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  Zsanett Barna

“How to Let the Cat Out of the Bag?”

Non-Diegetic Music in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Zsanett Barna is an undergraduate student at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged. E-mail:


1. Introduction


The aim of this paper is to prove my assumption that Richard Brooks’s filmic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof[1] carries the same ‘unspeakable’ issues as Williams’s drama does, although more implicitly. The two main issues are Brick’s homosexuality and Big Daddy’s dying of cancer. Out of these two, especially the former one is well-hidden in the movie. My goal is to show that homosexuality constitutes an important part of Brooks’s movie version, as well. To reach this goal I will focus on the non-diegetic music of the movie and will analyze only those scenes in detail during which this music can be heard.


Before doing so, however, I will provide a short explanation of both the theory of film adaptation and film music and sound. These explanations are necessary in order to make some of the major theories and definitions clear for the reader. In this section I will introduce, for instance, Robert Stam’s definition of adaptation, some of Michel Chion’s terms concerning sound and music and Caryl Flinn’s ideas on the functions of film music.


The discussion part will, then, explain Peter Brooks’s Freud’s Masterplot both in theory and in practice reflected on the plot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In this section my intention is to make an interpretable link between the importance of repetition and the repeated elements of the movie. My focus will, continuously, be on the ‘unspeakabilities’ and the non-diegetic music. I will use film music as the basic pattern of the masterplot and so I will go through those scenes in which the same non-diegetic music can be heard. During the interpretation of six scenes of the movie my aim is to bring the hidden secrets to the surface and to make a clear connection between the ‘unspeakabilities’ and film music. 



2. Theoretical Background


2.1. The Theory of Adaptation


I consider Robert Stam’s definitions of adaptation to be the most appropriate. He describes adaptations as texts that are in an ever-lasting relation to each other when he humorously states that “any text that has slept with another text… has necessarily slept with all the texts the other text has slept with.”[2] Stam’s other definition of adaptation clarifies the basic notion of the process, namely that although texts are in an everlasting relation to each other, the origin of their relation can never be clearly given. The definition in Stam’s words is this:


Adaptations by definition are caught up in the ongoing whirl of intertextual transformation, of texts generating other texts in an endless process of recycling, transformation, and transmutation, with no clear point of origin.[3]


In spite of this definition, adaptations are often accused of being ‘unfaithful’ to their origins. Dudley Andrew finds three types of adaptation according to their ‘closeness’ to their origins. The first such type is “borrowing,” which is the most frequently used one. As its name suggests, it simply means borrowing some ideas from other works, or in other words: while relying on an (usually successful) idea from another text the artist builds up a new convention whose goal is to gain its own respectability.


The second type, “intersecting” is a rather complex mode of adaptation. “Here the uniqueness of the original text is preserved to such an extent that it is intentionally left unassimilated in adaptation.”[4] In order to make the idea of intersecting clear, Andrew cites André Bazin who states that “the film is the novel as seen by the cinema.”[5] Andrew also makes use of Bazin’s metaphor of a crystal chandelier and provides the idea that if the chandelier is the literary work, then the light is the cinema, the apparatus and so the shadow on the wall is the film, the visualized story.


Finally the third type is “transformation” where there is a “clear-cut case of film trying to measure up to a literary work.”[6] The fidelity of transformation can be divided into two parts: “fidelity to the letter” and “fidelity to the spirit.” Out of the two it is “the letter” that is easier to be faithful to. “Fidelity to the letter” requires those “aspects of fiction” that generally appear in film scripts, such as the characters, the setting, the cultural information, and basically the narrational aspects.


Realizing “fidelity to the spirit” seems to be more difficult than realizing “the letter.” The adaptation from one medium to a totally different one necessarily carries the possibility of losing some of the “original tone, values, imagery and rhythm.”[7] It has not only technical but also theoretical reasons: while literature develops perception with the help of signs, film works “from perception toward signification.”[8]


There are, however, two basic problems with Andrew’s essay. Firstly, he violates Stam’s definition and states that films try to “measure up” to literary works that he considers to be the clear origins of film adaptations. He also forgets that each reader of the ‘original’ text has a different fantasy about it, and so the reading of the script writer and/or the director (the two-fold reading gives way to an even greater distance from the ‘original’ text) can never be the same as any other reader’s.


The other problem, which is in strong connection with my essay, is that he fails to talk about one type of adaptation, which is a very frequent one in film history: the adaptation from drama to film. While he mentions how important the fidelity to narrative is, he automatically excludes the genre of drama. As the problem of adapting a drama is relevant to this present paper, I will turn back to the problems of such adaptations in chapter 3.



2.2. The Theory of Film Music and Sound


Ever since the first films appeared on screen, music has been associated with them. At the beginning of the history of film, music was the only source of sound in theaters but nowadays film music and sound are equally important parts of movies. Michel Chion describes this importance with a new term, “phonogenie.” When Chion speaks of “phonogenie” he means “the propensity of some voices to sound euphonious when recorded.”[9] Another term he uses is “acousmatic,” which term refers to sounds that do not have visible source. Chion says that the “acousmatic” voice “provokes a certain fear because of four of its capacities: to be everywhere (ubiquity), to see everything (panopticism), to know everything (omniscience), and to do everything (omnipotence).”[10]


There are various kinds of music in films according to their “placement during the production” and “placement within the diegesis.”[11] This is what Chion calls “point of hearing,” or in French, point d’ecoute. As I will not focus on all types of music in film, I only give the definitions of those that are relevant to this essay. The first such type is “non-diegetic music” which is in strong connection with Chion’s “acousmatic” since “its source within the film’s fictional world cannot be accounted for.”[12] Non-diegetic music is mainly responsible for creating emotional effects in spectators, and it “is distinctly nonverbal and nonreferential.”[13]  


The other two types of music that I use in this analysis are: “redundant music” and “contrapuntal music.” Film semioticians define the first type as a kind of music which “simply reinforces the emotional tone of the sequence,”[14] in other words, it underlines the significance of emotional scenes. The second type is described as “music which ‘goes against’ the emotional dominant of the sequence.”[15]


Certain scenes of a film can, thus, be anchored and reinforced with the help of music. This characteristic has helped music become a significant part of films. As Robert Stam says, music in Hollywood movies “goes for the emotional jugular;” its main role is in directing “our emotional responses,” in regulating “our sympathies,” or, for example, in extracting “our tears.”[16] But it is also there to provide an infinite association, since music is “polysemic [and] suggestive.”[17]


Caryl Flinn draws up similar ideas when she states that music is used “to enhance emotional  moments” in the diegesis and to “establish moods and maintain continuity between scenes.”[18] Furthermore, she claims that music should be subordinated to the narrative and it should not draw attention to itself. I think, however, that although music is subordinate to image, spectators should pay attention to what kind of music is played under what scene, and how it influences their attitudes to characters, to events and in general, to movies.



3. How To Let The Cat Out Of The Bag?


In this essay, the subject of analysis is Richard Brooks’s filmic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Brooks’s film version has been considered to carry a different topic than the drama does. The main reasoning for this argument was that the issue of homosexuality totally disappears in the movie and that the film version shows a melodramatized story, instead of the original tragedy. While I partly agree with the latter, I disagree with the former.


I agree with Barton Palmer when he states that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is “melodramatized in a typical Hollywood fashion.”[19] I do also think, however, that critics, for example, Palmer, seem to forget about one thing: this exaggerated melodramatization was used exactly in the opposite way as it might look at the first glance. My intention with this essay is to prove that melodramatization, especially the use of music, helped to ‘let the cat out of the bag,’ that is to say, to hint at delicate issues in the movie.



3.1. Double Shift in Genres


I chose to entitle this sub-chapter Double Shift in Genres because, due to the process of adaptation, Williams’s drama firstly became a narrative and secondly got melodramatized. First of all, I will shortly focus on the shift from dramatic to narrative genre. The reason why this shift occurs is that while film is a diegetic, that is a narrated genre, drama is a mimetic one. In films the camera, for example, is always there to direct our focus and to narrate the events. In dramas there is no such focus or narration provided by a ‘second reader,’ it is always the particular reader or spectator who decides how, when and what to focalize on. The second contrast of the two genres is that while characters are built up by action and diction (or plot and dialogue) in drama, in narratives it is the characters that create the fictional world.[20]  Thirdly, drama is created for the stage, and as it is put on stage each time somewhat differently, it can never be faithful to itself, either.[21]


The second shift in genres is that from drama (as a genre in film criticism) to melodrama. Therefore, it is necessary to define what melodrama really is. According to Tom Dirks, “melodramatic films are a sub-type of drama films, characterized by a plot to appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. Melodrama, a combination of drama and melos (music), literally means ‘play with music.’”[22]  Furthermore, Dirks claims that melodramatic plots are heart-tugging and emotional, and they “usually emphasize sensational situations or crisis of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situation, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship within everyday life.”[23]  


There have been debates on what kind of topics melodramas can have. Some critics say that “the family melodrama is synonymous with melodrama as such” and the “family can be said to represent melodrama’s true subject.”[24] Feminist critics have, however, “systematically used the term melodrama in reference to the female-oriented films of the 40s and 50s.”[25] In the case of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof both points of view can be proved to be valid since it is about a family that copes with hardships, and it is also structured around a woman, who is the cat on the hot tin roof.


What still needs to be clarified is how and why Williams’s drama got melodramatized in the process of the adaptation. The question of “why” is the easier to find an answer for: Tennessee Williams’s works were considered to be “certainly too adult”[26] to make them straight into movies. The reason for this is that the playwright handles such delicate issues as the characters’ psychosexual inner life or homosexuality that were permitted to appear on screen. The whole Hollywood industry was revised by the Production Code Administration, which was the censorship office of the period. Its goal was that only “straight” films can enter movie theaters and the idea was that “mass entertainment should… be structured by the central principle of nineteenth century melodrama.”[27]


The question of “how” needs a more complex answer, though. I see four major steps that were taken in order to turn this movie into a melodrama. Firstly, the director of the movie became Richard Brooks, who was a “commercially successful director interested in making films with a wide appeal.”[28] He transformed the drama’s high strung sexuality into a romantic love so as to be able to strike the public taste. He also gave the movie a happy end, which was a very important “Hollywood formula.”


Secondly, Brooks was not only the director of the movie but also the co-writer of the script, and as Richard Corliss states, a good director is “in the middle of things.”[29] Together with James Poe, Brooks completed a screenplay which deals with a couple struggling in their marriage. The theme of marriage also corresponds to the requirements of melodrama since marriage is one of the themes that family melodramas have “dealt… most extensively”[30] with.


Thirdly, the roles of the two main characters were offered to and accepted by Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, these two “charismatic and attractive”[31] actors. To have such big stars in the movie was important because “stars represent ordinary people, whose ordinary joys and sorrows become extraordinary in the intensity stardom imparts to them.”[32] The presence of Newman and Taylor, therefore, increases the emotional tension in the movie. And finally, some well-known signs of melodrama, such as “hyperbolic emotions… high-flown sentiments, declamatory speech”[33] and “heart-stirring” music were also added to the movie so that it could meet the requirements of melodrama.


I have intentionally left music as the last item of melodrama since it is the most relevant to this essay. Caryl Flinn cites Claudia Gorbman’s term, “drama’s melos” to emphasize that “melodrama generically requires the presence of music in order to exist at all.”[34] There is no melodrama without music, but what if music is present to ridicule melodrama? As Slavoj ®iľek argues, “to take the well-known example from the analysis of melodramas: the emotional excess that cannot express itself directly in the narrative line finds its outlet in the ridiculously sentimental musical accompaniment or in other formal features.”[35]


As I have already stated, I think that the melodramatization, and mainly music in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is used in a different way than it is expected. When music is inserted in the movie, the scenes become ridiculous and too sentimental to be part of a simple melodrama. Spectators have to notice that music under certain scenes calls attention to something different than overflowing and sentimental emotions.



3.2. The Masterplot


In order to get into the analysis of these certain scenes, I first need to define the term that provides the basis for this analysis, the masterplot. Then I will explain those patterns that are repeated with the help of music and that create the masterplot in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The masterplot, as defined by Peter Brooks, originates from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “fort-da game.” Freud observed that children feel pleasure when their toy is taken away and then it is given back to them. He found that the same pleasure occurs when the mother disappears and returns. The problem Freud faced here was why a child wants to repeat the unpleasurable experience of the mother’s disappearance. He found that the “the movement from a passive to an active role,”[36] in other words, “claiming mastery in a situation”[37] is what causes the pleasure. With this observation Freud discovered that repetition is a compulsion and that the analysand needs “to repeat, rather than simply remember, the past.”[38]


On the analogy of the “fort-da game,” Brooks finds that elements of literature are “in some manner repetitions that take us back in the text, that allow the ear, the eye, the mind to make connections, conscious or unconscious, between different textual moments, to see past and present related”[39] in a certain pattern. Brooks states that the minimal plot consists of three repetitions and that “repetition works as a process of binding[40] since it binds one textual element to another “in terms of similarity or substitution rather than mere contiguity.”[41]


Similarity and substitution are the key words in the investigation of the masterplot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The main characters are bound to each other and to the basic story line with the help of similarity and substitution. The two major problems are Brick’s homosexuality and Big Daddy’s dying of cancer. These two issues are lurking secrets and the only character who is aware of both is Maggie, the Cat. She is, therefore, the binding element of the two ‘unspeakable’ themes. Maggie is Brick’s wife and she not only knows that their marriage is built on lies but she also dares to speak about what is ‘unspeakable.’ While in Williams’s drama Maggie’s declamatory speeches about their marriage “on the rocks” and the hidden relationship between Brick and his friend, Skipper might be considered explicit, in Brooks’s filmic version the issue of a possible homosexual relationship is implicit and cannot be found on the level of speech.


The two problems in the Pollitt family are similar since, on the one hand, they are both ‘unspeakable’ secrets; and, on the other, Maggie articulates them. They are, furthermore, substitutions for each other as well and the one necessarily connotes the other. The basis of this metonymy lies in a fact that is not mentioned in the movie at all, but without it the masterplot of the narrative cannot be understood. This fact is that Big Daddy inherited the plantation from its former owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, who lived in an “uncommon,” homosexual relationship. Big Daddy himself explains in the drama how he has become so big: “Old Straw died and I was Ochello’s partner and the place got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger!”[42] There are no more words on their partnership so it is unclean whether Big Daddy joined Ochello in his ‘uncommonness’ or not. The play clearly refers, however, to the fact that Maggie and Brick got the same room with the same bed that Straw and Ochello used. Although the movie does not express these facts verbally, it uses visual techniques, as I will soon explain this in detail, to call the spectators’ attention to things that are unusual or unexpected.


A further form of substitution is Brick’s crutch that he has to lean on due to his broken ankle. The crutch, in his case, substitutes Skipper. Skipper was his best friend, member of his football team and according to Maggie, his object of desire, even if it was a totally unconscious desire. Brick broke his ankle on the Athletic Field where he tried to jump hurdles to prove that he was still able to do sports as he had done with Skipper on their football team, the Dixie Stars. But that night Brick failed, failed to skip, just as he failed Skipper in their relationship. Now he has to lean on the crutch and not on Skipper because he failed him.


As Rob Lapsley and Michael Westlake point out, “by keeping the object of desire at a distance and masking the lack in the Other, narrative is able to sustain desire rather than, as is generally supposed, to fulfill it.”[43] Brick’s broken ankle is not only a result of his beginning alcoholism but it also signifies that clumsiness and awkwardness that he has developed since Skipper’s death. Alcohol is another way Brick tries to substitute his lost friend and to mask the lack he feels since Skipper died. He drinks to forget and to feel peace so that he does not hear the sound of the ringing of the phone, which he hears until he reaches a certain point in drinking and hears the releasing click in his head.  


During the movie all of these substitutions can be followed and the scenes that show them give a complex view on the major problems even if they are “unspeakable.” The trick lies in the film music. Lapsley and Westlake state that “with romantic music the impossible-to-say is… present, an effect further accomplished by music’s semantic component.”[44]  Moreover, “such presence of the impossible-to-say tames the unconscious”[45] and spectators are told more by music than by images and by words in the movie. When Flynn cites Peter Brooks claiming that “the melodramatic text is a ‘drama of pure psychic signs’ that strives to break through repression and to say the unsayable,”[46] she also states that music has the capacity to express issues that are otherwise impossible to express. 


In my opinion, music in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof creates a certain pattern that is repeated in order to tell the unspeakable issues. Music is a sort of “auditory restaging of the fort-da game,”[47] since it repeats and is repeated and finally it causes the pleasure of understanding. Musical repetition helps to reveal the lost object, Skipper, and the hidden secrets, Brick and Skipper’s relationship and Big Daddy’s condition. According to film critics, music is able to do so because carefully selected musical motifs “can be combined to evoke associations”[48] and so can music also “emphasize the narrative development”[49] and the development from one repetition to another until the end of the movie.


David Bordwell and Kirstin Thomson also support my argument of music producing a pattern, when they claim that “the choice and combination of sonic materials can also create patterns which run through the film as a whole.”[50]  Moreover they also declare that “a melody or musical phrase can be associated with a particular character, setting, situation or idea.”[51]



3.3. A Soundtrack for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


In the specific case of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the non-diegetic music supports and makes conspicuous the pattern of the masterplot. Music is repeated so that it binds together the main characters and all their secrets and ‘unspeakable’ issues. Although the music played in this movie seems to be a ‘regular’ redundant melodrama music going for the reinforcement of emotions, I rather consider it to be contrapuntal music which ridicules all what is superficially said. I agree, however, with Noel Coward who observed “how extraordinarily potent cheap music is.”[52] The music in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not a complex composition, it is rather “cheap,” in the sense that it contains very few instruments and melodies, but it has the more effect on spectators.


In this part of my essay I would like to highlight six scenes of the movie in which non-diegetic music occurs. I build up this part as an imaginary soundtrack of the movie. While the Intro and the Outro serve as the frame of it, the ‘songs’ in-between are the Themes of each main character.



3.3.1. Intro: The Cat Enters


The point when music starts in the movie is before the first shot. This music can be best described as kind of sexually over-excited music with piano as its base and with some suitably smoky saxophone sounds. Music begins already with the opening credits, or even before that: with the ‘signature’ of the production company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Then the two first pictures that belong to the film show up. Although both of them are drawings and so they are separated from any other parts of the movie, from the point of view of this analysis these two drawings are highly relevant. Both of them have a dark-orange or red background, which color seems to fit the music. The first drawing has an astonishing effect.


The sight of this picture only suggests but does not reveal the object it represents. The four “bars” could be part of a fence as well as four pokers in front of a fireplace. The second picture then reveals the secret that the first was a magnified and zoomed part of a double bed, and the “fence” is nothing else but the decorative bars at the head of the bed. In the full picture of the bed there is a figure of a long-haired woman lying on it. She looks feminine and sexy in her light night-gown but she turns her head down as if being ashamed of or suffering from something. The same picture remains on screen until the credits are over.


The bed is a central motif in the play and in the movie as well. Its appearance on the screen belongs to those visual techniques that promote the ‘unspeakable’ but as it looks, ‘showable’ issues. The bed as the starting motif of the movie attracts all attention to itself, especially to its ‘uncommonness,’ indicated by being a drawing. In the movie, due to the Code, not a word can be heard about Straw and Ochello. Instead of words there is the image of the bed, of their bed and since they stand for homosexuality, the bed necessarily carries this meaning on. In other words, an at least homoerotic allusion is ‘em-bedded’ in the movie.


Music is significant in the scene since it draws attention to these two drawings, and as Stam cites Royal Brown, music encourages “the spectator to receive the scene on the level of the myth, while also triggering a ‘field of association.’”[53] In this case spectators can associate to the unspeakable - but as it seems “showable” and “audible” - issue of homosexuality, and to the “myth” of Straw and Ochello each time they see this bed on screen. Since homosexuality is the main trauma in Brick’s life, in order to solve it, he has to go through repetitions, and in the movie he does it with the help of music. The answer for the question why the movie starts with this music and with these drawings is answered by Peter Brooks when he says that beginnings in narratives have the ability to presuppose the end. Therefore, what starts a narrative, this time music and two pictures, foretells how the narrative will end. To be specific: the beginning and the end of the movie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  will necessarily have the same to say, and as I will later on investigate it, in the end exactly the same music and the same bed will be in the final shot of the movie. Until the end, however, a masterplot per definition has to be repeated several times so as to make the trauma, the “unspeakabilities” more obvious for readers, or in this case, spectators.



3.3.2. Maggie’s Theme


The first significant repetition of the music that goes during the opening credits comes when Maggie first mentions Skipper and Big Daddy. I call this scene Maggie’s theme since everything else originates from her speech and from the dialogue between her and Brick. As I have already stated, Maggie is the link between the two ‘unspeakabilities’ and she is also the key that opens ‘the locked doors of secrets.’ Right before music starts, Maggie and Brick talk about Big Daddy’s condition. Brick tells Maggie that Big Daddy is going to die, and he does not want to be the one who tells the bad news to him. Maggie’s response is that they have to fight for the estate because she cannot imagine living poor again. This is the point where music starts. This music has the same piano base as the commencing music had and it lingers on while Maggie complains about her poor youth.


The major change in music occurs when the sound of the saxophone joins the piano. It comes in with Maggie’s sentences on a totally new subject: “Where did I fail you? Where did I make my mistake?”[54] In this scene she sits on a couch with her back to Brick who stands at the liquor cabinet smoking a cigarette and drinking alcohol. At the moment when Maggie says these two sentences she suddenly turns to Brick to face him. She sees him drinking and then she goes on: “I think I made my mistake when I tried to tell you about Skipper.”[55] Brick immediately warns her not to touch on the subject, but she cannot be stopped: “I never should have confessed…”[56] Spectators cannot hear what Maggie’s unfinished sentence refers to, what she really confessed to Brick because he does not let her do so. He shouts at Maggie, then he desperately looks around in the room as if looking for some help out of this conversation. Finally he skips out of the room, onto the balcony so as to get rid of Maggie and what she wants to say.


Music ends here with the very loud sound of a thunder-clap which sound effect especially underlines the importance of what has been said, better say, what has not been said. Such a thunder-clap is, in Chion’s definition, an aural masking effect, which can be any sudden noise: a storm, a wind, a passing train or airplane that “strategically blocks out part of the soundtrack.”[57] This aural masking effect parallels the masking of the lack that Brick develops because of Skipper’s absence. While the thunder-clap stops the music that carries the pattern of what cannot be said, Brick succeeds in stopping Maggie telling the hidden truth. 



3.3.3. Skipper’s Theme


The third ‘track’ gets its name after the character who is never on screen but upon whom one of the ‘unspeakable’ issues is established, Skipper. The participants of the scene are Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy, who takes only the position of the focalizer. Big Daddy’s position is special since during a more than six-minute scene, he only has three short sentences, and besides these he is on screen for six short times as if indicating his ‘outsiderness’ of the situation. His face with a little suspicious smile is shown in close-ups, which according to Béla Balázs is a useful filmic technique that is able to reveal “what is really happening under the surface of appearances.”[58] Moreover, it is Big Daddy who says that “you’ve got to learn to live with mendacity,”[59] so he is aware that life is full of lies and his smile indicates suspicion in all that Maggie and Brick say to each other.


It is, however, not only Big Daddy’s face that can catch the attention of spectators, but also the music that ‘joins’ the conversation. This third scene, in which non-diegetic music is played, contains the first confessions concerning Skipper. Maggie is asked to recall the night when Skipper played without Brick since this is the day Brick suspects her to have cheated on him with Skipper. Maggie then reveals the circumstances of Skipper's last night before his suicidal death. She encouraged Skipper to leave the adolescent world in which he and Brick co-existed because she was the only one who dared to do so.


The sound of the saxophone enters the conversation when Maggie mentions what happened in the hotel room that night. She says: “He was sick, sick with drink,”[60] that is why she had to go to calm him down. Although she knows the truth about Skipper and Brick’s feelings, she tells that she advised Skipper to stop playing football as if this had been his real problem. While explaining the story to Brick and Big Daddy she suddenly stares at the ground four times, which is a sign that she lies. The first such occasion is when she says: “I thought he’d hit me.”[61] It is not only the music and her sudden staring down that point out that something is twisted in her story, but it is also the fact that there is no interpretable link between what she said to Skipper and what he replied to her. Would Skipper hit the wife of his best friend only because she advises him to find a new job? It is more probable, however, that he would hit her because she tells the truth to his face, that she tells him to confess his feelings to Brick or leave him alone.[62]


On the analogy of this first example, Maggie also lies the other three times when she looks down to the ground. The following sentences, therefore, do not correspond to the situation: “He kissed me.” “At the last second I got panicky.” “So I ran.”[63] All the signs, the music, Big Daddy’s face and Maggie’s shameful glance suppose that these are lies: Skipper did not kiss her and it was not Maggie who got panicky and who ran, but Skipper. These statements are complete inversions of those in Williams’s drama. In the drama, namely, Maggie tells the story in a different way. She says: “HE SLAPPED ME HARD ON THE MOUTH! ― then turned and ran without stopping once.”[64] I believe, however, that even though these lies are inserted, the movie provides the spectators with non-verbal signs, especially with the music, to communicate the truth. The task of the spectators is to learn to read and understand these signs.



3.3.4. Brick’s Theme


The same is true for Brick’s theme, which could also be entitled Brick and Skipper’s theme since this scene treats Brick’s confession about his and Skipper’s relationship. This scene is also the continuation of Maggie’s theme. After Maggie leaves the room, Big Daddy calls on Brick to finish the story of Skipper’s last night since he is still suspicious about the story: “Something’s missin’ here.”[65] Brick admits that he feels responsibility for Skipper's despairing death because he rejected his friend and ruthlessly hung up on his anguished call. That night, a drunk and scared Skipper phoned, revealing his emotional, and probably sexual, dependence on Brick. During Brick’s confession, music starts with Brick saying: “I let him down.”[66] Then he goes on stating that Skipper’s voice in the phone radiated fear. On the level of speech spectators learn that Skipper was scared, “real deep down scared,”[67] indeed. Brick reasons that his friend was that scared because he played bad on the football field and he was afraid that Brick would blame the loss of the game on him.


This is a very weak reason, though since the repeated piano and saxophone music brings the pattern of the ‘unspeakable’ homosexuality with itself this time as well. Music helps to understand that Skipper was scared because Maggie had already faced him with the truth and it was time for him to confess, and he did so when he said: “I need you!”[68] Only before his death did Skipper reach the level of being capable of uttering the truth and of confessing his real feelings that he had been hiding for all his life.


Before the point when music ends Brick also seems to crack up, tears come into his eyes and he claims that “disgust with mendacity is disgust with myself.”[69] He is disgusted with himself not only because he let down Skipper and did not answer the phone but also because he, unlike Skipper, did not dare to embrace truth and confess his real feelings. The phone in his hospital room “kept ringin’ louder and louder”[70] as if being Skipper’s last cry for life. The sound of the phone remains in Brick’s mind as the echo of Skipper, and the only way to get rid of this tantalizing sound is to drink as far as he hears the click. As I, however, indicated earlier, alcohol is only another way of substitution of Skipper. Brick will, therefore, never be able to detach himself from Skipper, unless he also accepts the truth. 



3.3.5. Big Daddy’s Theme


This fifth scene is slightly outside of the main masterplot in that it is mainly about Big Daddy and that the non-diegetic music has a different melody. The reason why I still insert this scene into this analysis is that the ‘unspeakable’ issues are highly bound in the movie and if I have already mentioned the one about homosexuality, I need to explain the one about Big Daddy’s cancer and death. In the basement scene Brick and Big Daddy argue about what is important in life. Big Daddy finds that money and property are the things life, while Brick reveals that he lacks the love of his father. Big Daddy is, however, not a superficial person, he only fears of having nothing since his own father had never had anything in his life.           


Music starts with Big Daddy saying: “I built this place from nothing!”[71] Then he goes on explaining how he and his father lived without owing anything. He also remembers the day of his father’s death, and he recalls that he died laughing. Brick explains the situation to Big Daddy saying that the old man was laughing because he always had his son with him. This is the point when Brick makes it clear for Big Daddy that he should give love instead of money to his family. The happy moment of understanding is, however, overshadowed by the pain caused by the cancer and the possibility of the death of the father. Big Daddy’s cry ends the music for a short insertion of a living room scene, but then the basement scene continues with the same music as in the first part.


The second half of Big Daddy’s Theme is about the reconciliation of father and son. Big Daddy, still in pain but refusing medicine, offers a deal to his son. He says: “I have the guts to die. Have you got the guts to live?”[72] As he already knows that for Brick life means to accept his homosexuality, with his question he proves that he is considerate to Brick and he wants his son to find happiness in life. Brick is still not sure whether he will be able to make it because he says: “I don’t know.”[73] But then he skips to Big Daddy which might be a sign that he will start a new life.



3.3.6. Outro: The Cat Is Let Out of The Bag


The last scene with music is at the same time the very last scene of the movie. Brick commands Maggie to join him in the bedroom. When Maggie enters the room, the piano music together with the saxophone also join the picture. This scene is supposed to be a romantic one, where husband and wife embrace and kiss. As Lapsley and Westlake point out, however, the “romantic love seen from the outside is fraught with illusion, that lovers’ estimation of what their life together will be like is deeply unrealistic.”[74] Moreover they state that with “representing their love they are pretending something exists that really does not.”[75]


I agree with Lapsley and Westlake’s observation since in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Maggie and Brick only pretend that they will make love. Brick tosses the pillow from the couch onto their bed and the last picture of the movie is shot through the bars of the double-bed. During the whole scene exactly the same music can be heard as during the Intro. What is more, the movie ends with the same image it started with: the bed.


At this point the masterplot fulfils its purpose. The trauma, with the help of music, has been repeated five times, while drawing a complete circle and arriving where it once started. According to Brooks’s theory of the masterplot, “repetition speaks in the text of a return which ultimately subverts the very notion of beginning and end, suggesting that the idea of beginning presupposes the end, that the end is a time before the beginning.”[76] In the case of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the ending picture of Brick and Maggie getting ready to make love on the bed is a time before the beginning drawings of a sad and lonely woman lying on the same bed. The masterplot has reached its goal with showing the ‘unspeakable’ issue of the homosexual Brick who fails to make love to his wife.



4. Conclusion


In my paper I focused on the ‘unspeakable’ issues of Richard Brooks’s filmic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with the help of non-diegetic music. My intention with this essay was to prove that although the movie is more implicit about the notion of homosexuality than the drama is, it is able to express this issue in a different way. During my analysis I found that even though homosexuality is totally ‘unspeakable’ in the movie, it is audible with the use of film music.


In the essay I, firstly, gave definitions and explanations of film adaptations because some changes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were made due to the process of adaptation. Then I also added a theoretical background on film music since music served as the basis for proving the thesis of this paper. In this part I described some of the most important concepts on film music and sound given by some major film theorists, such as Michel Chion, Robert Stam and Caryl Flinn.


In the discussion part I took steps in order to ‘let the cat out of the bag.’ I introduced the theory of Freud’s Masterplot by Peter Brooks, which theory functioned as the leading principle in the further structure of my essay. After having described the main traumas and their common link of the story of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I systematically analyzed those scenes where non-diegetic music was inserted. Here I found that the music has the same or closely the same melody in each, and therefore this music could be considered as a pattern for the masterplot. The Intro calls the attention of the spectators to the significance of music and to the central image of the move, the bed. The following four scenes that I analyzed in detail all repeated the trauma with the help of music. Finally, the very last scene of the movie turned out to be not its last but its first, and this twist in the order explicitly showed that the issue of homosexuality is present in the movie.


By identifying the pattern of the masterplot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I have found that it is not necessarily the images of a movie that function as main narrative elements. Where images end the movie that is where music starts it; therefore film music and sound prove to be equally significant in the narration of films. This present analysis aimed at showing that film music, sometimes, even manages to rewrite a conventional and over-melodramatized story in a way that it creates the opposing narrative of the one created by images only.









Primary Sources:


- Brooks, Richard dir, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Written by Richard Brooks & James Poe. Avon Production, Inc., 1958.


- Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1983.



Secondary Sources:


- Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 2000.


- Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” In Mast Gerald et al. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford, 1992.


- Balázs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” In Gerald Mast et al. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford, 1992.


- Bordwell, David and Kirstin Thompson. Film Art - An Introduction. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997.


- Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intonation in Narrative. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University, 1992.


- Corliss, Richard. “The Hollywood Screenwriter” In Gerald Mast, et al. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford, 1992.


- Easthope, Anthony ed. Contemporary Film Theory. London: Longman, 1993.


- Flinn, Caryl. Strains of Utopia. Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.


- Gerald, Mast et al. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford, 1992.


- Gledhill, Christine. “Signs of Melodrama.” In Christine Gleddhill ed. Stardom. Industry of Desire. New York & London: Routledge, 1991.


- Gledhill, Christine ed. Stardom. Industry of Desire. New York & London: Routledge, 1991.


- Lapsley, Rob and Michael Westlake. “From Casablanca to Pretty Woman: the Politics of Romance.” In Anthony Easthope ed. Contemporary Film Theory. London: Longman, 1993.


- Palmer, R. Barton. “Holywood in Crisis: Tennessee Williams and the Evolution of the Adult Film.” In Matthew C. Roudané. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


- Matthew C. Roudané. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


- Stam, Robert. Film Theory. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000.


- Stam, Robert eds. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics. London: Routledge, 1992.


- Wood, Robin. Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. Hollywood and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.


- ®iľek, Slavoj. The Fright of Real Tears. London: BFI Publishing, 2001.



Journal Source:


- Dragon, Zoltán. “Filmadaptáció: az irodalom és a film végtelen dialógusa.” Filmtett Vol. IV. No1. (2003): 8-12.



Internet Source:

- Dirks, Tim. “Melodrama Film.” Available:  Access: 28 January 2005.




[1] Richard Brooks dir, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, written by Richard Brooks & James Poe, Avon Production, Inc., 1958.

[2] Robert Stam, Film Theory, An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000), 202.

[3] Stam, 2000, op. cit., 209-210.

[4] Dudley Andrew, “Adaptation” In Mast Gerald et al., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford, 1992), 422.

[5] Andrew, op. cit., 423.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Andrew, op. cit., 424.

[9] Stam, 2000, op. cit., 216.

[10] Robert Stam, eds., New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics (London: Routledge, 1992), 62.

[11] Stam, 2000, op. cit., 218.

[12] Caryl Flinn, Strains of Utopia. Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 6. 

[13] ibid.

[14] Stam, 1992, op. cit., 63.

[15] ibid.

[16] Stam, 2000, op. cit., 221.

[17] Stam, 2000, op. cit., 220.

[18] Flinn, op. cit., 13.

[19] R. Barton Palmer, “Hollywood in Crisis: Tennessee Williams and the Evolution of the Adult Film” in Matthew C. Roudané, The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 229.

[20] Zoltán Dragon, “Filmadaptáció: az irodalom és a film végtelen dialógusa” Filmtett Vol. IV. No1. (2003): 11.

[21] ibid.

[22] Tim Dirks, “Melodrama Film,” available:, access: 28 January 2005.

[23] ibid.

[24] Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 2000), 76.

[25] Altman, op. cit., 72.

[26] Palmer, op. cit., 209.

[27] Palmer, op. cit., 208.

[28] Palmer, op. cit., 227.

[29] Richard Corliss, “The Hollywood Screenwriter” In Gerald Mast, et al., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford, 1992), 607.

[30] Robin Wood, Sexual Politics and narrative Film. Hollywood and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 80.

[31] Palmer, op. cit., 229.

[32] Christine Gledhill, “Signs of Melodrama” in Christine Gledhill ed. Stardom. Industry of Desire (New York & London: Routledge, 1991), 213. (emphasis mine)

[33] Gledhill. op. cit., 212.

[34] Flinn, op. cit., 137.

[35] Slavoj ®iľek, The Fright of Real Tears (London: BFI Publishing, 2001), 59. (emphasis mine)

[36] Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intonation in Narrative (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University, 1992), 98.

[37] ibid.

[38] ibid.

[39] Brooks, op. cit., 99.

[40] Brooks, op. cit., 101.

[41] ibid.

[42] Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1983), 79.

[43] Rob Lapsley and Michael Westlake, “From Casablanca to Pretty Woman: the Politics of Romance” In Anthony Easthope ed., Contemporary Film Theory (London: Longman, 1993), 193.

[44] Lapsley and Westlake, op. cit., 194.

[45] Lapsley and Westlake, op. cit., 195.

[46] Flinn, op. cit., 133.

[47] Flinn, op. cit., 54.

[48] David Bordwell and Kirstin Thompson, Film Art - An Introduction (New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997), 326.

[49] Bordwell and Thompson, op. cit., 345.

[50] Bordwell and Thompson, op. cit., 325.

[51] ibid.

[52] Flinn, op. cit., 134.

[53] Stam, 2000, op. cit., 220.

[54] Brooks dir., 00:32:45

[55] Brooks dir., 00:33:01

[56] Brooks dir., 00:33:07

[57] Stam, 1992, op. cit., 62.

[58] Béla Balázs, “The Face of Man” In Gerald Mast, et al., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford, 1992), 261.

[59] Brooks dir., 00:50:30

[60] Brooks dir., 00:59:05

[61] Brooks dir., 00:59:38

[62] I find this solution probable since Williams’s play contains these ideas. The fact they are turned very implicit in the movie may be due to the requirement of the Production Code to hide such issues.  

[63] Brooks dir., 00:59:51-01:00:41

[64] Williams, op. cit., 60.

[65] Brooks dir., 01:02:42

[66] Brooks dir., 01:02:54

[67] Brooks dir., 01:03:29

[68] Brooks dir., 01:03:39

[69] Brooks dir., 01:04:41

[70] Brooks dir., 01:04:13

[71] Brooks dir., 01:32:04

[72] Brooks dir., 01:35:50

[73] Brooks dir., 01:35:56

[74] Lapsley and Westlake, op. cit., 181.

[75] ibid.

[76] Brooks, op. cit., 109. (emphasis mine)


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