Picked Flick #81: A Streetcar Named Desire
But A Streetcar Named Desire is not, finally, a relativist play. It stands fully behind Blanche when she names deliberate cruelty as the one truly unforgivable thing, and as her inventions and self-insulations grow more threadbarewho but a desperate woman could even imagine a figure like Shep Huntleigh?her cold fate is sealed. Elia Kazan films her lowest moment so that we hover over Blanche, her face and body upside down in the shot, rolling back her eyes in high-angle so as to acquire some sense of whom she's talking to. Blanche, as she herself might put it, is utterly boulversée, her blazing imagination finally bereft of all billows. With more severe lighting, it would be a Bergman shot, but it is better for being a Harry Stradling shot: as in the rest of the movie, the low-contrast grayscale here is the color of cobwebs while still assessing incredible visual detail in every frame.
Streetcar is to me what The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments or It's a Wonderful Life or Top Gun are to others: a movie and a story that have always been there, past which it's difficult to remember. I read the play in 7th grade and simply never stopped, and Kazan's version has become such an iconic counterpart to the play that it's hard to separate the two, despite their overt differences. In fact, these disparities are interesting: something as simple as following Blanche immediately to the bowling alley to find Stella, instead of letting her nip her liquor and calm her nerves alone for a few beats in the Kowalskis' tenement, changes the whole energy of the character. She doesn't even have her little spat with the upstairs neighbor Eunice, which is especially surprising because Kazan is noticeably preoccupied with Eunice and her husband Sam as an implied parallel narrative. We even cut upstairs to their apartment a few times, once when Eunice is alone, and she is the last character we see in the movie. That I had forgotten these and other variations entirely speaks, I'm sure, to the memory-filling power of the headline performances and the uncanny perfection of the play. Vivien Leigh gives probably the best performance to ever win the Best Actress Oscar, somehow making Blanche "work" even within Kazan's aggressively realist screen poetics. It doesn't hurt her work at all, and in fact it probably helps, that we do have a sense of watching Leigh construct the performance as she goesthe odd accent, the stiff turns of the neck, the ingenious acting she does with all of her outfits and props. Watching Blanche create herself for such a long span is an ideal lead-in to watching Stanley, Mitch, New Orleans, modernity, the world take her apart. Brando only improves as I get older, reacting no longer to the notoriety of the performance but to its exorbitantly confident, lived-in quality, the hyperfamiliarity with the part that allows him to muffle key lines with no loss to Stanley or to the piece. Hunter and Malden never entirely win me, but the production is so grounded in its superior qualities that what's merely good in it becomes elevated by extension. There's nothing rattle-trap about this Streetcar. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)