A Streetcar Named Desire

122 mins

★★★★★ ★★★★★ by 1 User
Howard Hawks once complained that, after he'd spent 20 years trying to scale down and simplify screen acting, Elia Kazan went and shot all his work to hell with this 1951 film, which features some of the most hysterical performances in film history. But they are also great performances, and Hawks could have taken heart from Kim Hunter's work, which provides superb, understated balance to the famous fireworks of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Kazan's direction is often questionably, distractingly baroque, swelling up the considerable subtlety of the Tennessee Williams play, but if the hothouse style was ever justified, this is the occasion. With Karl Malden; photographed by Harry Stradling.

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★★★★★ ★★★★★

I managed to go see 'A Streetcar Named Desire' on Tuesday, August 12 at Austin's Paramount Theatre, and enjoyed it.

This was my first time to fully catch up with this widely celebrated 1951 classic, and once again I was greatly impressed by the uniformly excellent performances enshrined in an Elia Kazan-directed picture. Kazan (1909-2003) was a superb director of actors, and I wonder if it would not be hyperbolic to recognize him as possibly the single finest director of actors in American cinema. Though I know of no purely comedic performances in Kazan’s body of work, in the realm of drama he may be peerless on these shores (I reserve recognition of director of actors par excellence for the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu).

Despite the vaunting of Marlon Brando’s career-making turn as the brutish Stanley Kowalski, and the admitted competence with which the actor communicates the role, I think the outstanding performance here belongs to Vivien Leigh as the fragile, vulnerable Blanche DuBois. Leigh shines here to a degree only hinted at in the more dramatic moments of 'Gone With the Wind', and although Blanche is supposed to be an aging lady of fading charms, I find Leigh even more beautiful here than in her celebrated stint as the spoiled Scarlett O’Hara. I think Jessica Tandy, who originated the role of Blanche on Broadway, would have been excellent and interesting in the role, but I don’t think Leigh could have been surpassed.

'A Streetcar Named Desire' seems to have been received as the height of realism in 1951, but from our perspective today, the work’s artifice is apparent. The strangely poetic dialogue, the expressionistic lighting, the intimations of fate in the person of the Mexican flower vendor, and the mannered quality of Leigh’s performance (not at all diminishing the high quality thereof) all underscore the film as an effusion from the world of imagination. Standards and expectations of realism clearly vary from era to era, and from culture to culture.

Kim Hunter as Blanche’s sister Stella and Karl Malden as Blanche’s suitor Mitch also deserve commendation for their strong performances. The moment when Stella confronts her abusive husband Stanley wearing an expression of mixed contempt and lust on her face is memorable, and Malden typically conveys a complex character exuding stolidity while eliciting our sympathy. These actors’ previous work on these characters on the stage, under Kazan’s direction, no doubt strengthened the insight they gave to these creations.

In sum, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' is a film deserving of its status as a classic, and stands as one of the stronger, more complex American movies I have seen from the 1950s. In particular, Leigh’s performance as the bruised Blanche (a role which strongly anticipates that of Mrs. Gert Hammond in the 1975 'Thundercrack!', a character and film clearly indebted to Tennessee Williams, the author of 'A Streetcar Named Desire') is a creative achievement of a high order that will be cherished into the indefinite future.

Posted by Barry Moore on 12/08/2014 at 6:04 PM
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