Thursday, April 17, 2008

DVD review/film classics: A Streetcar Named Desire

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]


  1. Great post, as always. I'm very envious of your DVD too - the extras sound great!

    It's funny that this is one of the two movies that have won 3 acting Oscars (Network is the other), but the Academy didn't deem fit to give one to Brando!

  2. Stanley used to pick up the beer bottles with the forefinger and middle-finger of his right hand... You noticed that? Saw the movie 15 years back; from your write-up, I evidently haven't forgotten much, but can't get that completely stylish and casual picking-up-of-the-beer-bottle-and-taking-a-swig visual out of my mind. I have only been able to do it properly now, what with India having to live with the huge beer bottles all these years.


  3. Shamya: don't tell me you've forgotten our conversations about Marlon and the beer bottle? As I recall, you were the DSC Brando (in addition to Brad Pitt of course) - picking up my ill-fated alarm clock and trying to twirl it the same way as a beer bottle.

    Madhav: Well, Bogey got the Oscar that year for The African Queen - a sort-of career achievement award - so I can't complain too much. Besides, the Academy more than made up for it by giving Brando a best actor Oscar for Vito Corleone (an overrated performance in my view, and not the lead role in the film anyway).

  4. Streetcar is a great film. 200-300 for a DVD is still expensive. I am sure there is a lot of profit that the companies make on this price. Otherwise a DVD costs less than 15 rupees when taken blank. Moser Baer is able to provide DVD's for as less as 49 bucks and if it can do it at this price than one can be sure that even DVD's of foreign films should not be much different in rate. These firms should stop talking about piracy when you can pick up a good quality DVD for half the rate at places like Palika. To talk about Piracy itself is hypocrisy.

  5. I haven't seen "Streetcar..". But in the list of old movies u mentioned I have read the book "Judgement at Nuremberg". Great story and I heard the acting by Montgomery clift was also good. Too bad he didn't receive an Oscar even for "From here to eternity".

    Good collection you have Jai. Are you at Bangalore?

  6. Shwet: true enough about prices being too high, but I've always felt those Moser Baer discs are dicey. They somehow seem too fragile to survive multiple viewings - is there a lower quality of disc being used there? Also, I wouldn't be content with having just the film on the DVD - special features are required too, and maybe those have an effect on the pricing? Just wondering.

    Karthik: no, Delhi. Did you read the Judgement at Nuremberg post I linked to? It was one of my favourite films as a 14-year-old connoisseur of Old Hollywood and I still have sentimental attachment towards it. Btw, I liked Monty Clift best in A Place in the Sun and Red River.

  7. Hi Jai. You probably knew this quiz question: what went from Canal and Bourbon to Royal and Canal? A Streetcar Named "Desire", with Desire a stop on its route.

    Interestingly, two tram cars with that name were shipped to San Francisco, where they are very popular nowadays.

    And apropos Kazan's fingering of the Commies, have you read Derek Robinson's Red Rag Blues? Hilarious and moving romp through the paranoia of America of the time.

  8. "but his style made it possible for a certain type of character to be convincingly portrayed on the American screen"
    IMHO,Along with Brando, Jimmy Dean and Monty Clift were the other two actors who ushered in the "modern acting style",whatever that means.

  9. P.S. Does your version has Brando's audition for Rebel Without a Cause?

  10. Rahul: the disc has that audition, but it's a short scene and not a very good print. At any rate, the film Brando auditioned for was very different from the one that eventually got made years later with James Dean.

    Along with Brando, Jimmy Dean and Monty Clift were the other two actors who ushered in the "modern acting style"

    I assume you're talking only about the Americans? But even among those, there were also performers who spanned different acting styles, like John Garfield and arguably even Robert Mitchum, who preceded Clift and Brando.

  11. Ok,I thought Brando would have owned that role;though,I dont consider Jimmy Dean inferior to Brando with respect to acting talents.
    I have seen just one movie of Garfield viz. Postman always rings twice. All the movies that I have seen of Mitchum have been film noir,and I thought he has a Dharmendra like presence;but I didnt notice anything remarkably different in him from the other noir leading men.
    I think what sets these three apart,are a combination of being method actors,prodigious talents and portrayal of more vulnerable\ real characters than the traditional leading men of that time.

  12. Streetcar is pretty high up on my list to see. To state the obvious, Brando is a God. His half an hour cameo in Apocalypse Now (my all-time favorite film) gives the film an abrupt much-needed closure.

    Saw Sanjuro earlier this week and liked it even more than Yojimbo, probably because of greater restriction of the events on screen and also for Mifune, who had obviously grown as an actor from Yojimbo, where he had anyway done a phenomenal job.

  13. ...more vulnerable\real characters than the traditional leading men of that time

    Rahul: vulnerable yes, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that these characters were more real in some meaningful sense than the ones played by the great non-Method actors like Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Fonda or the Brits. (I'm not implying the Method lot were less real btw, just that they were different.) I suppose the generation gap had a lot to do with it, the late 40s and early 50s being the first time that concepts like adolescent angst etc came into popular usage in the US - which meant that some of these performances, like Brando in The Wild One, Clift in Red River or Dean in East of Eden and Rebel..., became more representative of the mood that was emerging at the time.

    ArSENik: yes, Sanjuro is a very different sort of film - almost the anti-Yojimbo in a sense. Difficult to compare, though I doubt that Mifune grew as an actor in the eight months between the two films. (Watch the astonishing versatility of his earlier performances under Kurosawa, in films like The Lower Depths, Record of a Living Being and Stray Dog.) What's more likely is that he was deliberately playing a more restricted, enigmatic character in the first film, and opening up in the second.

  14. "I'm not implying the Method lot were less real btw, just that they were different."
    In a way,I agree with you.The choice of acting style,probably, didn't influence the character as much as it did the script;or vice versa.For example,I can't imagine a method actor doing "Meet John Doe" or "Mr Smith goes to Washington";so, the touch of levity with which these roles were played,suited them.
    Were a Stanley Kowalski or a Cal Trask played more realistically than a Mr Smith or John Doe ? Sure,because thats the premise of method acting.
    But are they more or less real?Probably not.

  15. Rahul: I'm not comfortable with this setting up of "a touch of levity" in opposition to "realistic acting". It seems patronising, especially given that most actors agree that doing comedy or light roles well is generally tougher than playing high-intensity drama (which the Method actors you've mentioned specialise in).

    I wouldn't include Meet John Doe in this discussion, since I don't think of Gary Cooper as a great actor anyway, but when you bring up Mr Smith Goes to Washington you're talking about the finest early-career performance of one of the all-time greats (who, of course, went on to play more complex roles in the 1950s under Anthony Mann and Hitchcock). Though I agree that scripts played a big role and were tailored to suit different acting styles in different eras, on what basis would you say that Brando's Kowalski was played more realistically than James Stewart's Mr Smith? It seems to me that both actors did the optimum jobs with their characters.

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  17. Jai, spot on!
    I'm reminded of Charles Laughton's remark - 'Method actors give us a photograph, real actors an oil painting'

    Perhaps, the likes of Brando/Clift seem more 'realistic' - whatever that means. But for sheer enjoyment I'd prefer a *star* actor like Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart any day over a *Method* actor.

    I think the Method entailed the actor to completely get into the skin of the character, thus entirely sublimating his individual style. As a result, a Method actor lacked the distinctive persona that clearly distinguished each of the great stars of the studio era.

    Also, there is a tendency to doubt the ability of the great non-Method actors of the 30s and 40s to play characters like Kowalski and Terry Malloy. Yet, no one seems to wonder if the Method actors could've held their own in less intense, everyman roles? For instance, I can't imagine Brando doing as good a job as Cary Grant in The Awful Truth or a De Niro being as convincing as Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life

  18. The method of "Method acting" entails drawing from your own emotional reservoir and let the outward emotion take care of itself.There may never be an "off the shelf" emotional moment in a method actors repertoire. The earlier actors,like kathakali dancers,would be adept in displaying the 9 "rasas".
    But method acting is,or at least aims to be ,the way real people behave.This is not meant to be patronizing or condescending.The art of kathakali is probably more difficult to master than method acting.And as I said earlier,the method actors probably wont be that convincing in a script like Mr Deeds or Mr Smith.

  19. Shrikanth, Rahul: some interesting thoughts there, thanks. I think it's important to recognise that this is a complex, multi-sided argument. Even the Method-vs-non-Method classification is way too generalised, given there are many different types of Method and non-Method actors. Perhaps the best approach is to examine things on a performance by performance basis.

    For instance, Shrikanth, even as you defend the star actors, you use relatively lighter roles (Grant in The Awful Truth) to set up the contrast with intensity specialists like Brando or De Niro. But I was re-watching Vertigo yesterday and it was hard to imagine how any of the great Method actors could better Stewart's performance in the final 15-20 minutes, as the full scope of his character's sexual jealousy is revealed. With a different script, of course, another actor might have produced an equally good performance, but I'm not sure the two would be comparable in any meaningful way.

    Likening a non-Method actor to a kathakali performer is interesting too, but it suggests that all such performances were stylisations. This might be true of Laughton playing Captain Bligh or Olivier playing Richard III, but it's hardly true of, say, Henry Fonda's marvelously understated Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. Or the best work of Fredric March or Spencer Tracy. Compared to some of those performances, Brando is the one who appears stylised and "rasa"-displaying.

    P.S. just noticed that we've only been discussing male actors all this while. What sexists we all are.

    P.P.S. Maybe you guys would be interested in this post I wrote for the Middle Stage years ago. It's on Roger Manvell's book Film, which has some amazingly perceptive notes on different types of screen acting, even though it was written in the early 1940s.

  20. Off topic - Sorry

    For someone who lives/used to live in Saket, it's strange that you haven't mentioned the BRT mess in your posts. Unless you have discovered some secret passageway from your house that leads straight to Connaught Place :)

  21. Toe Knee: I haven't actually been to Palika Bazar (or CP in general) for months now. Come to think of it, now that I work entirely out of home, I very rarely travel that side at all. But I've written often enough about Delhi's traffic in earlier posts.

  22. Reductionisms like this do not attempt to explain everything;but what they do provide is a perspective to understand this complex process,much of which is implicit even to the actors.So I believe they are useful and important.
    "P.S. just noticed that we've only been discussing male actors all this while. What sexists we all are."
    I admit I find it hard to analyze female acting.Its much easier to be just blown away.Like I was recently with two of Stanwyck's performances- "The lady eve" and "Ball of fire"

  23. I find it hard to analyze female acting.

    Rahul: interesting phenomenon, and I wonder if it has anything to do with us being male viewers, and whether women would similarly find it hard to analyze, say, Brando-vs-Stewart.

    Crazy coincidence - Stanwyck was the first name that came to my mind when I started thinking about women actors. Big fan of hers.

  24. I feel that Brando reached iconic status through his performances in Streetcar and Waterfront. However in both these movies the supporting cast put in amazing performances. In fact Streetcar is more Vivien Leigh's film than Brando's as her's is the character mainly in focus. Also, the character of Mitch ( for which karl malden received an Oscar) was also superbly portrayed.
    In fact Karl Malden had another great role in the other brando classic Waterfront, where he played the role of the town priest.

  25. While Blanche's character typified the old gentry and its death Brando's character typified the next gen Americans and his character also had sinister underlinings. In the movie he is shown to be extremely self centered who always puts his wants and his pleasures before everything else. He is also not above deceit as indicated in the last scene where he guilelessly denies a deed he has done. Yet he manages to get away with the title of being unpretentious and honest. What I understood from the movie was that the new gen as typified by Stanley was as good or as bad as the old gen. The only difference while the older gen preferred to cover their nefarious deeds with a veneer of sophistication, the new gen preferred to do away with the veneer. So true of America.

  26. Jai, I watched the Warner Bros BluRay version of the movie recently. It has the same extras that you mentioned. The most exciting thing for me however was that when the movie ended suddenly an Indian censor board notice flashed up (the ones before movies they show in India), so subliminally that it was freaky. I thought I was drunk or fallen asleep (both very real possibilities because it was around new years eve).

    The other thing that I was reminded of when watching Vivien Leigh was Abhijit Mukherjee's dented & painted comment. Her Blanche seemed to be both.

    Did you like the score? I thought Alex North's jazz score was dynamite. And also that quote about going to Elysian Fields on desire & changing to cemetery pretty much summed up Blanche's fate.