A Streetcar Named Desire is a monochrome masterpiece

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando deliver superlative performances in director Elia Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ iconic play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.

It’s wonderful when you go and rewatch a classic movie like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – the memories of how marvellous it is come flooding back. Thanks to those clever film people over at the BFI, I had the opportunity to see the re-release of this powerful 1951 movie directed by Elia Kazan. His screen version of Tennessee Williams‘ iconic play was part of a Kazan season there. And having not seen it for many years, the film knocked me for six once again with its tragic story and superlative performances.

Kim Hunter and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire

Kim Hunter’s Stella reconnects with her sister, Vivien Leigh’s Blanche

Blanche Dubois, in Vivien Leigh‘s emotionally devastating and deservedly Oscar-winning portrayal, is a somewhat cautious and rather prim lady who arrives in the sweltering heat of New Orleans at the beginning of the film. She has to catch a tram to ‘Desire’, the evocatively named area of the city where her sister lives. But what appears at first to be a simple family visit to see Stella (a pitch-perfect and Oscar-winning Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (an outstanding Marlon Brando in one of his most indelible roles) very soon becomes something much more complex.

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanche memorably clashes with Marlon Brando’s Stanley

As Blanche and Stanley memorably clash each time they meet, with the aristocratic Blanche feeling threatened by Stanley’s masculinity and directness, we begin to understand the real reasons for Blanche visiting Stella and leaving their family home Belle Reve in Mississippi. Rather than simply deciding to take some time away from her teaching job, Blanche has fled to New Orleans to escape some salacious rumours. And as she seems to increasingly shut her eyes to the truth of her situation, seeking solace in drink, Blanche becomes a wretched figure for whom we feel pity as well as revulsion in Leigh’s masterful performance.

Although Blanche finds a brief respite from the tense-filled arguments with Stanley with his card-playing friend Mitch (a superb and Oscar-winning Karl Malden) Blanche’s mental state begins to deteriorate as she struggles to keep her grip on reality. Stella, who has shocked Blanche with her news that she’s expecting a baby, has to not only handle Stanley’s enmity of her older sister but also take care of the progressively fragile Blanche.

Kazan handles the emotional turmoil of Williams’ story expertly, capturing the rawness of the performances by his incredible cast in scene after scene. And Harry Stradling’s black and white cinematography is wondrous as he uses shadows and soft focus to dizzying effect.

But it’s the acting of Leigh and Brando that leaves its indelible mark on the viewer. The New Yorker put it simply when it wrote,

“Two of the greatest performances ever put on film.”

And I’d second that. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE is a monochrome masterpiece and one of those timeless films that are an absolute must-watch.