Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Brando) is a reformed candle-burner. Recently paroled and remorseful, he disavows the fast, easy and wild kind he used to run with to seek a new landscape. But it isn’t enough. When Val in his wanderlust comes upon Two Rivers, Mississippi, its most affluent residents are intimidated and assume the worst about him.
Rendered exquisitely by cinematographer Boris Kaufman (known for his work with both Lumet and Elia Kazan), the film was unbelievably shot solely in New York state. Though the film looks spellbinding even today, its dialogue is often ponderous and reads too much like it would on the stage. And Joanne Woodward as the alternatingly fey and filthy rebel is at turns brilliant and irritating. With a lesser script, co-authored by Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams, in the hands of a less capable director these might have been disastrous flaws, but Lumet adapts Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending” into a stunning meditation on beauty, violence and forbearance, and the curious casting choices ultimately uplift characters who are less like paradigms and more like human beings.
If laudable for nothing else, this film simply has to be praised for the risks it takes with theme and visual motif. Val is an obvious accumulation of racist prejudices and propaganda. His skin (a snakeskin jacket) is different from everyone else in town. He exudes sexuality, telling us his body temperature is a few degrees above normal. The words ‘beautiful’ and ‘handsome’ are hurled at Val like racial epithets. He idolizes two black guitarists, Ledbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and even has their names etched on his guitar. He steals the betrothed of Jabe Torrance, who has several white-racist motifs attached to him. He talks often about people being bought and sold. Sheriff Talbot tries to scare him off with the threat of Two Rivers County’s sundown law. And then his ironically symbolic death: sprayed with fire hoses by police to keep him prostrate in a house that ultimately burns down on top of him.
It’s Val’s former troubles that elicit both invective and tenderness from everyone he meets. In an early scene, he encounters the wife of a jailer who kindly allows him shelter from the torrential rain and lets him bed in the prison cell for the evening. Like every male figure in the film, the jailer immediately dislikes him, mistaking his strong, silent demeanor for arrogance. This is a pattern repeated with the dangerous Carol Cutrere (Woodward) and the desperate Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani), each of whom is attracted to the very same steely countenance. Lady takes him on as a shop clerk, a job he thrusts himself into with genuine enthusiasm (and later Lady herself); but upstairs her bed-ridden and constantly sweat-dappled husband, Jabe (played with slimy repugnance by Victor Jory), is boiling with jealous hatred for Val. Lady’s perspicacity is something new to Val and it cuts right through him, but he successfully disarms her too. While Lady sheds her armor to reveal her emotional vulnerability to Val, Carol reminds him of the pugnacity of his former acquaintances. Out of nostalgia or something like it he humors her advances, until a fellatio attempt in a moonlit cemetery forces him to derail her feelings.
As an aside, for most of the film I assumed that Val used to be a gigolo of some kind, and that’s what he meant when he called himself an entertainer. And Lady’s comments about the way he moves and strides. And then the business about being bought and sold. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to be able to actually play his own guitar. But who knows? Maybe that’s just another implication among many.
Lumet doesn’t allow his characters to get lost in his themes, nor does he let the temporal flow of the narrative obscure the momentary strength of his visual compositions. The only thing really lacking in a film about a musician is the music. Kenyon Hopkins (who composed music for such films as Baby Doll, 12 Angry Men and The Hustler) uses a few bars of delta blues during certain interludes to cement setting, but never to emphasize the kind of themes Lumet revels in. And there’s no counterpoint; the film opts instead for typical neo-classical strains when things really heat up. Nonetheless, it’s Kaufman’s gorgeous black & white photography that imprints itself on the viewer’s psyche, and the impassioned yet quizzical narrative that will keep one coming back.