Continuing our look through the American Film Institute’s top 100 film list there are still a number of great films to come. Of course, the fact that any film made the list, by definition, makes it ‘great’, but certain films simply resonate greatness, either by critical acclaim, or by touching an individual to such a degree that its greatness is maintained. Tonight’s feature can lay claim to both those feats, a powerful drama played out by indisputable stars in their prime - and not just the actors, the makers too were hungry to produce a piece to stand out from the crowd and go down in cinematic lore as ‘great’. They achieved this goal. The film was nominated for a then unprecedented twelve Academy awards and continues to this day to be as powerful and relevant as it was when first released over sixty years ago. I hope you’re in good voice as we brave the heat and take a look at tonight’s feature presentation, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
The film opens up to a well-dressed lady arriving in the French Quarter of New Orleans, she is somewhat lost and when she asks the assistance of a young sailor we realise she is a typical ‘Southern belle’, her accent, demeanour and attitude giving us our first impression. When she arrives at her sisters apartment, via the titular ‘streetcar named desire’ (a title that has plenty of significance, as we shall see) we see another side to her personality, she is used to a higher class of life and the run down nature of the apartment and neighbourhood are quite a shock to her system – a system that is already quite unstable and which is about to have some extreme assault. The character’s name is Blanche DuBois, her family once held quite a status and lived on a vast plantation in the South – however due to various "epic fornications" of her ancestors, the entire place has been ‘lost’. Therefore her heirs and graces mask something else entirely; personality traits that gradually show themselves as her fragile mind begins to unravel. Chosen to play the part was the then stunning actress Vivien Leigh (she actually played the part in the West End version) whose portrayal would go down as being one of her very best (recognised by her numerous awards won) and was, in fact, very similar in nature to her own personality, suffering, as she did, from the same mental illness that afflicts poor Blanche (tragically later in her life, Leigh often confused this character with her own life). It is due to her mental state that Blanche is forced into the lives of her sister and her husband, and it is her presence that upsets the delicate balance and, indeed, sends it plummeting on a collision course as if it is on tracks – the tracks of a streetcar (named desire) for example.
Stella, Blanche’s sister, on the other hand, having left the plantation some years ago is very used to the way she lives. She is pragmatic and strong, and quite protective of her sister, but we can clearly see, even when we first meet her, that she is living in denial of her predicament. She is in thrall to her husband, oblivious to her living conditions and totally dominated; physically, sexually and emotionally. She tells Blanche that her husband’s fits give her ‘quite the thrill’ and no matter what happens between them she always goes back to him (whether that is battered wife or Stockholm syndrome) and when she does she is eager and sexually charged as for a brief moment their mutual passion boils over. Passion that brought about her pregnancy which bonds her even more to Stanley. Playing the part of Stella is Kim Hunter who also played the same part in the Broadway adaptation. She brings the same passion and titillation to the role that was recognised with her Best Supporting Actress win at the Oscars.
Her husband is Stanley Kowalski and it is he that instigates, contributes to and ultimately controls the fate of Blanche. Stanley is a big man, a brute of sorts, but he holds an undeniable animalistic presence that is both frightening and awe inspiring. It is easy to see how, and why, Stella is so drawn to him. He exudes magnetism – he is exciting, unpredictable but occasionally tender and charming. He is the ‘king’ of his domain and his relationship with Stella is tempestuous but passionate; they seem to fit together, their makeup sex being nothing short of unbridled lust. But he is also dangerous, beyond the verbal and physical there is scheming and undermining – the fragile balance of his and Stella’s relationship is under fire when Blanche invades; and Stanley sees it as an invasion – of his home, of his life and of his mind. Thus he becomes the villain of the piece but, much like Stella, we are bound to him and cannot wait to see his actions, even if we have to suffer the consequences. There was only ever one actor to play this part; the same one that brought him to terrifying life on the Broadway stage – the young, energetic and completely unique Marlon Brando. Brando had been making waves on the theatre for some time by 1951, his magnetic performances causing stage directors to have to redesign set ups to re-focus audiences attentions as all eyes would normally be tunnelled towards him to the exclusion of everything else happening. This was only his second film, but he brought with it the same energy and scene stealing presence that made him such a force on the stage. It also helped that the camera loved him. His unpredictability and sheer guts projects out of the screen and it is a testament to this career making performance that Brando actually disliked the character intently as it was such a far cry from his actual personality. Brando would garner a Best Actor nomination for this performance, only to lose to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, and it would be the first of many nominations and wins in his illustrious career. His later life is outside the remit of this review, but it is quite incredible to think that such a talent, who defined actors for his, the next and this generation managed to become so disillusioned and squandered – especially when you see the unparalleled power that is Stanley Kowalski.
Blanche’s first glimpse of Stanley is in a bowling alley where he and a few of his work mates rough house over a poor bowl; Stella is magnetically drawn to him, exhorting his virtues to her sister, while Blanche commenting on his rough demeanour has something else behind her eyes in amongst the trepidation – we won’t find out until a little later. Back at the apartment Blanche and Stanley meet for the first time – Stanley is a picture of masculinity, sweaty, hard and not afraid to show himself, while Blanche becomes coy and demure, only to steal glances at him while he changes. Already there is something between these two characters, something charged, sexual, almost carnal. But perhaps the most telling is there is no trust – Stanley sees the interloper, Blanche sees a captor. Early scenes are used to define the characters, though skilfully only hints at their motivations. Stanley, knowing of the plantation and it being ‘lost’ is convinced that it has been sold and because Stella is entitled to something of the proceeds as sister, he is also entitled being the husband – is unconvinced of Blanche’s story, demands to see papers, rifles through her belongings which are typically fine for a lady and chastises them wanting to know why his wife has nought. He confronts Blanche herself in perhaps the only scene where Blanche has a chance at equal footing, but she soon crumbles under his pressure exclaiming that there is nothing left. This, of course, is bad news for Stanley, but even worse for Blanche. The scenes serve to highlight the dynamic between this character triangle – Blanche is becoming a wedge between the ‘happy’ couple; her faux upper-class attitude soon becomes grating when it is revealed she has even less than the couple with whom she is staying. Stella wants nothing more than to help her sister through this trying time, Blanche loose grip starts to fray when this first secret is discovered and she slips further into delusion as a coping method, and Stanley wants to remain at the top of the food chain by any means necessary, he dominates the sisters and tries to find out more about Blanche’s past – a past that once discovered serves to haunt and devastate all those that are bound by it.
During one fateful night, Stanley hosts a poker game while the sisters go out for the evening. Here we meet another pivotal character, that of Stanley’s work buddy Mitch. Mitch is well dressed, is caring for his sick aged mother and not afraid to stand up to Stanley with regard to his beliefs. When the girls return and Stanley is drunk, Mitch takes it upon himself to introduce himself to Blanche, being swayed by her demeanour and swagger; she in return flirts with him. We also see the very darkest side of Stanley start to emerge when he starts to lose and the ‘noise’ from his wife tips him over the edge; in a fit of rage he throws the radio out of the window, drags his wife outside and beats her before his friends manage to drag him away. The direction of this shocking scene is wonderfully executed and can be viewed as a metaphor for the film whole. There is a brooding tension as soon as the sisters come home, something is not quite right and Stanley is simmering with rage. The camera picks up on his mood by sideling him slightly, showing him briefly but drawing all eyes towards him – helped enormously by Brando’s charisma. As the scene unfolds the tension becomes all the more claustrophobic with the camera holding tighter and tighter close ups, the lighting becoming ever more stark and Stanley’s rants and the music reaching fever pitch – then suddenly there is an explosion of fury and action happens so fast it becomes almost subliminal; it is shocking, powerful and frightening. Its aftermath leads to one of the most, if not perhaps the most famous scene and line from this or indeed any film: Stanley, remorseful for his actions, with a ripped t-shirt, standing at the bottom of the stairs screaming “Stella, hey Stella!” And whilst this part is often quoted and parodied, it is actually the closing part that is the most powerful and one that was only comparatively recently restored to its original intent – it being part of the censorship levied on the film after it was made – that of Stella descending the stairs and going back to Stanley. If the start of this scene was a showcase in tension, then this closing part is a showcase in sexual desire. For a brief moment Stella is in charge, she maybe hypnotised by Stanley, but it is her look and walk that give her the power (she is also up high). It could also be viewed as her descending back into the abyss after she is lost, what with her slowly and deliberately walking down the stairs, though in the restored version with its close ups on her face, sensual music and sultry movements the interpretation is far more ambiguous.
With the introduction of Mitch and the mutual attraction he and Blanche share we are privy to some more of what makes Blanche tick. The pair go on a date and while they talk Mitch (and thus we) becomes exasperated by her constant refusal to reveal more about herself, this rebuttal convinces Blanche to tell some more of her story – and with it her defences start to crumble and her mind begins to unravel. Mitch is played by noted stage and screen actor Karl Malden who give such pathos to the role, the same in fact that he gave in the stage production, that it too garnered him a win for the Best Supporting actor at the Oscars. Originally this scene was tempered by the censors of the time, but in the restored version, although still enigmatic, the thinly veiled cover of ‘poetry’ masks the homosexuality theme – that of Blanche’s discovery that her husband was having a gay affair and her constant torment of him lead to his suicide. It is, in part, this element that leads to Blanche’s subsequent alcoholism, withdrawing from society and the seduction of male suitors. These latter elements of her psyche are barely hinted at, at this time, but it is Stanley’s discovery of them that eventually leads to his, Mitch’s, Stella’s and Blanche’s confrontation.
Elia Kazan reprised his directorial status from the stage play very reluctantly and it was only Tennessee Williams that finally convinced him. Kazan would go on to become extremely well respected with his depiction of realism in his directing career something that he instilled in all his actors – most of which reprised their roles for this film version. With all the pieces now in place, Kazan tightens the screw even more, shrinking the sets, darkening the light, tightening the camera angles all to increase the tension and claustrophobia felt by the characters. And just like the poker scene the tension is building to a point where it will explode.
Having found out the truth about Blanche, Stanley wants nothing more to do with her, and indeed wants her out of his life – and he goes about it in the most cruel and detestable way he can. He tells Mitch which causes him to break off relations with Blanche, but not before he confronts her about her past. Her final confession to Mitch is pretty much the last straw, her veil is dropped and she bares her age, her deeds, how she has lived and why she came to New Orleans; even by today’s standards this revelation is quite shocking tempered only by the relatively ‘old’ language – “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
But of course, it doesn’t end there.
With Stella in a long labour in the hospital, Stanley is sent home thereby leaving he and Blanche alone in the apartment. Stanley is drunk and euphoric about the imminent birth of his child and even offers to ‘bury the hatchet’ with Blanche. It is short lived though, as Blanche is Blanche, and Stanley remains Stanley and the ultimate confrontation is a sick and twisted fate: they are both travelling on the tram rails of ‘destiny’ unable to jump tracks and leading to disaster. Again this scene was tempered by the censors and even though it still packed a punch, here, in its restored version, the inevitability of it all is even more apparent. There is no kindness in this attack, it is brutal, sadistic and unforgivable and it totally breaks Blanche; she slips – with grace – into delusion and insanity.
Williams was renowned for bringing his own life, demons and all, to bear in his work. And Streetcar has much drawn from his awful childhood. Stanley has clear parallels to his drunken and abusive father, Blanche’s ‘Southern belle’ station was drawn from his mother, Stella and Stanley’s relationship from his own parents and, most telling, Blanche’s fragile mind from his own committed sister. But more than that, Blanche’s husband’s sexuality was a reflection of his own repressed feelings, the haunting of the suicide a constant reminder of his failings as a son in his father’s eyes. It is the real life experiences brought into the light that ring so true, even to this day, that make this film so utterly absorbing and captivating. It is, perhaps, its stage play roots that may be the only compromise made to a modern audience weaned on fast cutting and action; for it is very talkative and deliberately paced. But the dialogue is seething with tension and menace; each sentence has a bearing on the future developments of the characters and their situation. Add to this Alex North’s provocative and influential score that underpins much of the direction and you have a clear winner. Indeed many of today’s films could learn a thing or two about pacing, story and acting.
A Streetcar Named Desire truly is a great film and deserving of its place in the AFI, even now it speaks volumes and is just as relevant with its various themes and story ideas and progression. Highly recommended.
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