The quintessential American director is a hot topic for debate amongst most cinephiles. Whether it’s Welles, Reichardt or Scorsese, directors of this ilk possess a masterful skill in assessing pertinent themes throughout American’s past, present and future. Still, one director that cannot be ignored in a conversation of this nature is Elia Kazan.
From On the Waterfront to East of Eden, the auteur captured a sensibility on Americana. He nurtured – all from a theatrical background – a groundbreakingly prudent approach to acting (all embodied in the exquisite form of Marlon Brando). Marking the start of a new retrospective at the BFI Southbank on Kazan’s filmography, A Streetcar Named Desire returns to the big screen to celebrate the director’s legacy in irreversibly transforming American cinema, all for the greater good of the medium.
Much like many Tennessee Williams’s plays, his scripts were regularly adapted for the big screen by another more appropriate screenwriter, in this case, Oscar Saul. Set in New Orleans, the narrative sees Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrive at her sister’s modest home, seemingly shaken from recent events. Upon her arrival, the sticky heat of the South is omnipresent throughout the apartment. Her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) offers her comfort and support to the best of her abilities. Still, the patriarchal system inside the house is governed by her assertive husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). What unfolds is a theatrical two-hander with the timid Blanche fighting against Stanely in a ferocious expose on desire, class, and oppression.
As Blanche DuBois, Leigh’s softness comes to the forefront. From the annunciation of her every word to her delicate frame, she is a complete juxtaposition to the bullish and rather muscular figure of Brando. The fragility DuBois illustrates is only further foregrounded by Williams’ source and Kazan blocking of the actress. Coming from an aristocratic background – forced to move in with her sister after creditors took over the family property – the central figure of the film is a strangely alluring one.
Blanche’s presence seems riddled with nerves with constant jittering and moving around the small home. From the moment she enters the home, Blanche is in a perpetual state of shock at her sister’s livelihood. Unlike the well to do childhood, they both had, this environment feels on the brink of poverty. Chiefly in the tight camera work and set dressing is this environment rendered in such a manner. Without the chiaroscuro of the black and white aesthetics of DoP Harry Stradling’s lighting too, the apartment’s slightly gothic elements wouldn’t resonate as poignantly or vividly.
As Blanche starts to find herself in this new environment, Harold (Karl Malden), a labourer from the local factory, emerges as an admirer. However, Blanche yearns for more than a factory worker, unlike her sister. Chiefly in the disparity between wealth, poverty and aspirations, Tennessee’s work wrestles with such potent themes. Strangely, the film’s central still resonates in contemporary America. In a recent poverty rate in the country by state, it was reported that Mississippi – sister state to Louisiana – held the highest poverty rate of 19.8%, roughly 571,000 inhabitants. The tensions that amount in Stanley’s ultimate jealousy of Blanche’s former wealth lead to disastrous consequences for all.
In an initial scene, the sheer physicality to which Brando possess is exhibited in a tight close-up. All that is framed is his torso in a tight t-shirt. Numerous actors over the years have replicated such a look to underline their working-class assertive nature, for example, Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond The Pines. Nevertheless, it is not his body that exudes such a presence but the substance that rests behind the style. Equivalent to a bull in a china shop, from his first scene to last, Stanley, yields a forceful energy that’s almost tangible yet completely without equal. Even taking this performance alone, Brando’s work deserves to be known as an abiding cinematic performance. Amongst cowardly and callous acts, there still rests a level of pathos to the character. As in Kazan and Brando’s most famous collaboration, the act’s occupies a space that quite possibly all his characters could have been somebody someday.
As with most of Williams’s works, the Southerly heat rises and causes a great deal of internal destruction to family and friendships. It is a tale of phenomenal creatives from Williams to Kazan and Brando and Leigh. A Streetcar Named Desire deserves its place at the front of the pack for kick-starting any celebration on Kazan or American cinema.