Movie Review – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
by TOM NIXON
When Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) hurriedly arrives at her sister Stella’s (Kim Hunter) apartment in need of a place to stay, she seems your usual vulnerable beauty, the kind that’s shown its face all around Hollywood for years. She’s running from a troublesome past, something about losing the house she’s lived in her whole life, and we expect that past to catch up with her as the film progresses. As she spins her web, poetically and sorrowfully firing off a range of lies about herself and her reasons for coming, her trunk arrives with a number of suspiciously expensive possessions inside. Stella is willing to dismiss her shortcomings, but her husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) has no intention of doing the same. He plays games with her from the outset, commenting on her drinking habits and snobbery, testing her responses. As he soon finds, Blanche is as dishonest as they come, but in the meantime she’s being courted by Stanley’s old friend Mitch (Karl Malden), a nervous man with a sick mother who wants him to settle down. They’re due to marry until Stanley’s revelations cause outrage, sparking a series of events so viscerally intense it remains hard to believe that they’re from 1951.
Romance is a kind of volatile yearning for youth in Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, standing starkly in conflict with Stanley’s lazy-meets-explosive sexual prowess. It’s a conceit built by Blanche to buffer away her own encroaching decay, her sense of fading away – her return to her sister is, like everything else she does, a throwback to the days when she was beautiful. She doesn’t want realism, she wants “magic”, and hers was a romanticism that was dying out in the ‘50s along with Leigh’s theatrical acting style. Brando, swaggering about like some bastard child of Achilles and King Kong, he makes magic out of realism, shows you don’t need to put a paper lantern over the light bulb, and so a new era of naturalistic acting was ushered into Hollywood. Called a “Polack” by Blanche, Stanley forcefully asserts that he is American and the viewer gets the impression in that moment that this new breed of man, for good or ill, is more American than Blanche, or indeed Leigh, can ever be.
Dominating the screen with every word, every gesture, Brando’s Stanley pumps life into every otherwise stagy scene, and his unseen rape of Blanche acts as the final shattering of illusions and traditions symbolized by the broken mirror reflecting her face; it’s the power of raw, carnal sexuality in the face of the “refined,” revealing chivalry and romance as naught but a thin veil over desire, a barrier against humankind’s naked physicality. His rough, blunt masculinity may well be common and vulgar, but there is truth in his insistence that Blanche is hardly a queen herself – she rode the streetcar named desire to get here, after all. Whilst Stanley is accused of being an “ape,” behind in the evolutionary chain, it’s only Blanche who lives with notions of humanity as standing above nature; for Stanley there’s no distinction, man is revealed to at base be a bestial creature, and the new world is a jungle in which Stanley is the king, the predator, with Blanche the prey. She clings on to her delusions as frantically as Norma Desmond, but by the end there’s no fooling her sister, the viewer, or perhaps even herself.
With its markedly claustrophobic direction and unsettled score, the tone of Streetcar isn’t just ominous but throbs with a pervasive sexual sickness; the death and hardships of Blanche’s past turn out to be sex-related, and her flowery dialogue is frequently whipped up into a fever, hysterical and incisive in equal measure. She seems older with every minute that passes, and further removes herself from reality as a result. Mitch’s unseen dying mother casts a mortal shadow over his courtship – their romance is a product of these constant reminders that time is not on their side. Stella is crazed with desire for Stanley – a famously controversial scene sees her descend a staircase with lust pouring from her expression – and despite her fury at the end there’s no sense that she’ll genuinely leave him, more likely he’ll destroy her with his bouts of rage. It’s a sickness from which simple romantic notions will never recover, this oncoming rush of sexualizing, and so A Streetcar Named Desire serves as both tragic elegy to the golden age and a beckoning hand towards the cinema which followed. Stanley stands as the crowning champion of this new era, exuding a sexual energy almost godlike in its dynamism, and whilst he’s villainous and destructive there remains a sense that he’s so much more fundamental and alive than that which is being left behind.