A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)

RECOMMENDED

Obviously, A Streetcar Named Desire comes from a great play, Tennessee Williams’ fine Southern gothic domestic drama and character study, a lustful document of a descent into madness, and a lot of the merits of the theatrical production come through in the movie variation directed by Elia Kazan. It has enough depth, character, and claustrophobia for three movies, the atmosphere of menace, heat, and insanity beautifully developed. However, Kazan proves himself unable to turn the play into actual cinema. Not only is his confined presentation of a decrepit New Orleans (coincidentally, I saw this on the Katrina anniversary, and the irony was rampant) rather unbelievable, he fails most of the time to immerse the viewer in the world he’s set up. We are observers, not participants.

Vivien Leigh’s lead performance is a mixed bag. Though she displays impressive range, she is once again playing herself, as she did in Gone with the Wind: a crazy person portraying a crazy person. There are a number of fascinating, realistic details in her performance, and in large part its uneven nature is deliberate, but one never really gets enough of a grasp on her character to appreciate the extent of her problems, despite the vividness of Williams’ electrifying creation. In the film, at least, t’s sometimes hard to take her entirely seriously, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem of the writing.

The same situation applies to the aggressive alpha male cutout Stanley, coming to us courtesy Marlon Brando, also playing himself. Brando slaps his woman — Blanche’s sister Stella — around, insults her, and engages in cheap cornball sentimentality off and on. He’s an assembly line asshole, and the character is barely credible and only slightly compelling, as is the performance. Yet again, Stanley’s brutishness is part of Williams’ point, as he himself would argue, but Brando provides so little dimension here it’s hard to appreciate his raw sexuality as anything but a plot device in this mannered format.

If not for Kim Hunter, brilliant as the carnal sister Stella, the movie would fall apart within ten minutes of its opening. Hunter is naturalistic, believable, emotionally resonant, everything Brando isn’t and everything Leigh gets only halfway to managing. The movie’s one and only genuinely brilliant sequence involves Stella and Stanley’s erotic rekindling after a massive argument. It is the famous scene in which he calls for her at the bottom of the stairwell. Resistant at first, she is drawn back down to meet him. Everything in the scene is perfect: The shadowy visuals, the passionately intense cutting, Hunter’s raw and knowing sexuality, and Brando’s brutish yelling. That alone may justify the film’s reputation. (In fact, the moral ambiguity of the couple’s relationship is my favorite aspect of the entire story.)

And again, what does come through here is an appreciation for Tennessee Williams’ dialogue and knowing, abrasive characterization. The story is absorbing, intricate, and strangely believable. For all its insufficient concessions to its medium, Kazan’s Streetcar is more than merely adequate, and is just flawed and weird enough to be unforgettable.

[Originally posted elsewhere in 2006.]

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