They don't make 'em like this any more, but Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says they didn't make 'em like this back then, either.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), A Streetcar Named Desire (published April 30th, 1999), A Streetcar Named Desire (Blu-ray) DigiBook (published April 23rd, 2012), TCM Greatest Classic Film Legends: Marlon Brando (published April 14th, 2011), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Dramas (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
"Oh look, we have created enchantment."—Blanche DuBois
We love to watch villains. For some reason, their manipulative treachery is more compelling than the innate virtue of the Goody Two Shoes or the Valliant Hero. In the Southern-noirish movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams's classic A Streetcar Named Desire, everyone has a bit of villain in them, which gives the film a delicious boost. But the mad hatter, grand dame, cake-taking arch villainess Blanche DuBois puts A Streetcar Named Desire over the top. Warner Brothers has restored bits of footage here and there to give us Elia Kazan's intended take on this ode to human darkness.
Facts of the Case
Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh Gone with the Wind, Anna Karenina) steps off the train in New Orleans in a cloud of befuddled, aristocratic airs. Leaning on the kindness of a stranger, she asks for directions to Elysian Fields in the French Quarter. She boards the street car named Desire and ventures forth to find her sister.
Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter Planet of the Apes, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) doesn't expect her elder sister's visit, but seems cautiously pleased to see her. She proudly points out her husband Stanley (Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now), a hulking brute of a man who horrifies (and compels) Blanche.
Thus begins a delicate descent into misery for all parties. Stanley takes an immediate dislike to Blanche, while his war buddy Mitch (Karl Malden, Where The Sidewalk Ends, I Confess) takes a shine to her. Blanche manipulates them all…but her façade is crumbling.
Like its leading male character, A Streetcar Named Desire is an unstoppable juggernaut. Firmly planted among the top 100 films of all time no matter who you ask, the picture is widely considered the best adaptation of theater ever committed to celluloid. It won four of its 12 Academy Award nominations, and should have won more. All that hoopla…yet the film lives up to it.
The people in the special features continually make reference to A Streetcar Named Desire's poetry; Williams's Pulitzer Prize backs this assertion. Symbols are everywhere in the play, and Kazan masterfully transfers them to film. The most famous is the titular streetcar. The pairing of Desire with its sister streetcar, Cemeteries, gives the film its central motif: Desire is the opposite of Death. The unseen mansion Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream) is a cruel irony; perfect in Blanche's mind despite the obviousness of its failings as a homestead. These poetic ideals and rich symbolism are woven into the dialogue with grace.
But the visual symbolism is even better. Kazan's careful staging and Harry Stradling's superb cinematography reinforce Blanche's spider-like qualities. Her half-lit eyes shine with malice as she skitters from dark corner to dark corner. Her allure is based on mystery; Kazan and Stradling reinforce that mystery through a delicate web of shifting light. When Mitch forces Blanche into the light, the movie takes a radical turn and heads towards finality. Meanwhile, Brando's malignant machismo dominates the screen. He glistens with sweat and glowers with inner musings; Kazan and Stradling accentuate his physical presence through careful composition.
Irony also runs rampant in Streetcar. Meanings twist upon themselves into a tangle of interpretation. My favorite musing is that Blanche—after her high-profile descent into sexual depravity, lies, and insanity—has arrived at the one place on Earth where she might be welcomed (or at least tolerated). Had she shown up on Stella's doorstep, admitted her weaknesses, and realized that her standing and integrity are equal to those in the squalid French Quarter, Blanche might have earned lodging and acceptance for her honesty. It is only her inability to face reality and let go of her ill-founded noblese that keeps her isolated. Mental puzzles like this one give A Streetcar Named Desire endless possibilities for interpretation.
Impressively, this thicket of irony and symbolism never overwhelms the straightforward, visceral drive that powers the film. The dense symbolism is like a backdrop of faded wallpaper behind transparency and luminosity of the acting performances. Chief among them is the only nominated actor who failed to win, Marlon Brando. Brando's possession of the role is utter. Like a half-feral tiger, Stanley prowls the jungle of his home and his town asserting his dominance. Brando is graceful and violent, all contained kinetics and barely suppressed libido. His words wind around themselves like gutter poetry. It is easy to see why Stella, a pampered belle tired of the genteel malice that runs rampant through her upbringing, would succumb to Stanley. Surprisingly, Kim Hunter doesn't succumb to Brando. She holds her own, giving a clinic on how to be a supporting actress. Her unabashed sensuality becomes a theme in and of itself.
Yet Stella's is not the primary relationship with Stanley. Streetcar favors the Stanley/Blanche dynamic. He is lowbrow but straight, while she is highbrow and crooked. She is delicate, he is coarse. These dualities represent only the surface of a deeply rooted conflict. In many ways, Streetcar is like a slow-moving train wreck and the audience is full of rubberneckers. We know that Blanche is playing the wrong fool, that Stanley will not genuflect to her airs for long. When the dance plays out, the culmination brings down two hours worth of emotional baggage like a house of cards.
There is more to say about this film, its cast, and its crew, but when you're a top 100 film, odds are it has already been said. The question before this court is: How does the Two-Disc Special Edition stack up?
A Streetcar Named Desire is so popular that it was among Warner's earliest DVD releases. Like the previous DVD, this one contains the reinserted footage removed at the 11th hour behest of the Legion of Decency. Unlike the previous release, this one has spiffed-up video and a second disc worth of extras.
Warner Brothers has been on a rampage of highly desired releases with impeccable transfers and nice extras. They've steadily accumulated a sterling reputation among DVD collectors. As such, they've earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a handful of transfer oddities. The first reel is unstable, moving around in the frame. "Polished" mosquito noise around edges and titles suggests a high level of digital restoration, which gives the transfer a sparkling, but somewhat mucked-with, feel. The level of grain is also variable, from intensely heavy to barely perceptible. Some blurriness and dirt remain intact, which is good in my book, but overall the transfer seems overly cleansed. On the plus side is a wealth of contrast and lack of edge enhancement. By the time the first few scenes had passed, the video issues settled down and the movie took over.
Alex North's Oscar-nominated score, Nathan Levinson's Oscar-nominated sound design, and the actors' superlative performances come through clearly. The track is brassy and thin in many places, with slightly harsh sibilants. In other places, the score is allowed to seduce us with its come-hither strains. This uneven quality extends to the commentary track, which appears to be assembled from separate interviews with film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, and actor Karl Malden. Some of the segments are plagued by overly harsh sibilants while others are clean as a whistle.
What the commentary track lacks in spontaneity and vitality it makes up for in information. Malden dishes out the Hollywood party line with such gentlemanly style that you forgive his moments of back patting. He details his stage and screen partnerships with Brando and Kazan and gives us a sense of the formation of the movie. Behlmer and Young come armed with knowledge and fact. Though I wish their commentary had reflected more what was happening onscreen, their collective comments were full of insight about the life and times of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The second disc is fit to burst with special features, and there is little fat. The feature-length documentary on Elia Kazan is definitive. Elia himself takes us through each step in his career, accented by critical commentary and historical footage. If you're a fan of this director who had stage and screen in the palm of his hand, this documentary is required viewing.
Some of this footage overlaps in the five featurettes, but each is a standalone focus on one aspect of Streetcar. "Censorship and Desire" was the one I found most focused and informative. It takes you step by step through Streetcar's twisted path from stage to box office, with detailed notes on what was changed and why. Each of the featurettes shows the same depth and attention to detail. Streetcar is not a frilly film, and the special features don't gloss over its morbid, muck-dwelling nature.
With the outtakes, Brando screen test, and the featurette on Brando, you get a heavy focus on the actor's younger days. That's fine by me; he is magnetic. You can see why studios were slow to take a chance on him, but you can also see the raw power he brings to the screen. The extras are capped off with a trailer gallery, audio outtakes, and "web features" that I couldn't get to work.
Though the video is only a moderate improvement over the old release, the special features are excellent. Of course, the real star is the feature itself, a film that pushed the bounds of Hollywood upon its release and that still has teeth. This DVD is a must-have for fans of classic cinema.
This streetcar is granted a berth in the Transportation Hall of Fame.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young
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