WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
There isn’t much kindness on display in A Streetcar Named Desire, which tells the story of Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh), a woman whose past catches up with her one stifling summer’s evening in New Orleans.
When she comes to stay with her younger sister Stella (Kim Hunter), Blanche thinks she is running away from her former life as a scandal-hounded teacher. In reality, she is running toward a cataclysm of destruction and cruelty in the hulking shape of Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche has a horror of the naked truth, which she has a habit of disguising with illusions and wily fantasies: “I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth!”
The moment Blanche arrives at Stella’s apartment, Stanley scents her fear, and a game of cat and mouse ensues. He is a predator who resents his sister-in-law’s snooty put-downs, and the game ends with a violent sexual attack. This taut adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play sparked outrage when its director, Elia Kazan, first screened it for Warner Bros., and he was forced to cut five minutes from his movie before the studio’s executives would release it. These small but crucial edits papered over the more sordid aspects of the story—Blanche’s “nymphomania”, her late husband’s secret homosexuality, Stella’s lust for Stanley, and the climactic rape—inadvertently mirroring the self-delusional madness of its central character. However, the movie was also criticised for its staginess, and it is true that Kazan refuses to open up the drama beyond the four peeling walls of Stella and Stanley’s poky, run-down love nest.
But it is the movie’s claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes the source of its electricity—the actors prowl and pace the set like caged animals, straying into each other’s territories and overstepping their marks. This is especially true of Brando. A student of the ‘Method’ approach to creating a character, he dedicated himself to unearthing the inner life of the brutish Stanley, and the results are truly volcanic.