DVD - Image A Sound A Extras A+
BLU-RAY Image B+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
screenplay by Tennessee Williams, based on his play
directed by Elia Kazan
by Walter Chaw Marlon Brando is liquid sex in A Streetcar Named Desire, molten and mercurial. He's said that he modeled his Stanley Kowalski after a gorilla, and the manner in which Stanley eats, wrist bent at an almost fey angle, picking at fruit and leftovers in the sweltering heat of Elia Kazan's flophouse New Orleans, you can really see the primate in him. (Imagine a gorilla smelling a flower.) Brando's Stanley is cunning, too: he sees through the careful artifice of his sister-in-law Blanche (Vivien Leigh, Old Hollywood), and every second he's on screen, everything else wilts in the face of him. It's said that Tennessee Williams used to buy front-row seats to his plays and then laugh like a loon at his rural atrocities; he's something like the Shakespeare of sexual politics, the poet laureate of repression, and in his eyes, he's only ever written comedies. In Kazan's and Brando's too, I'd hazard, as A Streetcar Named Desire elicits volumes of delighted laughter. The way that Stanley's "acquaintances" are lined up in his mind to appraise the contents of Blanche's suitcase. The way he invokes "Napoleonic Law" with beady-eyed fervour. And the way, finally, that he's right about Blanche and all her hysterical machinations. The moment Stanley introduces himself to Blanche is of the shivers-causing variety (like the moment John Ford zooms up to John Wayne in Stagecoach), but my favourite parts of the film--aside from his torn-shirt "STELLA!"--are when Stanley screeches like a cat, and when he threatens violence on the jabbering Blanche by screaming, "Hey, why don't you cut the re-bop!"
It's not funny in a camp-appreciation way, though, unlike, arguably, wide swaths of the Williams adaptations produced in the 1950s--no, A Streetcar Named Desire is funny because it's so exceptional that the watching of it is overwhelming and laughter seems the only appropriate release valve. Witness career-best performances from some of the best actors in the history of the stage and screen, including Karl Malden as awkward paramour Mitch, ashamed of his perspiration, and Kim Hunter as Stanley's wife, Stella, approaching something like sexual zombefication just thinking of her man's propensity to smash things up. The most famous moment of the film was censored upon its initial release and restored for the version with which most of us are by now familiar: we get to see the look of blank lust on Stella's face as she answers her lover's call, slinky and ready for fucking.
But then there's Leigh as a representative of the studio system about to be supplanted, once and for all, by the kind of performance philosophy excited by Kazan, Brando, and Stanislavski by way of Stella Adler. She's out of place here; although she had played Blanche in her husband Laurence Olivier's London production, she was the only actor not ported over from Kazan's Broadway run. (Kazan was forbidden from casting his original Blanche, Jessica Tandy.) It's said that Kazan used her alienation to inform her performance, yet Leigh is more than a fish out of water here: she's a relic of a different sensibility altogether. The starkness of the ideological divide is painted in harsh tones. Humphrey Bogart's victory for The African Queen that year over Brando (and co-Method brat Montgomery Clift, nominated for A Place in the Sun) is Old Hollywood's last hurrah. (In retrospect, it's not understandable in any other way.) When Brando rapes Blanche, a mirror cracks--this vile imposition of his virility made metaphorical in a way that his earlier incident of spousal abuse is not (just like Archie's diddling of his virgin bride just off-screen in Baby Doll--it's a stage director's trick). I wonder if we can't extend the metaphor to encompass the rough treatment given the passing of an age that wouldn't completely die out until the dawn of the next decade and its films.
Hand this to Leigh, at least: her turn as a woman phasing in and out of dementia echoed her own absorption by a bi-polar disorder that would limit her to just three more films in the wake of Streetcar. It's the closest she'll come to embodying her role as Brando embodies Stanley (and Malden, Mitch; Hunter, Stella), and it's hard to say whether the picture would be as startling a showcase for the new Hollywood without Leigh as counterpoint and victim. Kazan's close staging and claustrophobic sets, primarily Kowalski's stifling apartment (heat is a main character here, figuratively and literally), are meant to be the artificial playground backdrop, I'd wager, but with Leigh's board-pounding self-consciousness (which is admittedly not a foreign element to Blanche's character) debunked intra- and extratextually by her co-stars, the coffin nail for her era is driven with finality.
For all the fine high-melodrama that it is, A Streetcar Named Desire remains an important flashpoint because it's a clear demarcation between the way that we used to tell each other things through film and the way we demand they be told ever since. It's not a line between stage and realism, of course, as few would describe it as anything less than "stagy," but rather a line distinguishing our sophistication in assimilating data and our gradual unwillingness to extend the shade of our disbelief to cover behaviour that doesn't feel like experience. A loss of innocence, one might say; A Streetcar Named Desire describes the same in its narrative arc. That melancholy we feel as it closes is a mourning for me that I'll never be able to see this film again for the first time--and that I'll never be able to appreciate any film that came before it without the stain of it in my perception.
Warner reissues A Streetcar Named Desire on DVD in a Two-Disc Special Edition that offers the picture in a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer that corrects any problems of previous video incarnations (blooming, especially). The image is gorgeous, faithful, and super-sharp in contrast in a way that edifies Kazan's stage-bound constructions. When Blanche arrives at the train station to start the film, the starkness of Kazan's location work pops like a firecracker. Alex North's sassy, boozy score is reproduced with fulsome depth and detail in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono--just technically speaking, this one's a keeper. The first platter is also home to a piecemeal featuring-length yakker orchestrated by Laurent Bouzereau that compiles snippets from stand-alone interviews with film historian Rudy Behlmer and actor Malden. Critic and Kazan interviewer/biographer Jeff Young appears to be the only one of the principal participants (save Bouzereau, naturally) seated before the film as it unspools, though he does not, as the others do not, offer much in the way of scene-specific commentary. It's good, but it does invalidate to a large extent the need to watch the second disc's extras, as Malden's and Behlmer's contributions are taken from interviews shown in full therein. In any case, find stories of casting and the censorship issues that conspired to change the ending of the picture (Stanley must be punished!). Indeed, it's interesting to see side-by-side comparisons on the second disc in "Censorship and Desire" (16 mins.), a featurette that takes an in-depth look at the concerns our arbiters of morality had about both the Williams play and its cinematic counterpart. I would have loved more direct insight into Kazan's feelings on the elisions, but what's there is fine. It bears mentioning that the interviews with Malden and Behlmer are parceled out amongst most of the new featurettes on Disc Two.
A very fine biography of Kazan called Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey (75 mins.), written and directed by critic Richard Schickel, is the keystone of the presentation. It's a Castle Hill production (like A Streetcar Named Desire itself) narrated by Eli Wallach and containing a wealth of clips from Kazan's oeuvre, anchored by a nice interview with the man himself that predates the mild dementia that appeared to consume his later years. His description of Brando as a child consumed with rage is a fascinating one primarily because it's coupled with a look at an incredibly telling moment from James Dean in East of Eden. It's so much the hagiography, however, that it fails to go too deeply into the HUAC controversy that would haunt Kazan for the whole of his career and into his legacy. Ditto his disregard for the great leaps taken in the characterization of Zapata as an illiterate peasant. His instruction to Brando in the role to "think like a peasant" is interesting but perhaps not for all the right reasons.
"A Streetcar on Broadway" (22 mins.) is more of the Kazan, Malden, and Behlmer sessions complete with stills taken during Kazan's legendary production. What I wouldn't give for some grainy 8mm footage of it to be discovered in somebody's garage somewhere. "A Streetcar in Hollywood" (28 mins.) delves more deeply into the casting of the picture (the bulk of the revelations here repeated in the commentary verbatim, granted), while "North and the Music of the South" (9 mins.) pans out as a nice treatment of Alex North and the evolution of the picture's score. I was interested to learn that he did the stage production of Kazan's "Death of a Salesman", and record producer Robert Townsend's analysis of the music for Spartacus and Streetcar is brisk, informative, and a welcome piece of the puzzle.
"An Actor Named Brando" (9 mins.) is less useful because there's not really that much that needs to be said about Brando that Brando's performances don't say for themselves. The stills and outtakes available for perusal are a saving grace, however--the man's mesmerizing, and there's something about watching him in his unguarded moments that's flat fascinating. That's what makes the "Marlon Brando Screentest" (actually three tests that run about 5 mins.) so astonishing: to see him act out a scene from Rebel Without a Cause is to see something like a force of nature bottled on nitrate. A sequence of outtakes (15 mins.) triggers a similar response--cinema as voyeurism never seemed so true. It's something to say that this guy's mistakes are better than almost anyone in history's best effort. Seventeen minutes of "Audio Outtakes" are hard to appreciate in the same way, marking Brando as very much a creature of our visual imagination. An "Elia Kazan Movie Trailers" option back on Disc One, essaying every Kazan title in the Warner catalogue, rounds out the exemplary package. Originally published: June 13, 2006.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's Blu-ray Disc of A Streetcar Named Desire (carefully, and somewhat oxymoronically, designated "The Original Restored Version") is maybe not the stella upgrade to the 2006 DVD it could be. As with the pre-4k release of Casablanca, the 1.37:1, 1080p transfer has a slight if not overbearing waxiness to it and seems like it should be sharper and grainier than it is--though richer, perhaps artificially-boosted black levels add definition to the darkest, most chiaroscuro scenes and enhance the overall illusion of depth. That being said, I found the image a tad dim at all times, beyond the dictates of story and atmosphere. On the bright side, no pun intended, Alex North's score has real bite over the loud menu screen (which is adorned with clip-art icons, presumably to aid in the disc's export to other countries), and even more in the movie proper. The sensational 1.0 DTS-HD MA track also manages to navigate the mercurial dynamics of Brando's vocal performance with aplomb, while lossless encoding does wonders for the neighbourhood ambience, which sounds less dampened than usual here and helps foster the impression of A Streetcar Named Desire as a proto-Raging Bull. Extras return in full from the Two-Disc Special Edition, supplemented by Digibook packaging that features an uncredited, reasonably-comprehensive essay, "A Legend in the Making: Kowalski and Brando," illustrated with copious production stills. It probably goes without saying that everything except A Streetcar Named Desire itself is still in SD. Originally published: April 16, 2012.