"Maggie the cat is alive!" in Richard Brook’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958); perhaps the cinema’s finest translation of the great playwright’s stage work. Yet the morphing from stage to screen was not without its sacrifices.
The film was produced at a time when censorship was still alive and well in Hollywood. The irascible Brooks had a hell of a time fighting to preserve the play's original exploration of social mores, sexual ambiguity and unadulterated greed. To his credit he managed to imply a great deal of subtext without having his characters show or even overtly admit anything.
Despite the overwhelming positive critical reviews the film garnered, Tennessee Williams was not at all pleased with the final cut. All references to homosexuality were omitted, leaving the logic of the play slightly off balance. And Williams did not care much for the rewrite of his third act either that had estranged father and son reconciling their differences.
The story concerns drunken ex-football hero, Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) and his mysterious inability to find even the remotest reason to make love to his overtly sexual wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor). Unlike the play, the issue of Brick’s homosexuality and ‘love’ for fellow football player, Skipper (never seen) is adeptly avoided. What is offered in its place is a suspected affair that Skipper and Maggie may have had – one that has indirectly led to Brick’s sexual frigidity.
In the meantime, Brick’s overbearing father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives) has returned from a treatment clinic for what he believes to be a spastic colon. The truth, that he is actually dying of bowel cancer, is kept from him and Big Mama (Judith Anderson) by Brick’s elder brother, Gooper (Jack Carson) and his odious, greedy wife, Mae Flynn (Madeleine Sherwood) who has her eyes on Gooper inheriting Big Daddy's estate just as soon as the old man dies.
As a play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Tennessee Williams personal favorite among his many great masterworks. He was less enthusiastic about the film incarnation. But director Brooks saw to it that the devil was still in the details. Each character is a finely wrought study in contempt, greed and repressed sexuality - the latter brilliantly implied with sultry, telling glances and suggestive body language.
Although Brooks had hoped to cast Ben Gazzara (Broadway's Brick) and Grace Kelly in the leads, in retrospect he has been handed the cream of the crop in Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor who are at the top of their respective careers.
The tragic loss of Taylor's real life husband, Michael Todd in a plane crash just prior to commencement of shooting lent a powerful emotional edge to her interpretation of Maggie – a creature driven by libidinous desires that are thwarted at every possible turn by her aloof husband.
Jack Carson excels as the embittered son who lives by his father’s edicts but in the shadow of Brick - Big Daddy's personal favorite. In the final analysis, this ‘Cat’ sizzles like few films of its vintage or any other for that matter. Raw, powerful and standing in stark contrasted to MGM’s usual take on the American family, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof endures as a cornerstone in screen drama that even Tennessee Williams can take pride in. It is a great film and a ‘must see’ cinematic experience.
Warner Home Video’s Special Edition DVD exhibits exemplary image quality; anamorphic with pronounced and refined colors, nicely balanced contrast levels and a minimal amount of film grain. Previous versions of this film have suffered from extreme color fading and slight discoloration with pasty and yellowish flesh tones.
This newly remastered DVD corrects all of the aforementioned shortcomings. The audio is mono but, for a dialogue driven movie, sufficiently rendered. Extras include an informative audio commentary and short featurette on the making of the film. Highly recommended! Perhaps we can hope for a 1080p Blu-ray of this classy classic someday soon.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)