Warner Bros. // 1951 // 125 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 23rd, 2012
Blache, who wanted so much to stay a lady.
"Oh look, we have created enchantment."
The elegant, aging, alcoholic southern belle Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind) has just left her home in Mississippi in order to spend some time with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter, Planet of the Apes) in New Orleans. Blanche is a little startled by the gritty, earthy nature of Stella's surroundings, and is even more startled when she encounters Stanley (Marlon Brando, The Godfather), Stella's muscular, aggressive and primitive husband. Before long, Blanche also encounters the good-natured Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Karl Malden, On the Waterfront), an earnest suitor whom Blanche has mixed feelings about. Over the course of A Streetcar Named Desire, these characters will clash and connect in a series of fascinating (and often troubling) ways.
I realize that my plot description may sound a little vague, but then A Streetcar Named Desire isn't really a plot-driven movie. It establishes some of its broader thematic ideas via very blatant symbolism (we're introduced to a pair of contrasting streetcars named "Desire" and "Cemetery" at the film's opening, and the film's setting is dubbed "Elysian Fields"), and then proceeds to launch into a detailed, complex examination of its central characters. Tennessee Williams' play is an endlessly rich and rewarding study of human behavior, and the subtle elegance with which he underlines his themes makes the material feel modern and fresh to this day. Remarkably, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire is a masterpiece on its own terms, as director Elia Kazan (who directed the original stage play) continually finds ways to successfully rework the material for another medium.
Kazan's film version of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't really attempt to "open up" the source material -- most of the events still feel as if they're taking place within a rather confined space. However, he does manage to bring such a distinctive sense of atmosphere to Elysian Fields; you can almost feel the overbearing humidity and smell the alcohol on everyone's breath. Elysian Fields may be heaven in Greek Mythology, but in New Orleans it's a dank purgatory from which there is no easy escape. The effect is aided immensely by a groundbreaking score from composer Alex North, who threw out the conventional approach of mimicking the action and instead chose to accentuate the psychological state of the characters. That factor alone would make the score an important piece of film history, but North's sophisticated, sultry employment of jazz was also a fresh approach at the time, and the score would be imitated by countless others in the years that followed. Few composers have demonstrated such intelligence and depth so consistently.
The four central characters are all beautifully sketched by Williams and the actors, but the film most frequently zooms in on the turbulent relationship between Blanche and Stanley. The former is a fragile creature who greatly depends on both the kindness of strangers and a certain amount of self-deception. She has a rather checkered past and has made some horrific mistakes, but she's able to gloss over these things in her own mind and most are willing to let her. Not Stanley, however, who seems intent on bulldozing through every one of Blanche's fantasies and exposing her true nature. He's a man who sees no value in pretending that the real world is anything other than what it is, and Blanche's antagonistic attitude towards him only fuels his desire to crush her carefully-maintained delusions.
The performances are tremendous. Astonishingly, Marlon Brando was the only principle cast member who didn't win an Oscar for his work in the film (he was nominated, however), but his performance is the best-remembered today. Brando's mumbly, aggressive turn represents the birth of a new era in cinema; a method-driven acting style which would eventually reach its zenith in the 1970s with the arrival of Brando-worshipping youngsters like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. It's a raw, physical performance which contrasts strikingly with Vivien Leigh's masterfully ornate work; the manner in which Leigh's excessively mannered turn clashes with Brando's earthy brutishness is thrilling. Less striking but similarly impressive work is delivered by Kim Hunter (whose self-effacing performance is arguably the most naturalistic element of the entire film) and Karl Malden (who touchingly veers between lovestruck sap and angry sap with ease).
A Streetcar Named Desire (Blu-ray) is billed as a "60th Anniversary Edition," though technically they're a year late. Ah, well. The important thing is that the film has received an attractive 1080p/Full Frame transfer that beautifully accentuates the film's impressive use of light and shadow. Detail is solid enough, though less eye-popping than some of the stronger Warner Bros. archival release we've seen thus far. Don't get me wrong, the film looks quite good, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it revelatory. The image is mostly clean of flecks, scratches and other damage. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track also falls into "quite good but not great" category, as dialogue sounds a bit less dynamic than I would like but is still clean and clear. North's score can sound a bit distant at times, but that's largely due to the way it was mixed in the original release; it's intended to sounds as if it's wafting through the air.
The supplemental package is quite generous, though we've seen all of this stuff before on previous DVD releases of the film. Making welcome return appearances are a commentary with Karl Malden and historians Rudy Behlmer & Jeff Young, a 75-minute documentary on director Elia Kazan, a handful of well-produced featurettes detailing the film's making ("A Streetcar on Broadway," "A Streetcar in Hollywood," "Censorship and Desire," "North and the Music of the South" and "An Actor Named Brando"), a Marlon Brando screen test, some video and audio outtakes, a handful of trailers and some attractive digibook packaging which features the usual supply of full-color pages sporting behind-the-scenes info and production photos. My only complaint is that the supplements haven't received a hi-def upgrade along with the film.
A Streetcar Named Desire represents a high point in the careers of almost everyone involved. It's one of the greatest stage-to-screen adaptations ever made, and remains as powerful today as it was when it was released in 1951. The attractive Blu-ray release makes it look and sound better than ever.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Rated PG