Sunday, April 15, 2012

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: Blu-ray (WB 1951) Warner Home Video

One of a handful of truly great plays in the American stagecraft, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire broke all the rules and taboos, clearing away the cobwebs of clean cut complacency from the Broadway theatre in 1948 to introduce its seething depiction of unrepentant animal magnetism and cold, calculating aversion to middle-class morality.

At a time when the emotional impact of melodrama in live theatre was slowly being eroded by the onslaught of musicals by Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and later, Rodgers and Hammerstein, ‘Streetcar’ revived something of that raw emotional connection with the audience; only this time by tearing open a wound into subject matter rarely discussed amongst the socially affluent theatre goer.

But this had always been Tennessee Williams’ great strength as a playwright; to evoke and critique with moral ambiguity the illicit and irreproachable topics of life that no one other than he dared expose. More than any other author of his time, Williams unapologetically stripped bare the hidden dark recesses that had lain dormant too long under the American dream.
As is often the case, with ‘Streetcar life imitated art. Williams based the ill fated character of Blanche DuBois on his own sister who had struggled with crippling lifelong mental illness. Translating the play to film in 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire proved something of a challenge for director Elia Kazan. For starters, all references to Allan Grey’s homosexuality were removed in the film. Blanche’s late husband is now described as having committed suicide owing to ‘a general weakness’.

So too did the film board of censorship balk at having Stanley Kowalski rape the mentally unstable Blanche after his wife, Stella is admitted into the hospital with premature labour pains. On screen, rape would have to be implied rather than shown. Otherwise, Kazan and screenwriter, Oscar Saul remained relatively faithful to the blunt force trauma of Tennessee Williams’ original words.
As in the play, we find Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) disorientated at the railway depot, having just arrived from her hometown of Auriol Mississippi (changed from Laurel in the play). Suffering from exhaustion, Blanche stumbles through the seedy red light district of New Orleans’ French Quarter in search of the apartment building her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) shares with new husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) on Elysian Fields Ave.

Eventually finding Stella inside a bowling alley, watching Stanley and his friends bowl, Blanche confesses to her sister that their ancestral home, Belle Reve, has been foreclosed and sold for back taxes. Blanche, who is an English school teacher by trade, has been permitted a leave of absence from the Spring semester after the strain over losing her home became too great for her to bear. Stella accepts her sister’s explanation for her hasty arrival in town at face value.
But Stanley is not nearly as gullible. A primal sensuality courses through his veins. He is a brutish hulk of a man who, by his own admission, has taken Stella down from her pedestal, igniting her inner wickedness with his own raw sexuality. While Blanche is refreshing herself in the bathroom, Stanley tears through her steamer trunk, finding jewelry, furs and various other attire that he believes would be impossible for Blanche to afford on a school teacher’s salary.

One aspect of Blanche’s psyche is painfully clear. She has yet to recover from the suicide of her husband, Allan Grey – who shot himself after she admonished him for his ‘general weakness’. Playing the part of a gentile southern belle from another vintage, Blanche is at first attracted to Stanley for the same reasons her sister is, but finds Stella’s readiness to surrender to him morally repugnant, particularly after she witnesses Stanley strike her pregnant sister with his fists, before shouting for her to come back to him - which she willingly does.
As we soon learn, Stanley’s behavior is a destructive pattern in all their lives – his physical and emotional abuse followed by bouts of congeniality toward his wife and Blanche. But behind this courtly facade, Stanley has begun a more sinister quest; to rid himself of Blanche’s influence on Stella by destroying her credibility in any way that he knows how. In the meantime, Blanche has begun an attachment with Harold Mitchell (Karl Malden); one of Stanley’s poker buddies.

‘Mitch’ is a wallflower, living with his aged mother who is dying of an undisclosed illness. He is kind to Blanche, tender and affectionate at precisely the moment she desperately needs the kindness of strangers to buttress her sad state of emotional decline. But Stanley has quietly discovered Blanche’s past from a co-worker who makes regular deliveries to Auriol.
She did not take a leave of absence from teaching, but was fired by the school after a sexual liaison with one of her seventeen year old pupils; one of many conquests she indulged frequently at a trashy motel on the outskirts of town where she was well known for her own deviant sexual proclivities.

Now, with the prime of her youth behind her, and her reputation from a scandalous past rapidly catching up, Blanche is exposed to Stella and Mitch by Stanley for the shallow slut that she is. Heartbroken at being deceived, Mitch breaks off their engagement. Stella goes into premature labour and is rushed to hospital to deliver her baby, leaving Stanley and Blanche to pursue their toxic collision course alone.
Without Stella to act as a buffer between them, Stanley is emotionally cruel beyond all human decency. He confronts Blanche with the realization that she is no longer welcome in his house. He calls her out as a prostitute and then decides it is of no consequence for him to take from her that which she willingly offered to so many others but has coyly denied him ever since moving into his apartment. The rape of Blanche sends her over the edge of reason, and in the days following Stella’s return to the apartment with Stanley’s infant son, Blanche becomes a fragile recluse, hiding in hallways and bathrooms, unable to look her sister in the eye for fear she will learn the truth.

With Stella’s complicity, Stanley decides to have Blanche committed to an asylum. However, Mitch, knowing that Stanley has raped Blanche, and furthermore, that the rape itself is responsible for shattering her already delicate state of mind, attacks Stanley in his apartment, just as the institution’s sympathetic doctor (Richard Garrick) has arrived to collect his new patient.
Stanley claims that he never touched Blanche, but Stella now realizing the truth for herself, makes her husband a solemn vow. He will never lay a hand on her or her child again. Their marriage is over. The movie ends with Stella watching as the doctor takes Blanche away. Stanley hollers for his wife to return to him, but this time his cries going unacknowledged.

A Streetcar Named Desire is riveting entertainment. Sixty years after its Broadway debut, the play has lost little of its dramatic potency. With the exception of two scenes, all of the confrontations take place inside the pitiful squalor of Stella and Stanley’s cramped two room apartment. This confinement of the cinematic space serves to reiterate for the audience that our central protagonists are, as pack of wild animals clawing at one another, confined to a very tight little cage.
With the exception of Vivien Leigh, all of the actors came to the film from Broadway; their familiarity with the roles galvanizing their characterizations into a dark and brooding verisimilitude. Brando, in particular, is a harrowing force of nature; so taut and electric that he threatens to devour the rest with his engrossing – yet utterly vile - male machismo.

Vivien Leigh had played Blanche during the London run of the play. In re-crafting her performance for the film she carefully builds genuine sympathy for Blanche that is stripped away the moment Stanley confronts Blanche with his findings about her past. Then, and only then does Leigh reveal a harsher underbelly to Blanche. This dramatic shift is daring, but necessary as it helps transfer the audience’s emotional response towards Blanche from empathy to ultimately a sense of pity.
Kim Hunter and Karl Malden offer stellar support to what is essentially a clash of wills between two self destructive people out for blood. Elia Kazan keeps the narrative tightly focused. There is not a lot of down time between these fierce exchanges. Harry Stradling’s moody deep focus cinematography creates a generally oppressive claustrophobia while Alex North’s bawdy/brassy score plays up the cheap eroticism that fuels and motivates our protagonists.

Even with the blight of film censorship clinging to its poisonous charms, A Streetcar Named Desire remains a noxious blend of sin and seduction not easily dismissed. This is one potent, and very hard hitting American classic that has retained its ability to sting.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is admirable, but not entirely what I expected. While the image predictably tightens up in 1080p, fine details are still somewhat wanting, and there is a rather disturbing softness to the image that seems out of character, as though an excessive amount of DNR has been applied to eradicate film grain almost entirely from this presentation. Predictably, the image darkens up considerably over the DVD, as it should. But contrast levels seem a tad weaker than they ought with the general tonality of the gray scale registering from mid to low. I am not entirely certain that this is a new re-scan of the film elements as much as it appears to be a 1080p conversion struck from the old remasters used to create the 2 disc DVD from some years ago.

The audio is DTS mono and really shows off the bluesy riffs of Alex North’s score, while dialogue is exceptionally crisp sounding without ever becoming strident on the ears.
Extras are all imports from Warner’s 2 disc DVD and include the feature length documentary, Elia Kazan: A Filmmaker’s Journey, as well as comprehensive featurettes on the making of the film, Alex North’s contributions, Tennessee Williams prowess as the author of the play, the Broadway play, and Brando’s exceptional performance. We also get screen tests, audio outtakes, an audio commentary track from Karl Malden, Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, plus the film’s original trailer. Warner has created a handsome digipack to house this disc with its usual affinity for picture book materials intact. Bottom line: recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

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