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A Streetcar Named Desire: 60th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)
Warner Brothers / 1951 / 122 Minutes / Rated PG
Street Date: April 10, 2012
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Reviewed by David Krauss
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
There are few American plays as perfect as 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' Tennessee Williams' poetic and devastating examination of a tortured soul teetering on the brink of destruction. Colorful, dimensional characters, supremely eloquent and searing dialogue, and thought-provoking themes distinguish this riveting drama that never fails to captivate and stimulate audiences, no matter how many times they've seen it. It's also a timeless piece of theater, as relevant, provocative, and emotionally shattering today as it surely was more than six decades ago. Like a juggernaut, this raw, visceral drama took Broadway by storm in 1947, and the 1951 film adaptation more than lived up to the original stage production, winning five Oscars, making a star of Marlon Brando, and ushering in a new style of Hollywood moviemaking - gritty, natural, and uncompromising. It's quite a story, and quite a film.
At its core, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' depicts how brutality, egotism, and carnal urges crush civility, tenderness, and lofty ideals, and how the inner struggle between these competing organic forces can lead to despair and destruction. As hard as we may try to live above the fray, Williams tells us, it's impossible not to get dragged into the mud, and while some of us are strong enough to withstand the body blows of such a rough-and-tumble culture, others are too delicate and sensitive, and ultimately crack under the stress and strain. Blanche DuBois, a fading beauty making her last stand, falls into the second category, and her war with the gruff, macho Stanley Kowalski, who embodies everything she considers repulsive and primitive - yet who also strangely arouses and fascinates her - forms the crux of the drama.
When a destitute Blanche (Vivien Leigh), withered and worn out after the loss of her family estate, arrives on the doorstep of her younger sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), and her husband, Stanley (Marlon Brando), the warm feelings of reunion are quickly supplanted by the inherent tensions an interloping relation unwittingly provokes. Stanley resents Blanche's airs, faded finery, and prim demeanor, while she detests his lack of breeding, base attitudes, and free-wheeling roughness. Caught in the middle is Stella, who on the one hand hopes to shelter and rehabilitate her sister, whom she adores, yet can't stem her uncontrollable passion for the volatile Stanley and the sheer animalism he represents. Though she tries to maintain a carefree, frivolous attitude, Blanche can't hide her frayed nerves and deteriorating mental health, and Stanley, who believes she's hiding something deeper, tries to figure out how the family fortune was lost and what really brought Blanche to their cramped, ramshackle New Orleans flat.
Director Elia Kazan, who also helmed the stage production, creates crackling tension and an atmosphere of breathless claustrophobia as he thrusts us smack in the center of this den of conflict. Kazan has a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter and shearing away any extraneous elements so we can focus on the emotions and ideas that fuel the characters, and 'Streetcar' is the quintessential example of his style. With economy of movement and by maximizing the impact of the performances and text, Kazan grabs us by the throat and keeps us in a stranglehold for the duration of the film, allowing us to fully absorb the powerful forces that drive this classic work.
Sadly, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' didn't come to the screen intact. Some of its components, such as homosexuality, nymphomania, and rape, were deemed too explosive for post-war audiences, and Hollywood's censorship office demanded the story adhere to what it perceived to be the moral standards of the day. As a result, a couple of major plot developments couldn't be fully explored, and the requisite toning down made some issues murky. Astute audiences, however, can easily read between the lines and get the jist of the situation even if it isn't plainly spelled out, and in the end, the film rises above the constraints placed upon it. (This restored version of 'Streetcar' includes three minutes of lost footage cut by the censors prior to release that highlights the sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley; Stella's smoldering desire for her husband; and references to Blanche's checkered past. Though the snippets don't seem monumental on the surface, they lend 'Streetcar' a more contemporary feel that keeps it relevant in this more permissive and liberal day and age.)
Williams' play is an undisputed masterpiece, but it's greatly enhanced by the sterling cast that makes the eloquent prose come alive. Brando exudes bravado as the blustery Stanley and files a galvanizing performance of astonishing complexity that's so much more than the "Hey, Stella!!!" wailing that's so often caricatured. Despite notions to the contrary, Stanley possesses as many layers and shadings as the play's other roles, and Brando subtly exposes them. It's no wonder the actor was forever identified with the part, and no performer who has since taken on Stanley has eclipsed his work.
Leigh matches Brando and makes a superior foil as the Southern belle on the skids. Striving desperately to maintain her hold on reality in the face of impending ruin and the destruction of all the lofty values and ideals she holds dear, Leigh's Blanche is heartbreaking yet admirable - a tragic heroine of the highest order. As she fights for her convictions and wages a valiant but ultimately fruitless assault against an increasingly violent and cruel society, Leigh crafts an impeccable portrayal that rightfully earned her a second Best Actress Academy Award. Though both Leigh and Brando have portrayed other iconic characters - Scarlett O'Hara and Vito Corleone spring immediately to mind - their pairing as Blanche and Stanley generates just as many fireworks (and arguably more subtle nuances) than any role they ever played.
Hunter as the spitfire Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch, a friend of Stanley's who embodies Blanche's final hope for peace and happiness, were honored with supporting Oscars, and without their essential contributions, 'Streetcar' would be a very different film indeed. Hunter is especially radiant and natural, and Malden brings great warmth to Mitch, a big guy with a big heart.
'A Streetcar Named Desire' will continually spawn numerous productions in the years to come (an all-black cast is currently performing the drama on Broadway), but it's doubtful whether this masterful interpretation will ever be surpassed. Amid all its squalor, 'Streetcar' is a thing of beauty, a drama so rich in feeling and meaning that several viewings aren't enough to absorb its myriad gifts. And this faithful, impassioned adaptation is oh-so-easy to watch over and over again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Streetcar Named Desire' comes packaged in one of Warner's digibooks, with striking cover art and raised title lettering. Snugly tucked inside the back cover lies a 50GB dual-layer disc with a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. The accompanying 44-page book contains a wealth of black-and-white and sepia toned photos, many of which are full- or double-page images, and the text covers such topics as Brando's symbiotic relationship with Stanley Kowalski, censorship issues, and the film's production history. Mini bios of Brando, Leigh, Kazan, and Williams are also included, as well as a number of trivial facts pertaining to the picture.
Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or reviews precede it.
'A Streetcar Named Desire' is a dark and brooding film shot in a natural style that highlights the decay of the French Quarter setting, and this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Warner keeps that gritty feeling intact. Not as glossy as some black-and-white renderings, this high-quality effort flaunts a mild grain structure that resembles celluloid and enhances the drama's intensity. The pristine source material shows no signs of wear, as any nicks, blotches, scratches, or lines have been completely erased, and though the image isn't quite as crisp and sharp as I expected, it still sports marvelous clarity. Background elements are easy to discern, fabrics possess plenty of texture and definition, and close-ups showcase fine details well. Contrast is also a bit muted, which in turn can lend certain dark scenes a slightly murky look.
When compared to the previous DVD, however, improvements are marked. Exterior scenes no longer look over-exposed, the picture appears sleeker and less harsh, and gray scale variance is more pronounced. Blacks are deeper and richer, and whites, such as Blanche's furs and feathers, enjoy greater vibrancy. Contrast is also more refined, allowing more detail to shine through.
Any digital enhancements, such as DNR, escape notice, and no noise or other imperfections creep into the picture. This is a smooth, watchable presentation, and though it may not reach the dazzling heights one might hope for and expect, it's still a stellar rendering of a difficult film, a notable step up from the DVD, and a worthy upgrade for fans.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies solid sound, but unfortunately falls a bit below expectations. Interestingly, I needed to pump up the volume control several notches above its usual setting to achieve the proper listening level for dialogue, and for such a powerful, pulsating story, this lack of punch was disappointing. Overall, though, the track is clean and well modulated, with no imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, intruding. Still, the balance is slightly uneven. Alex North's jazz infused score enjoys good fidelity, but occasionally gets trumped by atmospheric effects, and doesn't possess the bite that sets it apart from other film compositions of the period. A wide dynamic scale, however, handles all the dissonance, outbursts, and scuffles well, with no distortion whatsoever creeping into the mix.
Dialogue is generally comprehendible, but some lines are muffled and Brando tends to garble some of his responses, so occasionally I had skip backwards to catch all of Tennessee Williams' lyrical exchanges. Accents, such as the violent clearing of the table, street noise, and slamming of doors, come across crisply, and bass frequencies possess enough weight to ground the audio and support the more delicate areas of the track.
For a 60-year-old film, this soundtrack certainly suffices, but since the movie itself seems more contemporary, it's tough not to expect a little more oomph from the audio.
All the extras from the 2006 special edition DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. It's quite a comprehensive package that complements and celebrates this enduring classic.
- Audio Commentary – Actor Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young (all recorded separately) provide a marvelous commentary that examines almost every aspect of this classic drama. From its theatrical pre-production roots through its Broadway casting, rehearsal, and premiere to all the hurdles the film adaptation had to scale, this discussion of all things 'Streetcar' is both analytical and anecdotal. Unfortunately, many of the remarks of Malden and Behlmer are lifted from interviews that also appear in the accompanying featurettes, but even the repetition doesn't detract from the substance and relevance of the comments. Anyone who appreciates 'Streetcar' should definitely give this track their full attention.
- Documentary: "Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey" (SD, 76 minutes) – This 1995 feature-length profile of the acclaimed director who is "a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey" is told almost exclusively from Kazan's point of view. Therein lies its beauty, and therein also lies a fundamental deficiency. Kazan notoriously named names during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings during the early 1950s, and consequently became the subject of much consternation and disgrace because of his cooperation with the panel. The fact that the names were already well known to the committee and Kazan merely corroborated their leftist leanings wasn't the point; it was the principle of the matter, and Kazan's self-serving actions cost him the respect of many of his peers. This whole incident, one of the most defining of Kazan's life, is glossed over in less than a minute, which is a severe failing of this otherwise probing and fascinating piece. Yes, this documentary is a celebration of Kazan the artist, not an examination of Kazan's character, but such a monumental episode deserves at least as much exploration as the director's early life and influences, and we just don't get that here. What we do get are extended explorations of most of Kazan's movies, including 'Streetcar,' 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,' 'Gentlemen's Agreement,' 'Panic in the City,' 'Viva Zapata,' 'Baby Doll,' 'A Face in the Crowd,' 'Wild River,' and 'America, America,' along with Kazan's perspective on how he helped bring naturalism and realism to Hollywood, his ability to extract raw performances from his actors, and his attraction to stories with taboo themes. Despite its notable holes, this is essential viewing for fans of Kazan, of whom I am unabashedly one, and those interested in film history and production.
- Featurette: "A Streetcar on Broadway" (SD, 22 minutes) – This classy featurette examines the roots of Tennessee Williams' play, the casting of the major roles, the arduous rehearsal process, the magnetism of Brando, Kazan's directorial technique, and the drama's lasting legacy. Film historians Richard Schickel and Rudy Behlmer, actors Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, and Kazan himself share their memories, a few anecdotes, and some insights in this absorbing piece.
- Featurette: "A Streetcar in Hollywood" (SD, 28 minutes) – Another well-produced companion piece, this featurette tells the story of the adaptation of 'Streetcar,' and how it was turned down by other studios because of its provocative nature before Warner Bros. took a chance on the property. We also learn about Kazan's initial reluctance to direct the film version, the casting of Vivien Leigh (who played Blanche on the London stage), and how the movie was shot in sequence. Malden and Hunter share their respective recollections of Oscar night, while Kazan discusses the differences between the original play and movie treatment, and all the participants analyze the story and characters. This is another strong entry in the disc's hefty supplemental package.
- Featurette: "Censorship and Desire" (SD, 16 minutes) – Behlmer and Schickel return to address the myriad censorship issues this incendiary movie faced during production and prior to release. The pair outlines script and content changes, cites specific edits mandated by both the Hollywood Production Code and Catholic Legion of Decency, and note how even the scoring of a particular scene had to be rewritten and softened to pass the stringent moral guidelines that ruled the film industry during that period. Fascinating split-scene comparisons between the 1951 theatrical cut and 1993 restored version show which specific snippets were excised and how their re-insertion impacts and enhances this powerful film.
- Featurette: "North and the Music of the South" (SD, 9 minutes) – The Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards, composer Alex North was nominated for an Oscar an astounding 15 times over the course of his career, but never won, until the Academy at last honored him with a lifetime achievement award. His score for 'Streetcar' was both groundbreaking and influential, and this tribute by friend and collaborator Robert Townson looks at North's stage roots, his association with Kazan, and how his music reflects the various mental states of the 'Streetcar' characters. An unused 'Streetcar' music cue is also included in this reverential featurette.
- Featurette: "An Actor Named Brando" (SD, 9 minutes) – One of the most magnetic actors of his generation, Marlon Brando made an indelible impression as Stanley Kowalski, and this fond salute examines his brilliance, unpredictability, and personal ambivalence. Hunter terms Brando the "antithesis of Stanley," while Malden recalls intimate moments from their enduring friendship. Outtakes from 'Streetcar' show the actor at work and help define his inimitable style.
- Marlon Brando Screen Test (SD, 5 minutes) – This test isn't for 'Streetcar,' but rather an early version of 'Rebel Without a Cause,' and it displays a young Brando with much the same intensity, sensitivity, and charisma as his more mature counterpart. A very interesting curio.
- Outtakes (SD, 16 minutes) – This collection of snippets and unused footage falls more under the category of alternate takes, and shows multiple attempts of various angles, shots, and scenes.
- Audio Outtakes (17 minutes) – These excisions allow us to hear abandoned dialogue from several scenes that were either deemed too long or extraneous.
- Theatrical Trailers (SD, 7 minutes) – Three previews - the original 1951 trailer, 1958 reissue trailer, and 1970 reissue trailer - are included. Interestingly, the first touts Leigh as one of the greatest actresses of her time, while the subsequent previews almost exclusively showcase Brando.
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Sixty years may have passed since the film version of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' first premiered, but Elia Kazan's blistering adaptation of Tennessee Williams' haunting masterpiece hasn't lost its bark or its bite. The passion of the characters, lyricism of the dialogue, and power of the story still cast a mesmerizing spell, and the potent, heartbreaking themes still resonate and provoke a visceral emotional response. Superb Oscar-winning performances from Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter, along with an iconic turn by Marlon Brando in arguably his most identifiable role make lasting impressions and enhance the meaning and conflict of this unforgettable drama. Warner's anniversary Blu-ray edition features a strong but not spectacular video transfer, good audio, and a marvelous array of substantive supplements, all wrapped up in a handsomely designed digibook. 'Streetcar' is an essential American film, and once seen, it will not be forgotten. Highly recommended.
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