This 1960 film by director Sidney Lumet, based on the play Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, is a weird movie that doesn’t entirely work, but is nevertheless strangely compelling. Starring Marlon Brando and Italian actress Anna Magnani, a friend of Williams, it has many features that one imagines are rare for a movie from this period of American filmmaking. For one, the younger man – older woman romantic pairing: Brando was 36, Magnini 51 at the time; for another, the forthright description of Brando’s character Val “Snakeskin” Xavier as being a former New Orleans sex worker.
Apparently the filming of the movie was tense. Magnani had a tremendous crush on Brando. A huge movie star and sex symbol by this point, Brando found her distasteful and needy, which must have been a challenge for the actor, famously adherent to the naturalistic Stanislavski Method.
Perhaps that accounts for the sublime sexual tension in the film. A shopkeeper’s immigrant wife in a small, oppressive Mississippi town, Lady (Magnani) is dealing with her dying husband’s return from hospital just as Val shows up, eager for a steady, legit job. Lady accedes to hiring him, in a strange scene that demonstrates the Freudian concept of negation: having ’til that point revealed no element of attraction to Val, being mostly scornful, she then insists “I want you to know I find you completely unappealing”. Having revealed herself, the rest of the movie is Brando radiating his effortlessly virile magnetism while Magnani squirms. Speaking of squirming, Joanne Woodward, playing against type as the town tramp, is mostly a wretched presence, an unwelcome interruption into this curious world inside the shop.