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Film review: Streetcar Named Desire

SHARE Film review: Streetcar Named Desire

Though they were initially released nearly 20 years apart, there are significant parallels to be noted in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Midnight Cowboy," both in terms of how influential and groundbreaking they were cinematically, and how they shook the nation right down to its moral fiber.

That these productions both came out of Hollywood, and that they helped change the way we look at film, speaks to the power of the art of cinema, even when that art is manipulated by the "establishment."

That they both caused changes in the rating systems that existed during their respective time periods also speaks to that power - as well as to the power of box office revenues, since both films were also financially successful. (Both also won a number of important Oscars.)

Of course, their being reissued at this moment in time is purely coincidence - as is the fact that they are playing in tandem at the Tower Theater beginning this weekend.

But watching them again in such close proximity certainly provides a fascinating history lesson.

- "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE" is, of course, Elia Kazan's 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' play, though it was watered down somewhat to appease the enforcers of Hollywood's Production Code, which was still in force.

This reissued print includes about three minutes of restored footage, which Kazan had reluctantly trimmed because the powers that be felt the images here were too strong for middle America.

In retrospect, of course, the material seems quite tame - or rather, Kazan's treatment of the material. There is a wife-beating scene, a brutal rape and all kinds of anti-social and amoral behavior. But because much of it occurs just off-screen or because a scene cuts away before the action gets too graphic, it's a far cry from what filmmakers frequently display on the screen these days.

And while there's no question that even now the material is perhaps toned down a bit too much, so that there is more ambiguity than Williams intended, the film is no less powerful or striking.

The central character is Blanche Dubois, played superbly by Vivien Leigh, whose own real-life instability probably lent some unintended authenticity to the character. But the powerhouse performance that rumbles and resonates even when the character isn't on screen is Stanley Kowalski, played unforgettably by Marlon Brando.

This is young Brando with toned-up muscles and a fierce look that belies the bloated, inarticulate image that most readily comes to mind today. And seeing this film on the big screen will help modern audiences understand why he was such an incredible influence in his heyday.

The story centers around the fragile and wounded Blanche moving in with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter, who is also superlative) in the rundown two-room New Orleans tenement she shares with her husband, Stanley.

Blanche's relationship with the ineffectual Mitch (Karl Malden, also delivering a terrific performance), her observations about her sister's resignation, and, ultimately, her love-hate relationship with Stanley, make up the film's primary interaction.

With her self-centered, nonstop chatter, and her inability to see life for what it is rather than what she thinks it should be, Leigh's Blanche is both helpless and shameless. And Brando's Stanley is animalistic, crude and, yet, quite intelligent.

The restored moments here are mainly little touches - reaction shots, closeups - with the majority of restored film being the scene that follows Stanley beating his pregnant wife. Stella's halting walk down a flight of stairs as she returns to Stanley's arms after his mournful pleading is one startling, sensuous scene - and it was too much for 1951's Hollywood censors.

The result is a movie that is changed in subtle ways to more specifically reveal Williams' important subtext and the powerful performances remain untarnished by time. As such, "A Streetcar Named Desire" remains a great film and is highly recommended.

Supporting actor Oscars went to Hunter and Malden, who, with Brando, re-created their Broadway roles (Kazan had also directed the play on Broadway). Leigh won as best actress, her second Oscar. (Leigh's first was in 1939, for playing Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind.")

This restoration has received a PG rating for violence and adult themes.

- "MIDNIGHT COWBOY" has never held the same fascination for me, though most national critics consider it one of the best films ever made.

I appreciate the performances by Jon Voight, as Joe Buck, and Dustin Hoffman, as Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo, as well as their relationship, which develops over the course of the picture. But watching it again reminded me that their relationship is only a small part of the film, and most of the other vignettes, about displaced cowboy Joe's experiences in seedy Manhattan, are simply not as compelling.

Released in 1969, "Midnight Cowboy" also contains much of the same, flashy technique that marked Hoffman's first successful film, 1967's "The Graduate" (not to mention its many imitators). There are quick cuts, fuzzy flashbacks (sometimes in black and white), dizzying camera work and other technically distracting elements that often do not serve the story very well.

This one is being re-released to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The film is the same one we've had available for the past two-and-a-half decades, and is recommended here primarily for Hoffman and Voight, who offer a serious lesson in film acting.

"Midnight Cowboy," which won Oscars as best picture and for its direction (John Schlesinger) and screenplay (Waldo Salt), is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.