Elia Kazan is perhaps one of a handful of well-established auteur oriented directors who fails to receive the credit and praise due his way, I mean the guy did make On The Waterfront, a film I plan to revisit when the Criterion bluray drops next week, although amidst all the work and other films I have on my docket it may be awhile before I actually get around to doing just that. Regardless, A Streetcar Named Desire was one of the many "shame list" films I felt terrible for having never seen, partially because of my own admiration for Kazan, detached entirely from his problematic relationship with the House Un-American Activities Committee. It certainly does not help that it is one of the most quoted films based off of one of America's most well-known plays. This set of standards, undoubtedly, clouded my expectations for the film and I will admit that for a better part of the first act I was uncertain that I was really prepared to embrace its presence. Yet, as the film unfolded and I became invested in the chiaroscuro world of Louisiana depicted within the, Kazan's masterful use of the subtle melodrama and yet another brilliant performance by Brando, I was in love with the film by its closing scene. Of course, somewhere in the back of my mind I was completely aware of the plot and nature of A Streetcar Named Desire, but that did not manage to make this cinema classic any less enigmatic. This film, much like Kazan's Waterfront, or even his slightly problematic Pinky, manage to exist within a sphere that somewhat represents reality yet so continually betrays it as to be something of a metaphor, one that suggests entrapment, disillusion and everything that has become jaded as a result of the loss of the American Dream, which is rather surprising considering that the film, not to mention the play existed well before realizations of the true abyss that would be the fifties unfolded. No character within A Streetcar Named Desire could be remotely described as possessing redeeming qualities, yet they are depicted in such a stark and honest manner that it is near impossible not to pity them to some degree. Essentially in create a film that discredits everything a viewer assumes to be America, Kazan manages to somehow make one of the most American films ever imagined. Also, I will admit my ignorance, in that I thought "desire" was a metaphor, and while it still may be the case, it is also very much the name of the streetcar as well...who knew.
A Streetcar Named Desire begins with the arrival of one of literatures most iconic women Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) a mysterious and sultry woman who has travelled from Mississippi to meet up with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) who she believes to be living the grand life in New Orleans, a illusion that is immediately shattered when she finds her living within a dilapidated house along with her husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), never mind the fact that the couple is expecting a baby. Nonetheless, Blanche clings to the illusion of her sister's traditional nature and assumes the best, even falsely believing Stanley to be a stand-up guy despite his constant drinking and generally negative behavior towards Stella. In fact, it is not so much the crumbling relationship between two sisters that becomes central but instead the burgeoning resentment between Stanley who believes Blanche to be dishonest about her past, particularly regarding the means by which she obtains her various luxuries, particularly her strings of pearls and a dress that appears to be made of gold, as Stanley so eloquently puts it. Blanche is no kinder to Stanley claiming that he is an ignorant brute and finds her notions affirmed when during one drunkenly impassioned argument Stanley actually lays hands on Stella. Despite Blanche's concerns, Stella returns to Stanley and things pan out with a degree of discomforting normalcy, yet when Blanche begins spending large amounts of time with Mitch (Karl Madden) a friend of Stanley's, he begins to dig deeper into the dark past of Stella's sister. It is revealed that Stella certainly has her own dark past she is running from, one that may entail a considerable amount of less than "ladylike" behavior, leading to the penultimate confrontation in the film where Stanley and Blanche argue about values and appearances leading to Stanley violently attacking Blanche and perhaps raping her in the process, although on the following day when Stanley has a disheveled and distraught Blanche committed to an insane asylum, he swears innocence. Regardless, the actions of the night prior prove to be the last straw for Stella who finally leaves Stanley in the film's closing scenes.
The film is somewhat overshadowed by an implied rape which is not to be taken lightly, but it must be considered that if this were solely a film about an individual losing out to the aggressions of an angry, virulent male it would not have such a well established and seminal place in both American theater and film. I would argue that the film manages to remain a cinematic standard, which is often placed high on the list of American cinema, as well as global cinema, results from its often direct, if not always indirect, study of a woman learning to discover her own self-identity detached from patriarchal oppression and internalized notions of her own ugliness in regards to false and vain notions of beauty. Stella is the real point of interest within at least the film, I have not read the play entirely through so cannot speak to it with any authority. She is always and at once suffering from a variety of indefinable women's issues that have come to demarcate feminist politics and rhetoric since the films original debut. Firstly, she suffers in a clearly abusive relationship, but cannot escape her situation due to the economic binds of lacking self-suficiency as well as a place with which to escape to, only causing her being relegated to a small space within an already cramped domestic space all the more tragic. Similarly she suffers from the misdirected assumptions of an idealized femininity tied to Blanche who believes in the idea of a proper woman, one that is able to accrue status and respect through wealthy gifts and gentleman callers, although as the narrative makes quite clear even Blanche is incapable of navigating these waters in the ideal manner. Finally, Stella finds herself oppressed by the societal expectations of motherhood, and despite being in an awful marriage and lacking economic grounding, norms suggest that she carries a baby to term, as in the early fifties the notion of an abortion were simply not acknowledged. All of these oppressions combined make Stella's final departure that much more powerful, leaving the clearly staged setting of her home to enter the equally intersectional streets of New Orleans preferring the freedom of uncertainly to the assurance of discomfort.
Key Scene: The tension that builds and then unleashes revolving around the card game was the point at which I understood the lasting effect of this film and is certainly a highlight in a film full of classic moments.
Buy this film, honestly, you have no rational reason not to.