At the beginning of this drama, bewildered and highly-strung Blanche DuBois famously arrives in New Orleans off the train, intending to stay with her sister Stella and rough-hewn brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. She tells a kindly stranger she is supposed to get the streetcar named “Desire” – so called because it is headed for the city’s Desire Street. (There is also Pleasure Street and Piety Street.) She must then change on to a streetcar named “Cemeteries” (in the direction of the St Louis and Lafayette burial grounds) and finally alight at Elysian Fields Avenue, where Stella and Stanley live.
The metaphorical progression of desire, death and heaven is obvious, but heaven is not where Blanche is to wind up. This 1951 movie, adapted by Tennessee Williams from his own stage play and directed by Elia Kazan, is now rereleased in UK cinemas as part of a Kazan season at London’s BFI Southbank.
It is a film whose central performance from Vivien Leigh takes some getting used to, and I think maybe I still haven’t. There is a crazed Miss Havisham-type intensity to it and some real theatrical fireworks, but I can never see this film without thinking that, from the outset, Leigh’s extravagantly mannered style goes too far, too fast into the poignant paranoid twilight – and leaves her addressing the audience on a single note.
Kim Hunter, playing her sister Stella, is somehow a more credible human being, especially in showing the complex sensuality of her relationship with Stanley. But perhaps Blanche has to be soignée and brittle and absurdly self-deluding in order for her presence to work alongside the extraordinary Marlon Brando as the uncouth Stanley: brutal, threatening, swaggering, always finding an excuse to take his shirt off in front of her.
But it isn’t clear why she has had to quit her schoolteacher’s job back in her home town, and there are worrying rumours about her entertaining guests there in a certain local hotel. When a delicate young boy comes around collecting money, Blanche insists on kissing him on the lips: the nearest she comes to actual desire in the whole picture, but it is more innocent than predatory.
What is the nature of this toxic chemistry between Stanley and Blanche? It is not all about sex: much of it is about class. Stanley resents Blanche’s condescension and snobbery and is also suspicious of her furs and jewels, and the way she has apparently abandoned her parents’ handsome family home. In their minds, it’s as legendary a place as Tara in Gone With the Wind, a film that featured Leigh at the age Blanche believes she still is now. But the house is now apparently worthless, hopelessly mortgaged for debts, perhaps due to Blanche’s mismanagement – so Stanley’s share of that supposed inheritance is zero. Is there some brutal part of Stanley that thinks maybe he is entitled to sex from Blanche in lieu of this legacy?
Maybe. But that doesn’t quite explain how simmeringly resentful and conflicted Stanley is around Blanche. My own view is that Williams has ventriloquised and heterosexualised his own sensibilities into Blanche: this is a fictional variant of a gay man doing the tense bickering and bantering with a half-naked Stanley and, perhaps, delicately kissing a young boy on the lips. Only in this context can you understand Stanley’s puzzled unease and contempt.
Brando tends to upstage and upend the whole picture in his way, and Karl Malden, though excellent as Blanche’s diffident suitor Mitch – a man whose feelings are trifled with by her – is obviously in Brando’s shade. Having said that, Mitch does get to say exactly what is on his mind in a way that Stanley perhaps doesn’t.
There is a dark genius in the final scene when poor Blanche is getting ready, expecting the gentleman caller and former beau who is going to take her away on a Caribbean cruise. For the first few minutes, we don’t understand quite why the mood is so tense and subdued and why Stella is so wretched. Kazan controls this sequence tremendously. And the famous kindness for which Blanche is so pathetically grateful: that is merely the world’s shrugging indifference or cruelty that Blanche, self-deluding to the last, tries to transmute into compassion.
• A Streetcar Named Desire is rereleased in the UK on 7 February.