A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) 4.64/5 (4)


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Rating: The Good – 94.8
Genre: Drama
Duration: 122 mins
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter

When any critic or film lover worth their salt sits down to draw up their list of the very best screen dramas, Elia Kazan and Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire will be right up there with the best of them. What is even more certain is that Marlon Brando’s primal Stanley Kowalski will be right on top of the closely related list of greatest ever performances. Vivian Leigh is Blanche, the ageing former southern belle who arrives in the seedy part of New Orleans to live with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley. Coming as they do from old money, Blanche soon informs her sister that their family estate has been lost, an announcement which Stanley meets with suspicion and anger. Over the next two acts we gradually learn that this change in circumstance is only one symptom of something deeper. With all the outward pretensions of a lady, Blanche is nonetheless damaged and she reveals glimpses of recent corruption here and there, more than enough for her typically blunt but perversely perceptive bother in law to hone in on.

Everything that makes a film truly great is in play here. Everything! Bertram Tuttle’s set direction and general production design and Harry Strandling’s cinematography are the very definition of classic creating a psychological space out of Stella and Stanley’s apartment and the outside of the dance hall where Leigh and Karl Malden’s would-be suitor share their uncomfortably revelatory date. Kazan frames the drama around this space through a continuously bold use of light and shadow with the latter subsuming the former as the hidden complexity of the ever looming back story is increasingly revealed. Weaving Alex North’s sultry jazz score into this visual tapestry gives the characters’ environment a surreal quality disconnected from the concrete world of our daily perceptions. Wearing as such devices are on the audiences’ tolerance for disequilibrium, as the veil is slowly drawn back on Blanche’s emerging psychosis, the screw is turned ever tighter and a terrible tipping point seems more unavoidable.

Of course, the real meat and potatoes of this tension lies in the acting and writing and Kazan was clever, disciplined, and secure enough to, in every other way, turn this Streetcar into a vehicle for such. His lens rests on the emotional surface to the story which can facilitate a uniquely close examination of character but only if the cast are up to pulling the extra weight. Needless to say they are… and then some. Firstly, Hunter’s contribution has always been in danger of going underappreciated given the quality of the material the two leads had to play with but Stella is the lynchpin and she handles it deftly. At all times, Hunter instinctively balances Stella’s gentry upbringing with the rough edges life with a boorish husband has left her with. Therefore, she perfectly relates to both sister and husband even though at times they seem to speak different languages. It’s not that she’s a translator but more a diplomat and a wearily clever one at that. Leigh is dizzingly effective as the detached and spiralling older sister who herself performs a powerful balancing act between victim and manipulator, abused and abuser. She postures delicately in front of men attempting to wield what she desperately tries to convince herself is a weapon against them. But when one of those men is Stanley Kowalski, it’s only a matter of time before that pretension is obliterated. And with Brando’s undiluted power and magnetism, when that happens, its just about one of the most difficult things to watch on screen.

Brando is beyond immense harnessing as he does all his capacity for innovation and wisdom for character into the focused personality of an inarticulate lout. His burly tempestuous presence ripples through the film catching everyone else in its wake and with each gesture and uttered word the audience is well and truly hooked whether we like it or not. Naturally, when you have Kazan directing you and Williams writing you, it’s not entirely a solo act. The manner in which he is introduced to us is genuinely inspired and his dialogue is some of the most deviously functional ever written for stage or screen. While Blanche utters one lyrically mesmerising line after another, Stanley’s words are robust and flaying. It’s not what his words articulate but what they exude that makes them so dangerous. But it is Brando who is ultimately responsible for heaving those words and that man onto an altogether different plane, a place that few other characters and performances (if any) stand on.

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