small hometown when the night and dates expire.
The film opens with Marlon Brandon as Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier sitting in a jail cell, preparing to go before the court after getting into a brawl. The camera enters into a long take close up of Valentine as the judge inquires offscreen about how he arrived in Louisiana. Brando searches for the words, delivering them with his soft cadence, swearing that the entire situation only had to do with his guitar and he never meant to get in any trouble. The judge orders him to leave Louisiana immediately and never return. He takes off in a beat up car and heads to a small Mississippi town, before the deluge of rain soon forces him to seek refuge in a sheriff’s office, where a painter shows him her awful illustrations while the sheriff and his deputies go out searching for a fugitive, who they soon shoot and kill - possibly without need - then returning back to greet Valentine with suspicion.
Needing work, Valentine is invited to take a clerkship at a small store in town on the other side of the border, breaking his vow to leave Louisiana. There he meets the owner Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani) who’s pushing middle age, yet has retained every ounce of her sexuality, which has gone unfulfilled as her husband Jabe (Victor Jory) lies ill on his deathbed, suspicious of his wife’s “needs”, especially with Valentine as the new recruit. He’s an angry man, with a lot of muscle in town, especially with the sheriff.
The sexual tension between Valentine and Lady Torrance is one of the most intense in all of cinema. We can feel how discouraged Lady is and for who knows how long, heightened by Brando’s physical perfection and brooding sexuality. Her desire and limited self control opposite Valentine’s absolute command is a phenomenal exercise in words unspoken, perpetuated by her envy of the younger and more attractive Carol Cutrere, who seems cursed to follow in Lady's footsteps.
In the film’s great monologue, Valentine says, “There’s many kinds of people in this world. There’s only two kinds - the buyers and the one’s who get bought…. No, there’s another kind…. It’s a kind that don’t belong no place at all... There’s a kind of bird that don’t have any legs, so it can’t land on nothing, so it has to spend its whole life on its wings in the air. I seen one once. It died and fell to earth.” Unable to find a place where he belongs and can stay out of trouble, Valentine understands his curse - in which is simple looks pull in women, driving the men around them mad with jealousy and envy. And yet the curse seems to infect many of these individuals, all struggling to break free of their own physical and mental limitations.
Rarely does a performance demand such a large persona; in which the character doesn't only demand a tough and attractive man, but a larger-than-life individual that only an A-list actor could bestow. It’s not that Valentine does anything specifically offensive, so much as that those who encounter him develop such overbearing feelings of desire and/or resentment that it pulls him into their personal maelstroms, no matter how much he tries to resist. Men find him a serious threat, while women find him irresistible. His indifference makes it all the more infuriating. He’s aware of this effect and knows he can’t escape it, no matter how much he tries.
The story captures the terror of loneliness. And although dragging at moments, the performances are so electrifying, quickly making us aware that it’s all building up to something big, that when the second half begins we are completely enraptured. We know there is no escape for Valentine. We understand his curse. His snakeskin jacket and guitar are all he will leave and all he’ll arrive with at the next town. He is doomed to enter and exit for flashes of time, forever and ever, struggling with all the loneliness it demands. Sidney Lumet body of work provided us some of the greatest performances in all of cinematic history. Here’s another handful for the pile, abandoning the urban underbelly he often explores, and examining the work of one of the great playwrights of all time.
BELOW: Valentine's great monologue, beautifully shot by Boris Kaufman
Thoughts on films, old and new
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