movie: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

On my recent very very long overseas flight, I watched several movies. Thanks Husband for spotting this classic for me! As you may know, A Streetcar Named Desire was a play by Tennessee Williams, published in 1947. I have not read the play, although I studied his Glass Menagerie in high school and appreciated it. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I want very much to read the original, and I would love to see one of TW’s plays performed one day. This film was released in 1951, directed by Elia Kazan, and stars Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando – wow! [Also in high school, I studied Kazan’s On the Waterfront, alongside Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Guess what the connection there was.]

You can get a plot synopsis anywhere, so I’ll be brief and spoiler-free. Blanche DuBois shows up at her sister Stella’s apartment in New Orleans from the plantation back in Laurel, Mississippi. She tells Stella that the plantation has been lost and she needs to stay a while. While Blanche is a delicate, swooning southern belle, and Stella a tougher urban woman, Stella’s husband Stanley is all muscle and sensuality. He has no patience with Blanche’s needy weakness, and her presence throws the small household out of balance, just as Stella is expecting a child. There is conflict. I’m stopping there.

This is a masterfully put together film. I positively adored the black and white French Quarter setting: although more than 50 years old now, it was instantly recognizable. I could almost smell the booze and feel the humid heat. Vivian Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter (Stella) are all so perfect, picturesque, and work as archetypes of the characters they play. Kazan is a master of the use of light and dark. Blanche undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts when moving from shadow to light – there is a dramatic scene dealing with the issue. And while I’m on dramatic scenes, the style here is highly melodramatic, with Blanche being the perfect example of what that means: fluttering hands, shrieks and gasps and exclamations, “OH! I just don’t know how I can take it…”, all of which are perfect for her damaged-southern-belle role. And perhaps this adds to the melodrama, but clothes sure do tear easy in this movie. I gave up counting the clothing that got ripped in the action.

Here’s a quick discussion with spoilers. Highlight the following white text to read: I was a little maddened by not knowing whether Stanley raped Blanche in that fade-to-black scene. So I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that it is indeed only “implied” in Williams’s original. They certainly carried the implication into the film. I think he did rape her. I also learned from Wikipedia that Blanche’s husband had a homosexual affair prior to his suicide, which I had not gathered from the movie; and sure enough, it is later stated in the article that this detail is left out of the film, because of the Hays code. This is unsurprising in context, as I recall from high school that Kazan was a good, government-compliant filmmaker.

Tennessee Williams is absolutely recognizable to me from The Glass Menagerie: he likes his damaged and increasingly crazy southern belles, and their gentlemen callers, doesn’t he? I felt I’d seen Vivien Leigh deliver her closing line before: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” But I’m sure I hadn’t. Maybe it’s just that famous.

As a piece of excellent directing and acting by all three leads (and isn’t Brando smoking hot), and as a fine production of a very fine play, I give this one a near-perfect rating and recommend it as a classic film.

Rating: 9 fluttering eyelids.

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