Tuesday, July 06, 2010

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

This next one will be…interesting. 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a cinematic classic based on arguably the most popular play by Tennessee Williams, a playwriting titan of the 20th Century. But the thing is, I’ve never been particularly big on Williams’ work. He’s certainly a good writer, but his plays never really connected with me, possibly because I had to write an essay on The Glass Menagerie back in High School that was a chore, a bore and not very good.

Like I said, this will be interesting.

A former schoolteacher who fancies herself a southern belle falls on hard times and “visits” her sister in New Orleans and moves in. Her sister’s loutish husband isn’t exactly keen on this idea, and the small apartment they live in becomes an emotional powder keg. You bet your ass DRAMA ensues.

Blanche DuBois: Vivien Leigh does an excellent job as the main character. Blanche is about as flawed as a self-centered, self-styled Southern Belle can get. She shows up claiming to be just visiting and doesn’t leave and the reasons for her arrival in New Orleans are slowly revealed. A brilliant actress, she says a lot with her eyes.

Stella Kowalski: Kim Hunter plays Blanche’s sister. She’s been living and working in the Big Easy for a long time now and is expecting a baby. She’s sympathetic, but as the story goes on, she shows some pretty glaring character flaws herself.

Stanley Kowalski: Marlon Brando throws down one hell of a performance in this. Stanley is a straightforward, hard drinking tough guy who can sit with the palest of white trash. At the beginning, he’s kind of befuddled by Blanche’s arrival but slightly amused by it. His interactions with Blanche start off harmlessly comical, like watching a chimpanzee at a typewriter. But guess what? Stanley is a complete asshole and Brandon really hammers that home by the end of the movie.

Harold “Mitch” Mitchell: Karl Malden plays one of Stanley’s poker buddies. He develops a soft spot for Blanche, goes out with her a few times and is a pretty decent guy. He even stands up to Stanley in a few points, which is pretty damn badass.

Directed by Elia Kazan (who also directed the stage version that most of the film’s cast played in) with Harry Stradling Sr. as DP. Visually the movie is striking. The set design is great, the lighting outstanding and there are some truly iconic scenes, like the famous “STELLLLLAAAA!!” moment, to be found in this film. But, and this is a big one for me, the movie felt like it dawdled in a lot of places. A LOT of places to be honest, with some scenes going on interminably well after the point was made.

Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, adapted by Oscar Saul and screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Williams wrote a lot of stuff about the miserable lives of common people and this is no exception. There are no heroes in this story and everyone has some pretty enormous flaws. We get some really gritty character development too. I never got into Williams, but he is a good writer.

Original score by Alex North and the use of music in this film is fantastic. The main theme is a haunting, gloomy and very “New Orleans” kind of sound and numerous smaller themes pop up throughout, fading in and out and its only by the end of the movie when you realize their significance. I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the impact of it, but the music and how it is used in this are incredible.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a technically accomplished, excellently acted, musically brilliant movie that…for some reason, I didn’t like. It’s not a question of enjoyment, since this is not the kind of story you read/watch for pleasure, but aside from the moments I thought were genius, I just kept on wishing for the movie to get on with it. This is odd. On paper, this is a great movie, but in the actual act of sitting through it, I kept looking at my watch hoping for the 122 minutes to pass quicker than they did. I was not riveted to the screen, though possibly this may have been a side effect of watching Casablanca immediately before Streetcar. This is an important movie on its merits, but I was not engaged by it.

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