Sunday, July 5, 2009

Target #275: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)

TSPDT placing: #356
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Tennessee Williams (play & screenplay), Oscar Saul (adaptation)

Elia Kazan was noted during the 1940s as one of America's most creative stage directors, and yet he'd also proved his film-making prowess on such films as the film noir thriller Panic in the Streets (1950). Naturally, he was a prime choice to adapt Tennessee Williams' acclaimed 1947 play "A Streetcar Named Desire" for the screen. Eschewing the naturalistic visual style of his previous film, Kazan unashamedly directs A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) as a filmed play, utilising a small, intimate cast and few sets. The film's success spawned a number of Tennessee Williams adaptations, including Baby Doll (1956) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the first of which was directed by Kazan. A Streetcar Named Desire also launched the successful Hollywood career of one of the all-time great actors, Marlon Brando, whose mesmerising performance as Stanley Kowalski (and especially his inimitable cry of "Stella!" at the foot of the apartment stairway) continues to resonate even with those who have never seen the film in its entirety.

Blanche DuBois is an intriguing character because she is a tragic victim despite bringing much of her fate upon herself. Having shamed herself in scandal following the loss of her family home, Blanche arrives in New Orleans in complete denial of her moral failings. While desperately maintaining a facade of upper-class respectability, Blanche continually speaks of her brother-in-law Stanley with utter condescension, deriding his Polish heritage and working-class habits. Only by disparaging others can she sustain her self-enforced illusion of lingering youth and grandeur, and yet every attempt at remaining young ironically makes her seem as old as Norma Desmond. But Stanley is also a brute, exuding primitive cruelty and sexuality through every sweaty pore. Had he understood Blanche's psychological condition, and offered kindness instead of resistance, her breakdown might have been averted. Stanley's pig-headed selfishness is despicable, and yet – like Blanche – his behaviour seems to arise not from deliberate cruelty, but from child-like naiveté, an obliviousness towards the consequences of his actions.

There's no doubt that A Streetcar Named Desire finds its performers at the peak of their work, but, even so, I consider it a minor miracle that such contrasting acting styles were able to coexist so comfortably. Though Marlon Brando had previously performed the role on Broadway to great acclaim, the studio-appointed casting of Vivien Leigh provoked some consternation among the crew, who feared a clash of "classical" and "method" acting styles. Leigh, speaking with a Southern accent that is, I think, inherently theatrical, accentuates every twitch of insecurity in the emotionally-decaying Blanche DuBois. Brando, on the other hand, was a student of Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio, an influential proponent of method acting, and his Stanley Kowalski speaks in an often- incomprehensible drawl that works precisely because you can imagine hundreds of uneducated New Orleans workers speaking in the same manner. The gamble on Leigh proved successful, with she and co-stars Karl Malden and Kim Hunter taking home Oscars for their fine work; Brando lost out to Bogart in The African Queen (1951).

Currently my #4 film of 1951:
1) Strangers On A Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The African Queen (John Huston)
3) The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
4) A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)
5) The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton)
6) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
7) The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks)
8) An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)
9) Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen)
10) Roadblock (Harold Daniels)

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