Thursday, September 24, 2015

AFI Top 100: #47 "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Marlon Brando & Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

When I started this AFI Top 100 project in July of last year, there were a small handful of movies that I really looked forward tofar, far down the road. Personal favorites that I couldn't wait to share with everyone, and that I'd have to fight my bias to review fairly. This movie was at the top of that list. The Elia Kazan-directed, Tennessee Williams-written masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, settling in nicely at #47. Based on Williams' famous stage play, it can be credited with bringing star Marlon Brando to the masses... his first major motion picture, and the role that started it all.

Aging Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh) makes her way to her sister's small New Orleans apartment, desperate to escape her secrets and forget the recent loss of their plantation home, Belle Reve. Her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), left the family home long ago, finding her independence and marrying tough, foul-mouthed, and the more-than-a-little abrasive Stanley Kowalski (Brando). As Blanche moves herself into their home, Stanley begins to question her honesty, which isn't helped by her inability to shed her delusional air of superiority. As Blanche's lies begin to unravel, so does her sanity.

The action within the movie is limitednot a surprise for something based on a static stage play—focusing mostly on the mundane activity of normal life. Coming home from work, late night poker games, getting ready in the morning... on the surface, things that lack excitement, but it all allows for fluid conversation, and that's where the richness of Streetcar lies. Kazan is a master presenter of story. Not only because he creates beautiful, haunting worlds; it's the whole picture. The ambiance of the set, and dialogue loaded with male aggression and feminine submission. A delicate dance, Tennessee Williams' story of lust and delusion is presented with rich imagery, tension, and sensuality.

Vivian Leigh as Blanche is just the right amount of over-the-top. The image of Blanche as a sputtering moth drawn to the light isn't that far off. It might actually be a bit on the nose. She's practically smacking up uselessly against the window, for Christ's sake. And that isn't Leigh overacting. She's exactly what Blanche is supposed to be, which is why when Stanley reacts to her with indignance, we can't blame him. Every time she flits across the screen, across Stanley's eye-line, she's in danger of being swatted. Watching the exchanges between them is frustrating and tragic, but Williams' special brand of dark comedy is always right under the surface.

When it comes to defining how one should feel about Stanley, I tend to get a bit quiet. Probably the worst person in the world to be attracted to, but it happens, you are, and you hate yourself for it. He's an oaf, a misogynist, and we can totally see what Stella sees in him. And Blanche too, despite her best efforts to fain disgust. Stanley and Blanche are quite literally exact opposites, which is what makes their dynamic dangerous and volatile. A woman who only knows how to pretend and lie is faced with a man who isn't capable of either, so it's only a matter of time before one of them implodes. One guess who it'll be.

There are famous scenes from the play that are noticeably absent from the film. I'd like to think they're still there, but with some creative editing and the power of suggestion, we're meant to simply infer them. One such scene in particular—without giving anything away—is the climactic confrontation between Blanche and Stanley. For the purposes of the story, there's nothing more the audience needs to see, because if you're paying attention, it's clear as day. If you're not, well... there are probably plenty more subtleties you missed that will make Streetcar more of a droll viewing experience than it should have been. This movie is all about the subtext, and Kazan doesn't slow down the momentum of the story or the frantic dialogue for anybody.

If you couldn't tell already, this is probably my favorite movie among the AFI Top 100 (with one exception, which we'll discuss when we get there next year). It holds a special place in my heart, because it's the whole packageeverything I look for in a great film. My favorite director directing, my favorite playwright writing, and my favorite classic actor acting. The dialogue is more important than anything else, and I love a director and a cast that will honor the script the way that these guys do.

I suspect there are those who'll see A Streetcar Named Desire and mask what all the fuss is about. Maybe it speaks to lovers of theater most, or maybe those who've studied the play or mental illness in general. Whatever it is, Streetcar is special for those who think about it long and hard, because most of all, it's a conversation and debate waiting to happen.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Warner Bros.]

Check back next time for #46 on the list, It Happened One Night — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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