Thursday 27 November 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Omstigning til Paradis
One of the problems early cinema faced was to translate acting on a stage to acting on a screen without sound. In the beginning movies were simply filmed theater and the only concession to the film media were excessive nonverbal acting and intertitles en masse. It took a while, but eventually filmmakers learned to make use of the special possibilities the media gave and created a unique art form. Fifty years later we are right back at the beginning. “A Streetcar Named Desire” is simply filmed theater with the difference from fifty years earlier that no concessions are necessary.

Elia Kazan, a true actor’s director, staged “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway and when he translated it to the silver screen he hardly changed anything. Even the actors were mainly the same. There are a lot of good things that can be said about a faithful adaption, especially if the story is strong enough as it is. In this case two things are bothering me. By simply translating the movie the possibilities of cinema are practically ignored, like in those early movies. That means that everything hinges on the acting and dialogue of the characters. To last two hours that better be good, or this is going to be a long and boring film. Both are excellent, I just wonder if the story is strong enough.

The second problem is the manner of acting. On the stage all acting and dialogue are loud, clear and very pronounced. Exaggerated, so the audience has a chance of following the play. I understand the necessity, but I always found it a trifle annoying because it made the characters almost caricatures. What Kazan did here was that he let the actors act out the play as if they were of a stage, which to a large extent makes them, well, very theatrical and frankly annoying. For these two reason I probably liked this movie less than it deserves.

This is the story of three characters, Blanche, Stan and Stella. Stan (Marlon Brando) and Stella (Kim Hunter) are married and live in a small, cramped and way too hot apartment in New Orleans when Stella’s sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) moves in.

Blanche and Stella are of some old school southern pedigree and where Stella has put that behind her for a normal and realistic life, Blanche still cling to it. All that pedigree, style, manner and fancy is a shield she uses to protect herself against the outside world. She measures her own worth on that scale and desperately needs confirmation that she is a young, beautiful and sophisticated southern belle. The more she crack up on the inside the more her shell becomes her reality and, frankly, she is totally cuckoo. It is curious to see Vivien Leigh in this role 12 year after she played the most famous of all Southern belles in Gone with the Wind. Here are all the manners, arrogance and speech but nothing of the steel and backbone of Scarlett. Blanche is entirely hollow.

Stanley is the absolute opposite. He is a Man (capital intended) in the most basic and archetypical form. His appearance exudes masculinity as he walks around in a sweaty t-shirt. He is no-nonsense and takes no shit from anyone and anybody who challenge him are met with fury. Stanley is the king in his own house. He holds poker nights, drinks, smokes and shouts exactly as he pleases and anything happening to him and his wife is his business. There is absolutely no restraint on him, no form or code that he follows or respects. Instead he is honesty in its most raw and animalistic form. This is only Marlon Brando’s second movie, but a massive breakthrough for him. The first thing I thought when he first appeared was that this was Brad Pitt somehow sent back to 1951 and I can certainly see how and why he became a massive sex symbol.

The plot is essentially the clash between these two characters. They are at every turn able to bring out the worst in each other. The more airs Blanche put on the more provoked and aggressive Stanley gets, which in turn makes Blanche retreat even further into her fantasy world of being a refined lady. Both of them are absolutely insane and cut off from any sort of normality, but they are also both right about the other. Stanley is calling Blanche’s bluff every time, he understands more than anybody that there is absolutely nothing underneath the shell and he is right, in principle at least, about protecting his friend Mitch and Stella against this fake woman, but his behavior is so atrocious and brutal that he does a lot more harm than good and only manages to burn his bridges.

Blanche on the other hand is entirely right when she exposes Stan as a beast of a man with no control, hardly better than an animal, and a man who is unsafe for Stella to be around. But Blanche is just so lunatic that coming from her the accusations sound weak.

Caught in the middle of these to opposite poles is Stella. She is supposed to be the pillar of sense in this game, but her oddity is that she is hanging on to these two loonies despite their obvious insanity. The why of that may be difficult to grasp until you catch the underlying current of emotion in the film. The steamy heat of New Orleans and the sensual music play on basic emotions and it is clear that raw sexual desire is what is keeping Stella and Stanley together. It is also clear that desire plays an important part in Blanche mental state. She desires to be wanted so bad that it is literally driving her crazy. What keeps her and Stella together is almost an opposite compassionate sisterly love, but that emotion has very hard conditions in this raw environment.

In the end however it is her baby that saves Stella from this madhouse. Here is a clean and true emotion and in that there is no room for Stan and Blanche.

This is an actor’s movie. Overacting maybe, certainly to my taste – there is a long way from northern Jutland to The French Quarter in New Orleans, but nevertheless strong performances. Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and, surprise, Karl Malden as Mitch, all received an academy award for this movie, though the one that really deserved it, if only for his sheer presence and shout of “STELLA!!!!”, Marlon Brando did not.

I understand the movie and I understand why it is famous, but it did not appeal very much to me. I disliked every one of the characters and was just waiting to the whole thing to blow up. Dysfunctional relationships is not my favorite topic and I generally try to avoid that sort of films. I do respect this one though and I certainly foresee a lot of interesting movies with Marlon Brando.  


  1. It's been too long since I've seen this. Well, at least the Oscars came through with one for Brando the following year. I think On the Waterfront was the better of the two performances as well, though this is certainly not far behind. At the beginning of his career, he was absolutely a force of nature.

    1. I have not seen On the Waterfront so I cannot tell it that one was more deserved, but his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire is Oscar material if I ever saw any.

  2. This is the movie that shows Brando at the height of his sexual power as an actor. It's a hell of a great movie all the way through.

    Brando got robbed, but as Marie said, he got his with On the Waterfront, which he deserved, too.

    1. He was bloody scary, that is what he was. Explosive, brutal and charming as hell.