'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' (1958) DVD Review

April 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Tennessee Williams’ play, adapted to the silver screen by Richard Brooks in 1958, sizzles under the muggy heat of the Mississippi sun. The Pollitt family have all gathered to welcome home ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt (Burl Ives) and to celebrate his birthday. It is during this memorable occasion that the secrets and lies, which have been collectively repressed by the family, finally out — and in rather explosive fashion.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is epic, not in terms of its length, but in its emotional intensity. At times, it can make for pretty hard going as the audience is witness to years of regrets, lies, anger, frustration within the family being suddenly made manifest. Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) is a drunk, who still pines for the glory days of old when he was a hero on the football pitch. He hates his wife, Maggie ‘The Cat’ Pollitt (Elizabeth Taylor), his family and himself, for reasons which are revealed as the film goes on. He frequently accuses his family, and himself, of ‘mendacity’ — a word which he favours and throws about with contemptuous scorn.

It is through Brick and his eventual confrontation with Big Daddy, that we start to see the family unravel and all its previously hidden faults and crevices laid to bare. While Brick’s revelations bare the emotional core of the film, there are a series of other subplots being played out between all the other characters — including Maggie and Mae Flynn Pollitt’s (Madeleine Sherwood) battle of wits, in which they compete against each other in a thinly-veiled mudslinging contest to get their names on Big Daddy’s inheritance.

Films that are adapted from stage to screen are generally very heavily reliant on the actors’ performances, the quality of the dialogue and the script. With the film confining itself, almost exclusively, to the Pollitt household, there is a considerable air of ‘stagey-ness’ about it — and that is to say that the circumstances of the story feel a little contrived. There are a few other unfortunate carry overs from the stage, such as the rainstorm which occurs during the night, and which has absolutely zero subtlety in terms of symbolism.

But ultimately, there are only two things that matter here: the acting and the dialogue. Both are sensational. Particular standouts include Paul Newman and Burl Ives. When the film focuses solely on these two characters, the actors come to life in their respective roles. The dialogue they share in their scenes together sets the film alight as these two titans, the estranged son and the bullish father, tear at each other — both physically and emotionally. The confined, claustrophobic house and unbearable, oppressive heat intensify the drama to the effect that each scene is infused with layer upon layer of irrepressible energy. You are not just seeing actors spouting lines to each other; you are seeing a family destroying itself, ripping itself apart. And yet, it never seems ridiculous or exaggerated. While there are some contrivances, everything being said, everything that happens — all of it feels real.

And that’s probably one of the strongest elements of the film. It’s uncomfortable viewing because Williams’ has made these characters so lifelike and believable, and the dialogue itself so naturally authentic, that parallels are inevitably drawn in the mind of the viewer, to that of their own family. Williams’ taps into the dysfunction that exists in every family. That’s why the film is such a powerful piece of filmmaking; that’s why it’s brilliant.

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