As part of The Film Experience’s ongoing celebration of Tennessee Williams’ centennial, this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot entry is Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I hadn’t seen it in several years, so it was refreshing to again see Vivien Leigh as Blanche, the faded southern belle, and Marlon Brando as her boorish brother-in-law Stanley. The film takes place across two worlds—Stanley’s hard-edged, working-class reality and Blanche’s fuzzy, aristocratic dreams—and it’s amazing how cinematographer Harry Stradling visually differentiates them. (They can only meet, of course, in violence.)
My favorite image in the film comes straight out of Blanche’s distorted, histrionic world. She’s in the midst of her long breakdown, and at her diva-est. Mitch has just confronted her and torn the oh-so-symbolic paper lantern off the lightbulb, leaving Blanche alone with her illusions. She stumbles outside screaming, and suddenly all of New Orleans wants to see what’s going on.
I love this image because for once, Blanche is the center of the universe. Everything does revolve around her. She’s literally the center of attention. These faceless onlookers may not be gentlemen callers, but they’re the best she can do. At least they’re interested in her! In a perverse way, they’re the closest she has now to a flock of eager beaus. As always, that staircase looms there, just as twisted and ominous as everything else in this shot, and all the nearby strangers are cloaked in shadow, leaving Blanche as the only lit-up figure in the shot. It’s strikingly composed and eerily, horrifically beautiful.
Speaking of horrific beauty, I can’t not include Marlon Brando in all his monstrous virility. As Stanley, he’s the untamed beast who stalks Streetcar‘s frames as the madness grows, stooping to greater, more inhuman depths as he gets fed up with Blanche’s regal behavior. He’s attractive, yet repellent. Above all else, he’s common. So here’s my second-favorite shot from Kazan’s maniacal masterpiece of carnal intensity, southern style.