Have been trying to find time to watch my DVDs of old American films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s – dozens of discs of such movies (mostly films I last watched in my early teens) have piled up and I haven’t made adequate use of them. (News flash: legit stores like Planet M or Musicland have begun stocking a variety of Hollywood and British classics, often under attractive discount schemes; among my recent acquisitions are The Caine Mutiny, Fail-Safe, Lifeboat, Forty-Ninth Parallel, Sunset Boulevard, Cool Hand Luke and The Desperate Hours – all for between Rs 200-300 each.)
I’m a huge fan of DVD extras, as I’ve written before, but it’s rare to find good special features on discs of old movies. Which is why one of my most cherished purchases is a two-disc special edition of A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan’s superb filmisation of the Tennessee Williams play. Among the goodies in the Extras section is a 75-minute documentary on Kazan’s career, with insights on seminal films like On the Waterfront, East of Eden and America, America, his status as an immigrant who remained a Hollywood outsider all his life, and his infamous ratting on Communists during the McCarthy witch-hunt. There are also a few shorter documentaries about Streetcar’s transition from stage to screen, the film’s music score and Marlon Brando’s iconic performance as the uncouth Stanley Kowalski (with outtakes and screen tests featuring the young mumbler) and a commentary track featuring two movie historians and actor Karl Malden, who played Stanley’s (relatively well-mannered) friend Mitch in the film. Excellent stuff, all told.
Of course, all this comes a distant second to the film itself, which I enjoyed much more this time than when I first saw it more than 15 years ago. A Streetcar Named Desire is probably best known today for unleashing the young Brando and his forceful Method acting on a world that was scarcelyprepared for him. It wasn’t Brando’s first film, technically speaking, but his Stanley – a character he had played on stage for two years before the movie was made – is his definitive early performance. As the film opens, Stanley is living with his wife Stella in a cramped apartment block in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Into this world comes Stella’s coquettish elder sister Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh), a refined Southern lady with a possibly murky past. She moves in with them and is as shocked (and intrigued) by Stanley’s coarseness as he is amused by her prim mannerisms.
The stage is thus set for a clash, not just of characters but of entire worlds, for this play, like much of Tennessee Williams’ other work, is laden with symbolism. One doesn’t need to have any knowledge of the American Old South to see Blanche as representative of a fading upper class that has lost its footing in the modern world and refuses to accept it, retreating instead into a world of make-believe. But in her attitude towards working-class people and immigrants (Stanley is Polish-American) leading “unrefined” lives, Blanche is equally a symbol of social snobbery and moral hypocrisy. Stanley, on the other hand, stands for a younger, brasher attitude common to people who live tough lives, work hard and drink harder, aren't very polite in their dealings, but are essentially direct and unpretentious. (This makes the casting of Brando even more interesting: his shockingly brusque, straight-to-the-point acting style must have been as much of a shake-up for the more orthodox screen performers of the time as Stanley’s behaviour is for Blanche.)
Streetcar is a great film on most criteria, with the writing and the acting being obvious highlights (they would have to be: the film is driven by these elements). I don’t agree with the idea that Brando’s performances were more “realistic” in some overriding sense than those of the best older Hollywood actors of the time, but his style made it possible for a certain type of character to be convincingly portrayed on the American screen. He has many attention-grabbing scenes here – the obvious ones being the sudden bursts of rage when he breaks the radio or “clears the table” after Stella has given him a dressing down, and his childlike contrition after a display of brute force – but he’s just as good in the less showy moments. (I particularly like the forced, goofy smile on his face when he says hi to Blanche shortly after an unpleasant confrontation.) His magnetism makes it possible to undervalue Vivien Leigh, but she's superb too, as Blanche's carefully cultivated facade of poise and self-assurance slowly cracks to reveal the instability underneath - a build-up to the painful final moments where she falls into hysteria.
I thought the film was beautifully shot, especially in the way the lighting toys with Blanche’s features (she constantly tries to look younger than she is, staying in half-light until a late scene where her features are brutally exposed), and the DVD print (a restoration, I think) accentuates this. The set design - built around the shabby tenement where Stanley and Stella and their neighbours live, brawl, drink, make love and play cards late into the night - is very impressive as well.
At one point in the DVD’s audio commentary track, someone observes that despite the actors having played these parts for months in the theatre, the movie seems completely fresh and “cinematic”. I’m not too sure about that – I thought it was a bit stagey in parts, though this is inevitable given the nature of the material. Williams’ plays tend to be intense, wordy and claustrophobic, and no one can accuse his vivid, poetic lines of sounding like natural speech (this isn’t a criticism). Also, as mentioned earlier, while his characters are well-realised people, they are also symbols, and this comes across in some of the self-conscious monologues (“I don't want realism, I want magic,” Blanche says, “I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”)
I haven’t read the play, but watching the film I could imagine how it must have unfolded on the stage – where the curtain would have fallen to mark the end of an Act (in the film, naturally, there are cuts and fade-outs instead), how a certain character would have entered and exited a scene, and so on. None of this reduces the movie’s impact - it's tense and gripping all the way through.
[Some earlier posts on old films: Yojimbo, Fearless Vampire Killers, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nanook of the North, Fiddler on the Roof, The Talk of the Town, Swing Time, Peeping Tom, Eraserhead, Closely Watched Trains, Paths of Glory, Badlands, Judgement at Nuremberg, Duck Soup]