A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 2 min.

Release Date: September 18th, 1951 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Elia Kazan Actors: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Peg Hillias

 


 

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n New Orleans, high school English teacher Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) boards a literal streetcar named Desire, taking her to Elysian Fields, where her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) should be waiting. Instead, Stella is with her former-master-sergeant husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), at the bowling alley down the street. This mixup is the first of several annoyances: Stanley seems to be involved in a brawl; Stella isn’t asking enough questions (“You haven’t said a word about my appearance!”); and the tenement they go back to is a tiny, shoddy place like something envisioned by Edgar Allan Poe. It doesn’t even have a proper separation between the rooms, causing her to worry about privacy.

It’s not long before Blanche has a drink and flies into hysterics, complaining about insufficient wages, sacrificed property, and a divorce. Stella got away from her childhood home after their father died, but Blanche feels that she was left behind and betrayed, especially after the death of their father. Once Stanley returns to the claustrophobic abode, the sexual tension is immediate: dripping in sweat, he offers Blanche a shot of alcohol and then strips off his shirt.

Blanche is insecure (largely due to her age and her fading beauty, from which she originally mined her power over the opposite sex) and mentally frail, while Stanley is impatient, abusive, and a bully, sore about the possibility that his wife isn’t going to receive a cut of an inheritance – a country cottage and the land surrounding it. Into this scenario of bickering and contempt and jealousy enter Blanche and Stanley, fully prepared for psychological battles (“a woman’s charm is 50% illusion”); she’s intent on playing mind games and using her skills with flirtation to confuse him, while he believes he’s well-versed in the wily ways of seductresses. Her prim and proper act is perfectly rehearsed; his attitude is blunt and his intelligence limited. When Blanche’s coquettish chatter initially falls on deaf ears, she redirects her efforts to the very first man who pays her a hint of attention: Mitch (Karl Malden), Stan’s poker pal, whose timid, gentler mannerisms make him a more malleable target.

Written by Tennessee Williams, adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “A Streetcar Named Desire” boasts superb scripting, brimming with fast-paced, wordy conversations that alternate between poetic and abrasive. While it betrays its stage origins through its infrequent location changes and its dependence on dialogue, its purpose as a character study still works on the big screen. The pacing is unhurried, with little bits of information about Blanche’s sordid past getting slowly revealed, though the interactions continue to escalate in severity, primed for everything to explode. And the performances are superb, even if the personas are all rather detestable; the work is more about immersive acting than pure entertainment.

Stanley isn’t good enough for a DuBois – or perhaps for anyone, considering his short temper and predilection for violence – but the DuBois sisters aren’t exactly of the high caliber Blanche vies to exhibit (or preserve). Of course, to make matters more complex, the animalistic, impulsive, aggressive type is just what she wants; she despises any weakness, despite using such deficiencies to manipulate others. With Kowalski’s bluntness, she’ll receive a wakeup call – a cold dose of reality – that can’t be ignored forever, eventually shattering the fantasy that she’s labored so hard to construct. Her self-destructive personality doesn’t help the situation either. As Blanche’s grip on sanity diminishes, “A Streetcar Named Desire” makes for an interesting companion piece to the previous year’s “Sunset Boulevard,” though by the end of this Elia Kazan production, the revelations aren’t as shocking or memorable or morbidly palatable. In many ways, it’s just depressing.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10