Written by Tennessee Williams and Oscar Saul
Directed by Elia Kazan
I didn’t first view the classic A Streetcar Named Desire until I was already in my late twenties. I was a huge fan of Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind and wanted to check out the only other role of hers that was talked about as being the same caliber. The movie kept me riveted for the entire length. It delivered a powerful impact on someone who was just looking to check out an actress’ performance.
That was the original cut. On DVD, it’s now available as a Director’s cut. This adds three minutes that were deleted from the theatrical version of the film. Neither touches on some themes that were deleted in the transfer to the silver screen from Tennessee Williams’ stage play, but more of the motivations of the characters can be seen, as well as knowing more of what actually happened rather than just what’s inferred.
Blanche Dubois (portrayed by Vivien Leigh) has arrived in New Orleans. Her official story is that their childhood home, in which she resided, was “lost”. Presumably, this is due to financial reasons. Blanche rides a streetcar to the French Quarter apartment her sister, Stella (portrayed by Kim Hunter), lives in with her husband, Stanley (portrayed by Marlon Brando), whom Blanche has never met.
Stanley exudes sexual attraction and energy from the first time Blanche sees him. Blanche seems to be the prettier sister, but she is troubled. Stella is a bit plainer but has a sweet disposition and a good heart. She adores Stanley and feels that energy from him as well.
But there’s a dark side to Stanley. It’s there when he’s sober, but when he’s drunk it’s worse. He’s controlling and apt to be violent. After getting drunk during a card game, even being reminded of his wife’s condition (she’s pregnant) doesn’t stop him from assaulting her. Like most abusers, he regrets it afterward and apologizes, begging her to return to him. He’s the classic abuser in a way the character had never been portrayed before, mixing the passion and the violence.
Blanche, however, is on the run from her own secrets. Her attempts to paint Stanley with the brush of being “too common” for her sister starts him poking around about her life before she came to live with them. A relationship develops between Blanche and one of Stanley’s co-workers, Mitch (portrayed by Karl Malden).
Stanley pokes around, having people from his plant who deliver to Blanche’s hometown make inquiries, and he learns the truth about why Blanche left there. He tells Mitch, possibly taking away what Blanche perceives as her last chance at happiness. Stanley then wants to dispatch Blanche right back to that same town and out of their lives.
Stella goes into labor right when Stanley has done all of this, pressing Blanche into a state of mental agitation. Mitch comes and his demeanor sends her spiraling down even more. Stanley returns and Blanche tries to make up something to try to allow her to leave with dignity. Stanley takes that away from her and strips away everything else from her as well.
It’s easy to see how this was a stage play as most of the scenes take place in the tiny apartment. The setting is cramped with the three of them living there. Blanche’s arrival serves to cramp Stanley and Stella’s lifestyle quite a bit. However, with a baby on the way I had to wonder wasn’t that eventuality going to happen anyway? It is apparent that Stanley doesn’t like to share Stella with anyone, and I don’t think the fact that the child would be part of him would stop his resentment of the child from growing.
Here his resentment is directed at Blanche. She becomes the scab he needs to pick at. The problem is that Blanche is not strong mentally. Her grip on reality is tenuous at best. She’s lost everything in her life and is turning to her sister as all she has left. At the same time, her pride prevents her from letting on just how grim a situation she’s running from. I saw a lot of similarities between Blanche Dubois and Scarlett O’Hara. I believe Blanche is what Scarlett would have become had she not found the inner strength to turn their life around post-Civil War. Blanche doesn’t have that inner strength, preferring to depend on the kindness of strangers instead.
On the opposite end is Brando and how magnificent he is! This has to be the performance of his career as far as I’m concerned. He becomes Stanley Kowalski in every sense. That Bogie won the Academy Award that year for best actor seems to be an act of giving the veteran his due over the upstart young actor after viewing Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. He has everything in the role, the abuser mentality, and the ability to manipulate people and situations despite not being as educated as they are. In fact, the lack of education helps him, if anything. The false sense of security those who feel they are above him (such as Blanche) have allows him to sneak up on them. He makes it easy to dismiss Stanley as a big galoot, while in reality, he is something much more sneaky and manipulative.
His weakness is his love for Stella. He does truly love her, although what is love in his eyes and what’s love to the rest of us are likely quite different. Kim Hunter’s performance as a woman with divided loyalty to her family and the past versus the future she sees with the hard-drinking and abusive Stanley is admirable. Either option doesn’t seem all that great from the outside looking in. Stella feels the sexual energy from Stanley and feeds off of it. In reality, she’s just as messed up as Blanche is, but has that inner strength that Blanche is missing out on. She sees the baby she is having as cementing the bond between her and Stanley when it will likely end up being as divisive as Blanche’s presence in their home.
The ending of the movie is different than that of the play. The ending of the play is probably the truer one. The film gives the audience hope that the situation will resolve itself for the better, while the play has the same pattern of abuse and reactions continuing.
Elia Kazan is one of the greatest Hollywood directors, and with good reason. He paces this film quite well and makes the most of the setting. It can be difficult to keep an audience riveted when the view doesn’t change, but he focuses so well on the story and draws out performances that are award-worthy from his four main actors. Another of his films, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also a favorite of mine because of the authentic feel. That same feel is captured here. Despite it being a soundstage, despite there being four actors, it’s easy to see this as real people in New Orleans whom we are getting a glimpse of. He’s also masterful in conveying all of this in black and white. The film would have been interesting in color but done in black and white with the shadows accentuating the situation nicely.
If you haven’t seen A Streetcar Named Desire, I definitely recommend checking it out. If you haven’t watched it in a while, or haven’t seen the uncensored version, I recommend taking the time to see it again. I know I appreciated it just as much even having viewed it several times through the years. The DVD with all of the extras is a terrific compilation to add to your collection as well.
” Commentary by Karl Malden, Rudy Behlmer, and Jeff Young
” Elia Kazan Trailer Gallery
” Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey Documentary
” A Streetcar on Broadway
” A Streetcar in Hollywood
” Censorship and Desire
” North and the Music of the South
” An Actor Named Brando
” Movie and Audio Outtakes
” Marlon Brando Screen-test
Categories: Movie Reviews
I must look out for the film. Ive seen it on the stage several times. But never the film. Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful review
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The movie is sad, but it is well-done