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Movie Reviews

A Streetcar Named Desire



Reviewer: Angharad Ross-Jones

Released: December 1st 1951 UK)

Director: Elia Kazan

Stars: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando

Certificate: 12a (UK)


The iconic stage show made into an even more memorable 1951 film.

Starring two of the brightest acting talents of all time, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire was, the moment it opened, propelled into infamy for its quotable lines and fine performances. Bringing all the mystery and scandal of the show to the broader ‘big screen’ audiences, the film reached critical acclaim and received a total of 12 Academy Award nominations and 4 big wins including Best Actress for Vivien Leigh.

But 60 years on, is it still considered the provocative and insightful piece of filmmaking it was in its day?

The film opens to present female protagonist Blanche DuBois (Leigh). An ageing but attractive southern belle clinging to the remnants of her youth, Blanche anxiously takes a streetcar through the heady ambience of New Orleans’ French Quarter, to reach the apartment of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter). Our first impression of Blanche is that she’s of a fragile disposition–she seems uncomfortable and a little disgusted by the raw urban atmosphere of New Orleans, the culture of which we must assume is a world apart from that of her rural hometown of Auriol, Mississippi.

Stella greets Blanche warmly as she arrives at the rundown bowling alley of their meeting, and she points out her husband Stanley Kowalski (Brando) whom Blanche has never met. Good-natured Stella seems proud to boast Stanley as her partner, but Blanche isn’t at all impressed by his straightforward manner and rough appearance and though she chooses not to voice her opinions immediately, she believes him common. As they return to the apartment Blanche explains the reason for her visit. Belle Reeve, the DuBois family’s plantation, has been lost due to the (as Blanche puts it) ‘epic debauchery’ of the family’s ancestors. She explains that this has ‘upset her nerves’ so much that her superiors have given her time off teaching to recover; and that now she hopes to stay with Stella and Stanley until her affairs are in order and she can return to life as normal.

Despite some feelings of trepidation, ultimately, the couple agree to let her stay. But Stanley is suspicious of Blanche’s story and dislikes her air of superiority towards him. He finds her to be a strange sort of woman and thinks there maybe more to her than meets the eye. While Blanche is out of room he begins to aggressively search through her luggage for information, as Stella tries her best to dissuade him. Here we get and idea of the real Stanley; brutish and strong he overpowers Stella verbally and physically, challenging her opinion of Blanche and asserting his authority. He doesn’t like what he sees of Blanche’s questionable belongings and as she emerges he confronts her- asking her to repeat the details of her story to him. He’s intimidating and straight to the point, in stark contrast to Blanche’s refined speech and ‘shy violet’ manner. But despite being polar opposites and immediately disliking and distrusting each other, it becomes clear there’s something of a strange sexual tension and mutual intrigue between them.

As they continue to live together Blanche comes to realise Stella is actually attracted to Stanley’s uncouth and animalistic behaviour despite her high class upbringing. She watches mystified as Stella time and again forgives Stanley for dominating and abusing her. She explains to Stella how she thinks she could have done better but Blanche herself also seems to be falling under Stanley’s spell; lustfully admiring his impressive physique and simpering under his hard scrutiny. As tensions rise the characters are stripped bare, their deep flaws revealed, along with the truth about Blanche and Stanley.

Both Brando’s and Leigh’s performances to me are outstanding. Brando is both threatening and somehow strangely likeable as the violent and passionate Stanley, whilst Leigh’s portrayal of ‘wilting flower’ Blanche (though sometimes criticised as slightly overacted) is in my opinion extremely clever, as when the other side of Blanche’s character is exposed it’s all the more shocking. Leigh’s performance changes drastically and yet subtly at this point. Small changes such as her voice lowering, or her stare turning cold, are surprisingly effective. I found the performances of the entire cast to be believable, despite the difference in acting style to that of today’s actors/actresses. The pace of the screenplay isn’t what contemporary audiences are familiar with, although I didn’t find it a problem when watching.

The famous ‘implied’ scene is actually ingenious. The fact you never see/hear the whole story of the events gives an ambiguous and even darker feel to the film. This is heightened even more by Alex North’s brilliant and sensual score- it oozes style and suspense and like all good cinematic music, it helps to tell the story.

The only real criticisms I can make about this film are with regards to editing. The first scenes are slightly choppy as if they have been edited short, but thankfully this problem is confined to only a few scenes at the beginning and the rest of the film doesn’t suffer as a result.

Overall I think it’s a powerful portrayal of the human condition, and definitely as relevant today as it was when released. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s certainly an aptly named piece too, as desire (in one form or another) is the motive for all the characters actions, reactions and the cause of their conflict and struggles.

Though there are numerous meaningful quotes, the film can be summed up perfectly by Blanche’s first line. When asked ‘Can I help you, mam?’ she replies- ‘Why, they told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery, and then ride 6 blocks to get off at Elysian Fields.’

If you understand and feel appreciative of that metaphor, then you should definitely watch this film.

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