After being sent away from her hometown in Mississippi for seducing a teenage boy at the school in which she worked as an English teacher, Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) runs to her sister in Louisiana. Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the years after the Second World War, A Streetcar Named Desire is the tale of fragile psychotic woman looking to find her place in the world, even off the backs of others. In response for dropping on her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Marlon Brando), Blanche spins the tale of being tired, as well the family plantation succumbing to America’s capitalism or die reality.
Blanche is in need of a saviour, but she likes nice things. Yet, despite this, she is a ‘lady’ and when she comes to New Orleans, she realises she’s swimming with sharks. Though, Stanley doesn’t trust her for a second. He’s a brute and tells Blanche he won’t be tricked, demanding to see proof of what she says. This gives meaning to their relationship throughout the film, as they’re in love. When Mitch (Karl Malden) arrives, she begins to see a way out of her crisis with Stanley. He too, is alone in the world, but as whispers of Blanche’s past follow her to New Orleans, her current state of affairs take a turn for the worse.
Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the best play to screen adaptations in the history of performing arts, along with Denzel Washington’s Fences (2017) and Oliver! directed by Carol Reed at the end of the 1960s, which was taken from the novel by Charles Dickens but has been adapted to the stage countless times. Let’s not for get Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well. Elia Kazan is easily one of the greatest directors that ever lived. From On The Waterfront to Gentleman’s Agreement to East of Eden, the man is a legend. Kazan managed to make a movie that stood apart from the source material yet still did the play justice. He did more than make a play on film, he gave it innovative originality, as any director should.
Blanche (Vivien Leigh) arrives in French Quarter of New Orleans under the boot of psychological fatigue spurred on by money problems that ended in losing the family plantation Belle Reve (Sweet Dreams) and has come to be at the mercy of her sister (Hunter) and her husband (Brando) in a run-down apartment. The animalistic Stanley marks his territory from the start, by showing he’s the opposite of Blanche and Stella’s high-classness. Stanley may be from the “gutter”, but he’s not stupid, and knows Blanche is up to no good the minute she walks through the door. So he starts to asking questions to various people about her past. She sees an escape through Mitch (Karl Malden) but even he soon sees she’s not a keeper.
This is not just a character study of the Blanche, it’s also a character study of the American Dream. She’s a mental mess, vain and narcissistic, as shown with her not wanting to be seen by others in any real natural light or physical light. Her insecurity is at its peak when Mitch demands to see her properly, as their dates have been in dark dingy places with very little light, purposely chosen by Blanche to quench her insecure nature. Mitch is really well-written. It’s almost comical that he comes off as this too-good-to be true Rhett Butler-esque gentleman type, but under the skin he’s just as much a man’s man and a brute as Stanley. His boots are heavy and so is his temperament, like the anger on his face with Blanche Dubois.
The film is seedy, though not as seedy as the original play, as they push Stanley’s rape of Stella off screen. It’s the 1950s, a time before they could “condone” rape in a motion picture. Let’s be serious, Hitchcock had to fight to get that shower scene in Psycho and that was the 60s. There was no way in hell they’d get a rape scene. Not like today where they’re in every TV drama, unsolicited, pure and raw. If you don’t believe me, one of the most vivid examples that comes to mind is Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. A Streetcar Named Desire is set in the gutter, no matter what the voices in Blanche’s head are saying to her and that’s where the film stays for its one hundred and twenty-minute or so duration. Realism, not magic and it’s great.
The film’s writing is fantastic, and the performances are too. I’m struggling to see how Kazan even got this film green-lit, let alone pre-production. It’s graphic in its violence towards women, even for the 1950s. From its subject matter to its sexual-leanings to its critique of mental health and the American way, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most revealing stories of the twentieth century, play and film alike. Elia Kazan was the king of atmospheric direction, much alike how Hitchcock is the undisputed Master of Suspense. The film is humming with humidity, and lingers on faces for far longer than what is comfortable. The lighting creates an aura too, changing throughout to show Blanche’s age. A masterful, killer stroke indeed.
If you want great performances, hop on a streetcar named Desire, not Cemetery. Leigh is the perfect fit for Blanche. She was ten years older than Brando and it’s visible. She gets everything right. She is vulnerable, yet self-indulgent (as Blanche should be). She is confident, yet desperate. And refined, yet disjointed. Leigh is also convincing with her body language and her age varies throughout, She looks beautiful like she did in Gone With The Wind in one moment and in the next, she is tired and worn out. That is Blanche Dubois. And she totally deserved her Oscar, her second one at that. Brando is a machine, but he’s still playing second fiddle to Leigh. Though, he still deserved to win an Oscar for his performance. That’s a pity.
But this film wins in its depiction of otherness. “Don’t you ever talk that way to me. ‘Pig,’ ‘Pollack,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘vulgar,’ ‘greasy.’ Those kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s tongue just too much around here. What do you think you are? A pair of queens?” says Stanley (Brando). With his brutish ways and poker games, he knows he’ll only ever be seen as a second-class citizen by Blanche, and even by his own wife Stella (Hunter). But he knows what kind of man he is. His race or his class don’t define his strength of character. Just because you’re black or polish; rich or poor; man or woman, should these things define us as people? I don’t think so, well at least not in relation to our moral character.
Williams does not let any of his characters of the hook. Williams’ Stanley is not so different to Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. Both are workers, working-class, judged on their background and are accustomed to fighting to solve their problems. Yet, it’s no secret that Brando is sexualised to the point of no return in this film. Life has not been easy for Stanley. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth but both Stella and Blanche hold “Polack” over him like its something to be ashamed of. In 2017, we call that racism. It’s racial and class-motivated bigotry. He rapes Blanche at the end of the film. By then, she was already going mad. This was the finishing touch and his performance was great, showing why he’s one of best actors of his time.
Despite the changed ending from the play, Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire goes onto my list of perfect films. As much as I have tried, like Casablanca, I struggle to find problems with this film. With its excellent performances, dark motifs and great use of light and shadow, this is one of the great American films based on one of the great American plays. If you haven’t watched this yet, make it your number one priority.
It’s not often that I say an adaptation is as good as the original source material it is drawn from