Tag Archives: elia kazan

The Curiosity of Strangers

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.


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RIP Bruno S. and Patricia Neal

Courtesy of The Auteurs, I learned that Bruno S. (aka Bruno Schleinstein) died Wednesday at age 78. Totally unique in the annals of film history, Bruno S. was closer to being an outsider artist than a conventional actor. (He was also a street musician who had spent a time in mental institutions.) Given all this, it’s no surprise that S.’s best-remembered performances were in films by notably batshit insane director Werner Herzog, namely The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977).

Bruno S. distinguished both films with the addition of his bizarrely alien acting style; in Kaspar Hauser, for example, he convincingly portrayed the feral child found in the streets of 19th century Nuremberg, and in Stroszek, he was the ultimate fish out of water – an alcoholic ex-convict from Germany trying to cope with life in rural Wisconsin. Like Klaus Kinski in numerous other films of the ’70s and ’80s, he was Herzog’s co-conspirator, tuned in to the same frequency of madness and together turning it into raw, throbbing, rule-breaking art.

However, Bruno S. channeled a different side of Herzog’s madness: he was less blatantly aggressive than Kinski, bottling up his confusion and frustration with the outside world (especially in Stroszek) until it manifested itself in distorted, incomprehensible mental patterns. (This is made explicit in this scene, where the semi-autobiographical character of Bruno Stroszek explains how the pressures of American life have mangled his interior consciousness.) In Kaspar Hauser, he had similar complaints, attempting to reconcile himself with the absurdities of “civilized” life. Bruno S. made more of an impact in two films than many actors and actresses have made in dozens.

And finally, I should mention the loss of veteran actress Patricia Neal (1926-2010), a great actress who lit up films from the late 1940s until shortly before her death. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Neal’s performances, but I’d like to highlight one in particular: her turn as a “self-important, neurotic, temperamental female” named Marcia Jeffries in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In the film, Neal discovers and then promotes the folksy, charismatic country singer Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). When he grows into a psychotic, fascist monster bent on controlling the citizens (and politics) of the United States, however, she takes responsibility and then takes action.

Neal really does an incredible job of matching Griffith’s sheer ferocity with her own all-too-believable terror at the one-man media machine she’s created. Thanks to her, the film has a conscience and isn’t entirely dominated by Griffith’s demoniacal grin and the twinkle in his blazing eyes. So alas, two very one-of-a-kind screen legends have passed. Let’s remember them by watching their movies. (Also, if you enjoy A Face in the Crowd, I also recommend the novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Crowd (and On the Waterfront) screenwriter Budd Schulberg. It’s yet another look at all-consuming ambition run amok.)

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