Cat On A Hot Tin Roof Review
What was considered daring in 1958 is now likely to seem rather quaint and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is no exception. What was once shocking has now become passe and much of this heated melodrama plays more like black comedy 44 years on. But that's not to say it's a bad film, far from it. This is a brilliantly acted, surprisingly cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams' best play, and it still manages to be fairly provocative despite the severe censorship cuts made to the original text.
Set in the Deep South, the film deals with a family gathering together in a rambling mansion to celebrate the 65th birthday of the, secretly terminally ill, patriarch Big Daddy (Ives). This family might best be described as disfunctional and consists of; Big Mama (Anderson), desperate to please her husband but incapable of doing the right thing; eldest son Gooper (Carson) and his wife Mae (Sherwood), with their foul collection of children and their eye on Big Daddy's will; and younger son Brick (Newman), an ex-sports star and commentator, and his wife Maggie (Taylor). The narrative focuses upon Maggie and Brick's relationship, which has become stagnant since Brick's refusal to sleep with Maggie, a problem which dates back to the death of his friend Skipper three years before. Maggie is driven to distraction by this problem, even more so when it becomes clear that the lack of marital sex is common knowledge amongst the rest of the family. The arrival of Big Daddy is the cue for a long evening during which long-held resentments and suspicions come to the fore, with the big man determined to find out why his youngest son is unable to rise to the occasion with the gorgeous Maggie.
In other words, this is Ibsen crossed with Flannery O'Connor, with maybe a sprinkling of Greek Tragedy here and there and, like most of Williams' better work, it plays like a dream. Every little revelation builds into a fascinating tapestry of the way families can casually destory each other over a period of years, and then each thread is drawn together in a series of riveting confrontations, most notably the second act face-off between Brick and Big Daddy which is one of the great moments of American theatre. In the original play, the scene is an extremely outspoken exploration of sexuality which was revolutionary in the context of Broadway in 1955 - indeed, the original London production was in a theatre club after the play was rejected by the Lord Chamberlain. The film fudges this aspect, weakening the material as a result, and the avoidance of any words even hinting at homosexuality becomes rather obvious after a while. Big Daddy's relationship with Brick is also sentimentalised in the film, with the result that his promise of "straight, true talk" is not delivered. It's entirely typical of the compromises made in the film - ones which were not the fault of director Richard Brooks or his co-scenarist James Poe - that the revised Broadway version of the play is used but is then censored; Elia Kazan, the director of the play, told Williams that Big Daddy should return after the end of Act Two, so Williams had him come back on with a dirty joke about an elephant's erection. Big Daddy returns - along with a horribly saccharine finish - but the joke is absent. Despite this central timidity however, the film was strong stuff back in 1958 - censorship cuts and all - and another nail in the coffin of the absurd Production Code which was just about dead and buried by this time.
But I wouldn't want to give you the impression that this is a negative review of the film; far from it, I think it's one of the most entertaining films of the period and a fine example of MGM's lavish production values. Brooks paces it like an action movie, with each scene rushing pell-mell towards the confrontations which are the meat of the story. The actors relish the chance to get their teeth into the meaty dialogue, much of it straight from the play. Paul Newman gets one of his best early roles as Brick, hobbling around like Heathcliffe on crutches and looking as beautifully damned as you could wish for. Special mention should be granted to his dentist because teeth as glisteningly white as these must surely have their origin in some kind of black magic. As for Liz Taylor, she rarely had a part as good as this and she devours it with the sort of hungry relish known only to actresses who realise they are destined for a career in bad movies. Maggie is meant to be the "cat" of the title, endlessly hungry for love and sex but always ending up clinging on for dear life to that hot tin roof, and Taylor manages to smoulder about as well as she ever did. The supporting cast work hard and are very impressive, notably Anderson as the abused and nervous Big Mama and the smugly grinning Carson as the pathetic Gooper. But it's no disservice to the rest of the cast to say that Burl Ives takes the film, folds it neatly in four and walks away with it in his capacious pocket. He'd played Big Daddy on Broadway in the original production but his performance has a freshness and a subtlety that you wouldn't expect from someone so familiar with the part. It's a great role of course, and Ives rises to the big rages with consummate skill but it's the quieter moments which impress, when he expresses regret for a life which has been lived with lusty abandon and yet, somehow, totally wasted. Unable to express his love for either his wife or his children, he plays the role of the storming patriarch but, aware that he is dying, he tries to make amends and atone for his inadequacies. It's a marvellous, funny and sad performance and Ives should have walked it for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar - instead, he had to wait for the next year when he won for his comparitively minor work in The Big Country.
The film feels amazingly fluid and cinematic considering that it is basically a filmed play on one location, partly because the DP William Daniels uses some of the deep focus photography techniques that John Huston used on Key Largo (which Richard Brooks co-wrote). Much of the first half takes place in Brick and Maggie's bedroom and then moves downstairs, although there are introductory scenes at an airfield where Gooper, Mae, Maggie and the 'No-Neck Monsters' (as Maggie calls the children) go to meet Big Daddy's plane and some exteriors in the garden of the house. It doesn't really matter that the play hasn't been entirely opened out, since the virtues of the film lie largely with the writing and the acting and Richard Brooks's main contribution is to get the pacing right, make sure the script works and to stay out of the way of the cast. One could say with some confidence that this is what he did in most of his best movies, the problems coming when he tried to be too self-consciously arty in technique. It's often the sign of a good director that he trusts the people around him - John Huston's best work tends to be of a similar nature. The costumes and production design are sometimes a little fussy - Taylor's tendency to lounge around as if she's modelling lingerie isn't, one suspects, entirely accidental - but are entirely typical of MGM's insistence on the best for their showcase movies, and probably helped make the material less controversial than it might have been in other circumstances. The use of colour is, incidentally, stunning, as it is in other MGM movies of this era such as Some Came Running and Gigi.
It's very easy to look at Cat On A Hot Tin Roof today and wonder what all the fuss is about. Doubts about masculinity and worries about sex are hardly cutting edge material in 2002. But this doesn't really damage the impact of the film, since what makes it entertaining are the lively confrontations which are so overheated that they must have looked like borderline black comedy even forty years ago. With Williams, it's not always easy to guess whether he's being serious or having you on, and consequently his plays have not dated as much as you might expect. What's more surprising is that, however seriously you take the film, it does have a genuine emotional power which lingers long after the end credits. Tennessee Williams gets under the skin of complicated emotions better than most writers, leaving you with a cathartic ending but also an uneasiness that what you've been watching isn't all that different to your own experience, and it's maybe this which makes his work live on when that of other, equally controversial writers has faded.
Warner Brothers' disc of this film isn't exactly loaded with special features but the technical quality of the DVD is such that it's well worth buying anyway.
The transfer is, quite simply, staggeringly good. If you've ever seen this film on TV looking muddy and grainy then watch the DVD to have your eyes well and truly opened. This picture quality is on a par with Warners' other discs of fifties films, notably Rebel Without A Cause and North By Northwest and augers well for the likes of East Of Eden and Some Came Running. I can't think of any serious criticisms of the image other than an occasional softness in some of the earlier scenes. Otherwise, it's crisp, sharp and full of detail. Shadow detail is spot-on and there are no problems with edge enhancement. The real knockout punch comes with the colours which are simply gorgeous. I have never seen this film look this good before. It's framed at 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. On the flip side of the disc is a full frame 1.33:1 version which is panned and scanned and unpleasant to watch for that reason, although the technical quality is otherwise good.
The soundtrack is your standard English mono but it's a good one with no hiss or distortion. The dialogue is crystal clear, which is what matters with this sort of movie.
The only extra is the absurdly overblown theatrical trailer which emphasises the controversy and success of the original play and the contribution of Ms.Taylor. There are 32 chapter stops and static menus.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof isn't a great film but it is a very entertaining one and it's shown to its very best advantage on this DVD. Highly recommended.