1940s New Orleans, Louisiana. In the French Quarter, a blonde woman steps off the streetcar named Desire in search for her sister’s apartment. Blanche du Bois is seeking refuge from life. “So much confusion in the world,” she muses. And so begins 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire,which no doubt is a classic in American cinema.
Streetcar was a phenomenal and controversial film in 1951. Taking its story from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play by Tennessee Williams, who also contributed in writing the screenplay for the film version, the film approaches men’s emotions, homosexuality, mental illness, domestic violence, and rape. And director Elia Kazan, the original director of the stage production, handles these blazing topics with grace and ease. His artistry is absolutely brilliant.
He was able to pull together an amazing cast, mostly from the Broadway show, and pull out of them the best performances. The film would go on to win a number of Academy Awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role to Vivien Leigh for her portrayal of Blanche, Best Actress in a Supporting Role to Kim Hunter for her role as Stella (she also won a Golden Globe for this role), and a Best Actor in a Supporting Role to Karl Malden for his portrayal as Mitch.
Mitch, though just a supporting character, has his own levels of complexity woven into this narrative. When we first meet Mitch he has come to Stanley’s apartment for the weekly poker game. He has to leave early, though; his mother is not well and she waits up for him. Mitch, as a single young man, is trapped by his responsibility to care for his mother. But there are tiny sprinklings of hints that there is more to this relationship. Karl Malden suggests on the commentary on the Blu-ray that Mitch really wants to be like Stanley. In other words, he is longing for the day to be set free from the bondage of his co-dependent relationship with his mother. Though by film’s end, Mitch is the better man.
Marlon Brando did not get an Oscar for his role as Stanley Kowalski (a role he played on stage from 1947-1949); instead the award went to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen. Brando, however, would change the view of male actors. Before Brando’s Stanley, it was extremely rare to see a man on screen express emotions of any kind, violent or otherwise. Before James Dean’s emotional distraught young man in Rebel without a Cause or Giant and before Jack Nicholson in anything, there was Brando. Sure, male actors would show emotions, but always with a degree of modesty. Brando as Stanley trades modesty for raw, naked emotions, which at times can be uncomfortable to witness.
And that is the brilliance of Kazan’s interpretation of Williams’ play. Kazan takes this amazing cast and manages to get out of them some of the greatest performances we have seen. He makes what would normally be too uncomfortable to watch, watchable. He is clever and creative in his storytelling, in that he leaves just enough untold for the audience to fill in the blanks. This assumes that the audience is smart enough to handle that, which is something that I appreciate in a storyteller.
The most complicated character by far is the complex Blanche. Arriving in New Orleans to visit her sister Stella, Blanche brings not only her huge trunk of clothes and jewelry, but a great deal of emotional baggage. There is so much that could be said about Blanche, who is possibly one of the greatest literary characters of the 20th century. Blanche lives in her lies to the point that she doesn’t know what is true and what is not. Stanley seems to see right through her. This just adds to the tension between Blanche and Stanley. A tension mixed with flirting and aggravation. And it’s a tension that would finally explode in Blanche being raped by Stanley. The broken mirror becomes our main clue and symbol of this brutal act. This leads to Blanche’s final and unbearable moments of madness, delivered in a controlled and concentrated manner by Vivien Leigh.
All of the mental confusion, self-deception and great anxiety lead us to believe that Blanche lives in the shadows. Even in a black and white film, it is clear by the lighting employed that Blanche’s narrative is filled with darkness. Many films use the tools of light and dark to tell their stories. Yet, here in this 1951 film is the most astonishing use of this contrast I have seen. In a scene where Mitch is asking her about the darkness, she replies, “I like the dark. The dark is comforting to me.”
There are so many figures in the Bible that lived in darkness. I imagine that the nameless Samaritan woman in John’s gospel lived in such darkness. We don’t know much about her, other than that she has had five husbands and the man she was currently with was not her husband. She may not have had the inner demons that Mary Magdalene had (Luke 8:2), but she lived in enough darkness to avoid the other women who came to draw water from the village well. Surprised to see a man there in the middle of the day, the Samaritan woman is greeted with the promise of everlasting water. Cleansing, clear water that is a symbol of the promise of grace.
Unfortunately it is not clear if Blanche was met with this promise. In the scene where she and Mitch bicker over the light in the room, Mitch begins to show affection towards her. “Will you marry me?” she asks. “No,” Mitch tells her, “You’re not clean enough.” After the rape of Blanche, the screen fades into the streets of the French Quarter being hosed down. The streets are cluttered with trash and other dirt. The water is washing it away.
Blanche is seeking the cleansing, living water that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman. But where will she find it? She cannot find it living in the Quarter with her sister and brother-in-law. She cannot find it in a relationship with Mitch. Before Blanche is taken away by the doctor and his nurse, all sound seems to stop as the Catholic Cathedral down the street chimes. “The Cathedral chimes,” observes Blanche, “are the only clean thing in the quarter.” Perhaps that is where grace and acceptance can be found?
This is a film that has stayed just as compelling and riveting as it was in 1951. I agree with the New York Times reviewer from 1951 who said, “You must see it to appreciate it.”
The Blu-ray is packed with special features. In addition to including scenes that were not in the original theatrical release, it includes a commentary on the film from the late-actor Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young. There is a feature length film titled “Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey” that was originally made for PBS. Then, there is the pair of mini documentaries “A Streetcar on Broadway” and “A Streetcar in Hollywood,” where Kazan discusses the taking the stage production to the film version. There is also a feature, “An Actor Named Brando,” which takes a look at Marlon Brando. And that’s just a same sampling of what this Blu-ray offers.