Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire is the story of a woman who leaves her aristocratic world to live in New Orleans with her sister and brutish brother-in-law in a dilapidated apartment as her life starts to crumble. Directed by Elia Kazan and screenplay by Williams and Oscar Saul, the film is an exploration of a woman who wants to be something special but has a hard time dealing with the new world she’s in as well as the man who treats her terribly. Starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. A Streetcar Named Desire is a rich yet intense film from Elia Kazan.
Set in New Orleans, the film revolves around a woman who arrives to the city to live with her sister and brother-in-law in the hopes to regain her aristocratic lifestyle after some major losses in her life though her brother-in-law becomes troubled by her presence as he treats her cruelly. It is a film that explores a woman trying to maintain this illusion of being a Southern Belle as she left her hometown to find riches and such in New Orleans but she has to contend with this force of nature that is her brother-in-law. The film’s screenplay by Tennessee Williams that is based on his own play with contributions from Oscar Saul play into the plight that Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) is enduring as she hopes to retain this identity even though she lost a lot as she had quit her job as an English middle school teacher. Blanche’s arrival at the apartment home of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) would have Blanche deal with the fact that Stella lives in this dilapidated apartment with her husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando).
The script also includes Kowalski’s friend Mitch (Karl Malden) who takes a liking to Blanche where he even considers marrying her so that neither of them would be lonely yet Kowalski thinks the relationship is a bad idea as he has suspicions about Blanche though his brutish behavior towards her doesn’t help matters. Even as Blanche is critical towards both him and Stella as it adds discord to their relationship where some of Williams’ dialogue do play into these emotions but also into Blanche’s own disconnection with reality as if she is imagining about the world she wants to be in. Notably as it adds to this contrast to the world that Kowalski and Stella live in that is lively but also simple where not everyone has everything.
Elia Kazan’s direction definitely has this theatrical presentation as it is set largely in this apartment complex in the middle of the French Quarter in New Orleans with part of that area and other nearby places are shot. While there’s a few wide shots in the film to get a scope of the location as well as the apartment in its cramped and claustrophobic feel as it does serve as a character in the film. Kazan’s direction is focused more on intimacy with the usage of close-ups and medium shots as the latter is used to play into the tension between Blanche and Kowalski. It’s not just this claustrophobic atmosphere that adds to the drama but also in how it plays into Blanche’s own mental state as the walls would close in around her as it play into her refusal to accept the reality of her situation. Even as she wears these stylish and glamourous clothing that is a total contrast to the simpler yet ragged look of Kowalski as the latter is this symbol of sexual ferocity. Kazan also uses the location as well as heat as this intense atmosphere that adds to the drama including some of the tension between Blanche and Kowalski.
One key scene outside of the apartment is a party scene where it’s focused on this conversation between Blanche and Mitch where the latter gets to hear her story as it play into the former’s old life but also her past as Mitch would fall for her unaware that of her troubled mental state. Kazan’s compositions and usage of long shots play into the drama as well as scenes of Blanche trying to play up this façade of a world where everything is lit a certain way and everything has to be glamourous yet she still has to contend with this more cynical reality that is Kowalski. Even as the tension would boil into the third act as even Stella becomes tired of both of them as she is caught in the middle yet she loves both her husband and sister. The climax that relates to this boiling tension of Blanche’s fantasy and the harsh reality of Kowalski would finally collide as it lead to some harsh revelations as well as a real sense of loss for everyone. Overall, Kazan crafts a riveting and exhilarating film about a fallen Southern Belle trying to start a new life only to collide with the dark reality that is her brutish brother-in-law.
Cinematographer Harry Stradling does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography with its stylish usage of shadows and lights for many of the interior scenes to help set the mood as well as play into Blanche’s refusal to see the reality of the world and who she really is. Editor David Weisbart does excellent work with the editing as it is straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the dramatic suspense. Art directors Richard Day and Bertram Tuttle, with set decorator George Hopkins, do amazing work with the look of the apartment as well as some of its exteriors as it help play into the atmosphere of the film as well as the claustrophobic tone whenever Blanche deals with reality. Costume designer Lucinda Ballard does fantastic work with the ragged look of Kowalski including his ripped t-shirts as well as some of the more glamourous look of Blanche that would become more ragged as the film progresses.
Makeup artist Gordon Bau does nice work with the look of Blanche from this attempt at a clean and refined hairstyle as well as the makeup to make herself look younger as it only play into this idea of a fantasy that she wants to hold on to. The sound work of Nathan Levinson and C.A. Riggs is superb for the atmosphere that it creates as it help play into the dramatic tension that occurs in the film that also includes sparse sounds of what is happening outside of the apartment. The film’s music by Alex North is incredible for its rich and eerie orchestral score that includes this theme for Blanche that is only heard by her as it’s chilling and offbeat while the rest of the music is soaring with its string arrangements that is mixed in with bits of New Orleans jazz.
The film’s wonderful ensemble cast feature some notable small roles from August Kuhn as a sailor Blanche meets upon her arrival to New Orleans, Richard Garrick as a doctor who appears late in the film, Ann Dere as a mysterious matron that only Blanche sees, Wright King as a young collector that Blanche meets in the middle of the film, Rudy Bond and Nick Dennis in their respective roles as Kowalski and Mitch’s poker buddies Steve and Pablo, and Peg Hillas in an excellent performance as the apartment complex landlady Eunice who often takes Stella in whenever Kowalski gets intense as well as someone who doesn’t like him much at all. Karl Malden is brilliant as Mitch as a friend of Kowalski who served in the war with him as he becomes fascinated by Blanche as he hopes to be with her as it’s a role that has Malden display some vulnerability and sensitivity but also someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone although he’s unaware of the trouble he’s in when it comes to Blanche.
Kim Hunter is amazing as Stella Kowalski as Blanche’s sister who finds herself in the middle of this conflict as she deeply loves both her sister and her husband while also dealing with her impending pregnancy and the chaos at her home. Vivien Leigh is phenomenal as Blanche DuBois as this former English middle-school teacher who was once this revered Southern Belle as she is trying to retain whatever glory she had as she has trouble dealing with her new reality where Leigh displays this air of charm but also anguish in a complex and dangerous performance. Finally, there’s Marlon Brando in an outstanding performance as Stanley Kowalski as this force of nature who doesn’t just exude raw sexuality in his appearance but also a rage of a man who feels threatened by Blanche as he would treat her with cruelty and disdain. It is this performance that is intense where Brando and Leigh do display a great sense of rapport in this performance as well as bringing in two different ideas into their performances that makes them a highlight to watch.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a sensational film from Elia Kazan that features tremendous performances from Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden as well as a breakthrough performance from Marlon Brando. Along with its claustrophobic setting, themes of fantasy vs. reality, its intense yet dark approach to melodrama, and Alex North’s exhilarating music score. It is a film that explore two different people having to live together as it explore some of the darkest aspects of human nature but also loss at its most extreme. In the end, A Streetcar Named Desire is an incredible film from Elia Kazan.
Elia Kazan Films: (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) – (The Sea of Grass) – (Boomerang!) – (Gentleman’s Agreement) – (Pinky) – (Panic in the Streets) – (Viva Zapata!) – (Man on a Tightrope) – On the Waterfront - (East of Eden) – (Baby Doll) – (A Face in the Crowd) – (Wild River) – (Splendor in the Grass) – (America America) – (The Arrangement) – (The Visitors (1972 film)) – (The Last Tycoon)
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