Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

There's nothing I like more than a good list. I'm not bothered about the subject matter - the hundred greatest guitarists, Hollywood's biggest crackheads, the top ten gymnasts of the 21st century – if it's in a carefully ordered, numbered list, I want to know the outcome. I especially enjoy film-related lists; which is just as well given their ubiquity. However I rarely agree with the outcome of these countdowns. Everything is fine until you get to the top twenty and beyond. Yes, the universally acclaimed greats are present and correct - The Godfather, Raging Bull, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – but alongside them sit esoteric reminders of a bygone era. Films like 1927's Metropolis, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Those films don't belong there. They're too old. I've never seen them, and have no intention of ever seeing them.

But where's the cut-off point, at what stage do I bury my pre-conceptions and give these classics a fair go? Well for me it's the 1960s. I figure this to be a reasonable compromise on my part. The sixties were cool; pop music, drugs, the space-age, the Cold War. So that's my start point, everything before that is off-limits. And it's worked out just fine; This Sporting Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby – a great decade for films. Fuck the fifties and the forties, and the nineteen-fucking-twenties, I don't need to see any of that fusty old nonsense. But then, the other day, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with a cinephile, someone who doesn't share my disdain for anything pre-dating Psycho. And before I knew it I was agreeing to watch something from 1951. Something dangerously outside my comfort zone. This is what I get for being such an open-minded sort.

So, with a heavy heart, I logged into my torrent site of choice and searched for the film in question. And there it was: A Streetcar Named Desire - four torrents available. How very reassuring. Torrent downloaded, transferred to USB, and inserted into 39” wide-screen HD-TV, I sat down to watch what would be the oldest piece of cinema I had ever viewed. And guess what? It held up perfectly. Yes it was very much of its time. But it had aged gracefully. It was engaging, involving and, at times, even riveting. In many ways A Streetcar Named Desire is a lesson in film-making, a parable for all wannabee directors. And it's all so simple; acquire an incredible screenplay, a selection of outrageously talented actors, and set up camp in a couple of small, almost claustrophobic, locations. And hey presto, you've got yourself a slice of cinematic history.

The film opens with its central character, Blanche DuBois, arriving in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella. At first glance Blanche, played by Vivien Leigh, appears to be your typical 1950s screen-siren, all winsome and whispery, a delicate, fragile little thing. And as she makes her way to Stella's home she looks very much out of her depth, a lady lost on the wrong side of town. When she sees what is to be her home for the next few days; a run-down apartment with only a curtain separating its two main chambers, you can almost feel her heart fluttering in fear. Clearly Blanche is used to a better standard of living, something she is eager to remind her sister of at every available opportunity. However her living arrangements are really the least of her worries, because pretty soon Stella's husband, Stanley, will arrive home, and he is not one to be trifled with.

That is essentially the film's premise, an altogether ordinary tale, a mundane one almost. But the very best stories manage to make the ordinary seem extraordinary and that is what Tennessee Williams does here. There are only four speaking roles in the film – save for a couple of bit-part characters – but so focused are you on their words, and their interactions, that it matters little. Much of this is down to the quite staggering performances of the two leads. I will dissect Vivien Leigh's work in due course, but it would be remiss of me to go any further without discussing Marlon Brando and his monumental achievements herein.

In keeping with my philistinian ways I had only ever seen Brando perform in four films prior to watching Streetcar. They were: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Superman and The Score. I knew all about his reputation as one of the greatest actors of all time but only had those four pared-down roles as proof of his talents. So when I sat down to watch Streetcar I was entirely unprepared for what I was about to witness. From the moment he first appears on screen I was left agog, “what is this creature?” “Is it human?” “A Greek God sent from the ages to mesmerise all who cross his path?” “Or, simply God himself, checking in on his disciples before returning to his heavenly palace?” I couldn't take my eyes off him. One can only imagine how the women of that time felt when confronted by this brooding presence at their local cineplexes.

And then he starts to act, or rather, he doesn't. Marlon Brando may be listed as Stanley Kowalski in the film's credits, and he may have been nominated for a Best Actor award at that year's Oscars, but he's not acting here. If he is it's not like any other acting I've seen. It as if the screen is his natural habitat, and a film just happens to be taking place around him. Everything he does is so effortless, so natural, that I refuse to believe it was scripted, that the words he spoke were created by somebody else and then handed to him to repeat. And anyway he doesn't really even need words. They are merely just a means to an end. He performs with his entire body. And that is a term I would have deemed ludicrous just a few short days ago.

As if all this wasn't enough Brando has been blessed with something not quite approaching a voice, I would describe it more as a muscle, an instrument of great power. He grunts and mumbles his way through some scenes, his dialect so garbled as to be indecipherable, before exploding to life in others, then simmering just long enough for the audience to catch its breath before repeating the entire process over again. His wife, and the victim of most of his outbursts, is encouraged to leave him and never return. But how could she possibly leave him? How could anyone? It's only been a couple of hours since I watched the film and already I miss him. And while Stanley's relationship with his wife is at once fractious, passionate and vexing, it is his discomforting association with Blanche which propels the film forward.

He is at once wholly unimpressed with his sister-in-law. Not only that, he is suspicious of her also, suspicious of her reasons for being there, and suspicious of her past. For her part she seems to have only one weapon in her armoury with which to defend herself; her womanly charms. And they are on the wane. What is a woman to do in such circumstances? In Blanche's case it's transform into a worrisome maiden in one instance, and a deluded, delirious fantasiser in others. For at least the first third of the film Leigh's character is nothing more than an annoyance. She appears a querulous presence designed to highlight just how brutish Stanley really is. And then we see her anew, we see her as a predator, a young boy her prey. All at once she is a different entity, and our suspicions are aroused now too. Just who is this woman, and where did she come from?

Rumours about Blanche's past abound, with everything from her virtue to her sanity questioned. Is it the presence of those rumours which force us to look at her in a different light? Or does Leigh's gentle prodding of the character change our outlook? Perhaps it's a combination of both. But what can't be argued is the extremes in which Leigh goes to portray this horrendously conflicted woman. Blanche's aversion to daylight and indeed, any forms of light, is attributed to her vanity, but in many ways she is Bram Stoker's Dracula's; a demonic entity masquerading as a charming, flatterer of the opposite sex. In this instance she attempts to ensnare Mitch, an ally of Stanley's played by the latterly famous Karl Malden. Their trysts are as torrid and as tense as anything Stella and Stanley can conjure up, but in an entirely different way. What we have is an earnest, honest man looking for someone with whom to make a home. But deep down he, just like us, knows that Blanche isn't that woman.

Ultimately this is a film about morality, about maintaining your integrity under the greatest of duress. None of the protagonists come off well in that regard, their prejudices toward one another almost as pronounced as their cowardice and selfishness. On a personal level it has certainly opened my eyes. It's by no means a beloved film of mine; I enjoyed it mainly for the acting performances, the artistry of the script, and the story-telling. But is has showed me that films from this particular aeon are far more accessible than I had once thought. Indeed it could be argued that this was the real golden era of cinema, a time when acting and writing were the principal components of any worthwhile movie. Of course the only way for me to discover whether this assertion holds any weight is to continue my exploration of 1950s film. Now, what else was Brando in during that decade I wonder?