Hardware Wars (1978)

Hardware Wars (1978)
Ernie Fosselius

 

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye!

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Star Wars Kenner Toy Commercials (1977-1978)

Stopover in a Sweaty, Deadly Town: THE FUGITIVE KIND 1960

The Fugitive Kind (1960)

When driving on Southern back roads, you pass through small, forgotten towns. Put the interstate behind you to find them: two or three block towns with double names, once vibrant oasis of light and fuel dotted amongst cotton fields and pine forests. Today you find them overrun with fore-closure signs, skeletons of market stands and always one antique store open and full to the ceil-ing with inventory: bulbous televisions with bent rabbit ears, aquamarine ice boxes padded with faded newspaper, boxes of postcards scrawled by long-gone relatives for whom the town has be-come a distant memory. THE FUGITIVE KIND (‘60) opens and closes in one of these forgotten places.

By the late 1950s, Tennessee Williams had penned his most renowned plays. Among them were the ones on your high school’s required reading list like, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In soliloquies as forlorn as the twang of a lonely guitar, through characters as threatening as the approach of a thunderstorm and against backdrops thick with detail and atmosphere, he created an unmatched, haunting vision of the American South.

Williams began drafting the story for Orpheus Descending in the ‘30s. The Greek myth tells the story of a musician-poet who travels to the Underworld to unsuccessfully rescue his wife; to make matters worse, he meets his fate at the hands and nails of the Furies, who were im-pervious to his natural charm and singing abilities and tore him to pieces. His head, however, kept on singing. The Orpheus character was no stranger to adaptation: Jean Cocteau brought a Parisian twist to it in 1950, and Brazilian director Marcel Camus set it to the color and festivities of Carnaval in BLACK ORPHEUS (‘59).

In Williams’s story, the heartthrob musician takes the form of Valentine Xavier (say the last name aloud and it takes on a not-so-veiled meaning), a snakeskin-jacketed, guitar-strumming wild thing intent on settling down after a life of petty crime, rambling and womanizing. He lands in a hateful little town off the main road from New Orleans and picks up work at a mercantile store owned by a bedridden, morphine-addicted racist and run by his worn down, dream-clinging wife. All the pieces are set for a tragedy.

Williams brought it to the stage in 1957 to merciless reviews. Naturally the idea arose to trans-late it to the screen. Williams did so alongside writer Meade Roberts (an interesting aside: Rob-erts played the sweaty, sad faced emcee Mr. Sophistication in Cassavetes’s KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (‘76)).

Sidney Lumet was white hot off the success of 12 ANGRY MEN (‘57). A director skilled in shooting within limited space and delivering riveting material, he was poised at the forefront of what would be a massively successful career in American cinema. Nestled before gritty crime dramas like SERPICO (‘73), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (‘75) and PRINCE OF THE CITY (‘81) sits his adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. But this was a raggedy piece of sweaty South-ern gothic with characters just as desperate for salvation as Sonny Wortzik or Daniel Ciello. Crit-ic David Thomson deemed THE FUGITIVE KIND (‘60) one of the best screen translations of the playwright’s work, and it stands as a strange, pulpy film.

The strength lies in its triangle of bizarre casting choices, stellar production design and restrained visual style. There’s the odd combination of actors, their voices creating an eerie symphony of sound: Marlon Brando (mumbling), Joanne Woodward (screeching) and Anna Magnani (trem-bling). Victor Jory, a character actor known for his more sinister work, plays the racist Jabe Tor-rance, a nasty Edgar Ray Killen type prone to banging his cane on the floor and tossing offensive slurs.

Lumet had a lot of work to do reigning in his talent. In the image of the snakeskin jacket, some may find a connection to Nicolas Cage’s over-the-top Sailor in Lynch’s WILD AT HEART (‘90), but Brando’s portrayal of Val is a fierce, quiet one, with all the jaw rubbing, eye wander-ing and object fiddling moments we’ve come to expect from this method actor of epic propor-tions. His foil is Woodward’s Carol, a dervish with a voracious appetite for earthly pleasures and elevated states of mind. But the one to watch is the great Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance. Wil-liams rallied for her to get the part, though the international starlet was nervous. Was her English strong enough? Would she be convincing as the love interest to the much younger Brando? She delivers a haunting performance, a lifetime of pain in the dark, sunken pools of her eyes and shoulders, as though an invisible, leaden cloak hangs across them. Thomson notes that the shoot wasn’t an easy one; Lumet suggested it would have been much worse if not for the calm pres-ence of Williams himself during the production.

The attention to detail brings the play to life. In the dirty juke joint, the smashed imprint of a fist through the glass door hints at the activity to expect after midnight. On the road to town, the ab-sence of tire tracks in the mud speaks to the dwindling stream of travelers passing through. Rain beats down on the town and then tapers off leaving a thick screen of humidity. Small notes like this lend enormous weight to a film that doesn’t stray too far from its handful of locations. With cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet maintains a restrained visual style, tightening in tandem with the rising tension. Medium shots and close-ups lend emphasis to dialogue, with key solilo-quies (such as Val’s likening himself to a bird, a three-minute delivery which required 37 takes) underlined with a subtle shift of lighting.

It’s a simmering, sweaty chamber piece, featuring a beautiful Magnani performance (she would soon return to Italy to work with Pasolini). Lumet wasn’t satisfied with the work, and it’s often excluded from his best. And yet, it’s worth the stopover. When you pass through the little town, step out and glance around. Wonder if it had its Brando-sighing drifters, its Magnani-eyed dreamers. Eventually you’ll climb back in and carry on, leaving it a distant memory.

– Thomas Davant

Source: Filmstruck | TCM | Criterion

The Waitresses – I Know What Boys Like

Artist: The Waitresses
Album: Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?
Song: I Know What Boy’s Like
Released:  1982