We take a belated look at the high-def debut of Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of the classic play.
The story takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a smoky, sultry section of town where young Stella DuBois lives with Stanley Kowalski, her uncouth lout of a husband, on a rue named Elysian Fields. Into their lives comes Stella’s older sister Blanche, who’s been carted in on the titular streetcar. Having ‘lost’ Belle Reve, the DuBois family plantation, she’s in need of a place to stay. Stanley instantly takes a dislike to Blanche for her fragile demeanour, her effette ways and her trunk of fine clothes and furs, which are seemingly in lieu of the money that she should’ve made from the sale of the plantation. As Stanley digs deeper into Blanche’s past, she strikes up a relationship with Mitch, a buttoned-down nice guy who is also Stan’s best friend. Tensions in the household slowly reach boiling point as some uncomfortable truths are revealed, and soon enough Blanche’s very sanity is in the balance. It’s up to Stanley to play nice for the sake of his beloved wife, or to tip Blanche over the edge as only he can.
Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ wildly successful play (which Kazan also directed on Broadway) has lost none of its power some 61 years later. The themes of love, loss and lust are no less relevant, and the astonishing performances are some of the best examples of acting ever committed to film. The movie retained three of the four main actors who appeared in the stage version, with only Jessica Tandy – who received a Tony award for her portrayal of Blanche – getting replaced with the movie-star wattage of Vivien Leigh.
Much is made of Marlon Brando’s sexually-charged role, playing the brutish Stanley with just the right mix of vulnerability and latent (and not so latent) aggression, but for me the headlining act was always Leigh’s extraordinary turn as the mentally frail Blanche. It’s a performance within a performance, as Blanche works very hard at maintaining her glamourous facade, all delicate mannerisms and coquettish whimpers. But her high-pitched girly voice gives way to a deeper, huskier affectation as her thin grasp on reality finally begins to slip in the face of Stanley’s constant pressure, and her transformation into a broken woman is all but complete when she threatens to twist a smashed bottle into his face during their climactic confrontation.
Kim Hunter is good value as Stella, who’s so in thrall to her attraction to Stanley that not even a spot of wife beating can keep them apart for very long, and Karl Malden is excellent as the stuffy Mitch, Stanley’s socially stunted friend who divides his attentions between caring for his sick momma and entertaining Blanche. All but Brando took home Academy Awards for their amazing work (Leigh taking Best Actress, with the Best Supporting nods going to Hunter and Malden), and Streetcar is one of only two films which gathered such a triumvirate of acting Oscars (the other being Network).
The powerful acting is due in part to Kazan’s directorial style, which was as sincere and honest as the man himself; he was always looking for the truth in a scene, to find the core emotional content, and because he always endeavoured to get to know his actors as people, he was able to push their buttons when the time called for it. The film takes place in the cramped confines of Stella’s apartment, which was essential in maintaining the confrontational atmosphere but could’ve created a quite ‘stagey’ looking film, yet Harry Stradling’s black and white photography is beautifully lit and is practically a character all of its own. The play of light against dark is a crucial measure of Blanche’s waning mental competence, Blanche keeping to the shadows so that her real persona is not shown in stark relief. The music is another big factor in maintaining the simmering tensions of the piece, Alex North’s part-symphonic-part-jazz score striking just the right balance between the broader dramatic beats and the smouldering emotional states of the characters.
Streetcar was adapted from the play by Oscar Saul in conjunction with Tennesee Williams, and its stirring depictions of sexuality don’t deviate all that much from the stage version, even in the face of concerted pressure from the American censors of the time. Concessions were made as to the sexual orientation of Blanche’s unfortunate husband, his obvious homosexuality pared down to an oblique reference, and Stanley’s final act of violence against Blanche could not go unpunished, with Stella deciding to leave him instead of the more conciliatory ending of the play. These changes were made at the script stage, but the final cut of the film was watered down further by the real moral guardians of American popular culture, the Catholic Legion Of Decency. Last minute edits were made to the more wanton sexual aspects of the film, such as Stella’s part-contemptuous-part-lustful attitude as she sashays down the stairs after her and Stan’s big fight. Blanche’s attraction to very young men was also a big no-no, with her attempted seduction of the lad who collects for the local paper also falling foul of the scissors, amongst other things.
Warners made the decision to re-edit the film back to its pre-cut state in 1993, after finding the trims in storage. Curiously, Kazan did not appear to be all that interested in the restoration and so the work was completed using edit lists and other archive materials. He apparently said that the power of the work shone through regardless, and given that he directed the play and had to literally be begged by Tennessee Williams to oversee the movie (Kazan initially refused, feeling that he had done all he could with the story on stage) it’s understandable that he didn’t want to return to it yet again. Regardless, the restored footage broadens the emotional scope of the film, and some of it is quite near the knuckle even for today’s notoriously permissive society.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a quintessential piece of American popular culture in whichever form you experience it, either on the page, stage or screen. The 1951 version of the latter has proved to be an indelible piece of cinematic art which has stood the test of time, and this remastered Blu-ray version is richly deserved.
Streetcar is presented in black and white in its original Academy aspect of 1.37, set inside a 1.78 frame with black borders at the sides of the image. This Blu-ray is a revelation compared to the 2006 Special Edition DVD. That jittery, dirty, scratched SD incarnation has been supplanted with a steady 1080p HD image that’s been cleaned up beautifully. Some shots still look a little fluttery but others are rock solid, so the blame for that must surely lie with the source and not Warners’ handling of the transfer. There are some obvious jump cuts throughout the show too, usually occurring whenever a cut scene has been reinstated – a legacy of the 1993 restoration.
The film contains a lot of fades and dissolves between scenes, with a couple of corrective blow-ups for good measure, and each one of those is an optical effect printed on ‘dupe’ stock which reduces definition and exacerbates grain compared to the camera negative. While the lack of detail is as it should be on those shots, the grain is curiously subdued. If I were I betting man I’d wager that Warners did their best to level out the more pronounced grain on the opticals, leading to accusations of DNR misuse on other reviews of this disc across the interwebs. But the soft detail in those shots is due to the generational loss incurred by the duping process, and is not related to the noise reduction. You’re simply seeing the lower resolution of the opticals without the spike in grain that usually accompanies them. Those sections aside, the grain is very finely rendered and fine detail is clean and crisp, without a trace of any edge enhancement. I didn’t spot any egregious encoding anomalies either.
The contrast range is well balanced, featuring neither blown-out highlights nor utterly impenetrable darkness. Shadow detail is excellent as a result, although it comes with a slight caveat in that the blacks aren’t quite as cavernously deep as I was expecting from a movie that plays so expertly with light and shade. But perhaps that’s the point; with fast film stock not being particularly fast some 60-odd years ago, these striking compositions still needed to be lit fairly robustly in order to expose them properly.
So, it’s not quite the home run we may have been expecting but that’s not to disparage Warners’ efforts. They’ve cleaned up the movie with a discerning eye and even-handed manner, and there’s only so much that can be done with the multitude of opticals in the film. This means that the image quality is inconsistent, but it is what it is. And away from the opticals, Streetcar looks quite beautiful.
The audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. It’s a single channel mono track that is a very competent rendition of the original audio, and is free of any pops, clicks or hiss. There isn’t a great deal of depth or richness to it, but the mix allows Alex North’s sultry score to waft in and out where appropriate. The dialogue doesn’t suffer from undue harshness or sibilance, yet I occasionally found myself straining to comprehend the odd remark here and there. However, that may well be down to the languid Naawlins drawl adopted by the actors, rather than any shortcomings of this presentation. Your mileage may vary.
This North American Digibook release comes with 40 pages of production notes, mini cast biographies and so on. The video extras are all standard definition holdovers from the aforementioned 2006 SE DVD, but that doesn’t lessen their worth. Elia Kazan is the feature of the 75-minute documentary A Director’s Journey, which was made in 1995 by noted film historian Richard Schickel. Kazan (who died in 2003) wasn’t a man to mince words, and his no-nonsense personality shines through as we learn about his life in and outside of film. There are five other featurettes dedicated to Streetcar, focusing first on the play and then on the movie adaptation, with another looking at the film’s censorship troubles, a short piece on Brando, and another about composer Alex North. These five pieces were created by Laurent Bouzereau, DVD producer extraordinaire, and aside from the cheesy ‘zooming photograph’ editing motif they’re very well made, containing valuable insights from Kazan, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter and others.
The package is rounded off with some scratchy sounding audio-only outtakes, one of which is an extension to Blanche’s arrival at Elysian Fields, plus some filmed outtakes, such as the scene prior to Stanley “interfering” with Blanche. Brando’s screentest (performed using a scene from Rebel Without A Cause) is a historical gem. Lastly we get a set of three theatrical trailers, one for the original release, one for Fox’s 1958 reissue and another for United Artists’ 1970 revival.
Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a bona fide American classic, and the sizzling performances still burn up the screen over six decades later. This Blu-ray edition does the film justice with a strong video encode – albeit one that’s slightly hamstrung by the source – and solid audio. The extra features are the same ones found on the prior DVD special edition, but it’s all so good that it seems churlish to complain that there’s no new content, aside from the lavish Digibook packaging. This region-free release comes highly recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum