Saturday 20 October 2012

Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Class warfare, love, lust, longing, prostitution, mental illness and rape: A Streetcar Named Desire crams a bucketful of drama into an incendiary two hours of fascinating entertainment.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) travels to New Orleans to visit her sister Stella (Kim Hunter), who is married to Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche and Stella are from rich southern heritage, but Stanley is a rough and tumble Polish immigrant, and the Kowalskis live in a cramped, cluttered  apartment in a noisy part of town. Nevertheless, Stella and Stanley make room for Blanche, who puts on airs of superiority and haughtiness that immediately set her on a collision course with the no-nonsense Stanley.

It does not take the brutish but sharp Stanley long to unmask Blanche's faults and insecurities, despite her pretend snobbishness. She is a desperate almost-alcoholic, a woman on the run from her history, her misery and maybe more. Meanwhile, Blanche starts a relationship with the lonely Harold (Karl Malden), one of Stanley's co-workers and poker buddies. Harold is initially easy prey for Blanche's charms, and his infatuation threatens the friendship with Stanley. But it is the marriage between Stanley and Stella that is most at risk, and Blanche's prolonged stay in New Orleans starts to shake the foundation of their love.

Tennessee Williams and Oscar Saul adapted Williams' play for the screen, and Elia Kazan directs with an eye to creating an ever-simmering pot of red sauce punctuated by shocking outbursts from Brando as Stanley Kowalski. His performance is intensity in a pressurized bottle.

Whether expressing his anguished love for Stella or exploding in the face of Blanche, Stanley is raw manhood made all the more fascinating by the speed and certainty with which he climbs down from his paroxysms. Stanley "clearing" his side of the dinner table and then asking if he should help clear the rest is shocking cinematic excellence. In only his second film appearance, Brando was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, but lost to Humphrey Bogart's Charlie Allnut in The African Queen.

Vivien Leigh is equally brilliant as the sadly pathetic Blanche, a woman able to fool a few of people part of the time. With fading looks, lost landholdings, dead former lovers and other hidden unsavoury scraps dominating her fate, Leigh finds the desperation in a woman clutching at any remaining thin streams of light that could illuminate a better future, and finding in Harold one last possible path to salvation.

Blanche's theatrical act of supremacy is diametrically opposite to Stanley's pride in his animalistic instincts, and throwing the two together in a small apartment is no different than lighting a short fuse on a stick of dynamite.

Cinematographer Harry Stradling creates dark and claustrophobic settings all around Blanche as the world closes in on her and her options narrow. Whatever space she has left is often invaded by Stanley's brooding presence, ready to puncture her despairing self-delusion.

A Streetcar Names Desire ends with shattered illusions and lives left in tatters, the Kowalski apartment witness to a scene of unforgettable emotional wreckage. Not all desires can be satisfied, and even when they are, the outcome can often be unexpectedly devastating.

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