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Streetcar Named Desire, A (Blu-ray Review)

16 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$34.99 Blu-ray,
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden.

Among all the other things you can say about Marlon Brando, he was one of the greatest actors to see in 1970s revival theaters because he enabled the audiences who haunted them to have it both ways. On the one hand, his early movies were authentically from a previous era, thus providing the requisite repertory-style nostalgia for the paying customers. On the other, his style still felt as contemporary and fresh as anything Pacino or Hoffman or Nicholson were doing in current films of the day.

I was too young to see the original 1951 engagements of the Tennessee Williams-Elia Kazan screen adaptation of their preceding Streetcar stage success, filmed with three of its four original cast members intact. As a result, I can only imagine what the Brando lightning bolt must have been like for unsuspecting moviegoers attuned to, say, the acting style of Van Johnson or Walter Pidgeon or some perceived (pipedream) hopeful like Keefe Brasselle. Over the years (though not recently), I’ve seen the movie Streetcar in revival maybe four or five times, a couple in showings I programmed myself. Invariably, you could always hear predominantly male laughter emanating from pockets of the theater (possibly from guys without dates); a good example of this comes when Brando’s Stanley Kowalski goes on a diatribe about the “Napoleonic Code” — which supposedly allows him to have some level of free reign over spouse Stella’s family property. Throughout much of the narrative, Stanley is a frequently amusing nuisance (guilty pleasure variety), even when he’s being a pig. But he’s also very skilled at sticking a pin into pretention, and this is one   reason he remains an audience favorite despite any suspicions we might have about his opinions on, say, women rights.

In those same revival ‘70s a quarter-century after the movie’s release, it still seemed contemporary. And it still does now — or at least timeless. Even so, Streetcar is not strictly one of my absolute favorite Kazan movies due to its intentional claustrophobia — an absolutely valid artistic decision that nonetheless gives me less sustained pleasure than everything else the director made from 1954’s On the Waterfront through 1969’s much-maligned The Arrangement (a huge personal favorite). Streetcar was filmed predominantly on two sets with predominantly low-key lighting — possibly an act of charity for those who’d just as soon avoid the dusting job in the Kowalski abode or whatever it is that’s likely caked to those dishes piled up in the sink. This may be why the new Warner Blu-ray doesn’t obviously jump out at us as a notable DVD-to-BD upgrade the way, say, the same company’s release of Fort Apache did just a month ago. There’s nothing at all wrong with it — and, in fact, it conforms to my memories of theatrical showings — but I won’t be writing home about it. (And with Warner’s version of Citizen Kane last year, I felt like writing home to everyone I knew).

The Blu-ray carries over the extras from 2006’s deluxe two-DVD set, which covered the bases even down to containing Brando’s screen test (which comes from something other than the play) and Richard Schickel’s feature-length director interview, Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey, which goes a long way toward making us see why Kazan was the greatest actors’ director ever. In fact, of the four screen Streetcar principals, only Brando failed to win a ’51 acting Oscar, though you have to remember that it was one of the most competitive male-lead years ever: winner Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen), Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun), Fredric March (Death of a Salesman, and, yes, a spectacular performance in a movie that never gets shown anymore), plus Arthur Kennedy for the never-even-on-VHS Bright Victory (obviously the least known of the five, though it actually took the year’s best actor citation from the New York Film Critics’ Circle).

The Oscared co-stars were returning Karl Malden and Kim Hunter (both interviewed in other of this package’s accompanying documentaries) and, of course, Vivien Leigh, who took over from the stage version’s Jessica Tandy. The movie manages, it has been said, to give Blanche DuBois more of her showcasing due than the play did — and despite the Malden-Hunter Oscars, it is Leigh-Brando that is rightfully the main event (and a sparring match it is). It’s striking to think that despite the mere handful of post-stardom movies that Brit-born Leigh managed to make, two of her career performances would have to be on any top-five list of screen performances devoted to Southern womanhood (all varieties). I think most people know the other one.

In addition to chronicling the censorship problems the screen version had to endure both before and even after production, this upgrade-from-DVD naturally includes the three-minutes plus of sexually unacceptable footage (in Legion of Decency terms) that was removed before the film could be released — though restored in the ’90s after it was discovered in some unmarked cans. Foremost is a scene where Hunter provocatively descends some stairs with a lot of carnality on her mind — a tipoff that despite how unacceptable her husband’s behavior is on some levels, spirited sack time has a way of compensating for many of his other transgressions. Given the Warner Bros. footage that famously got lost from A Star Is Born — plus those now missing songs from the studio’s 1962 screen version of Gypsy — you have to wonder who was looking after things before some of the industry’s most crack archivists and gatekeepers were ultimately put in charge of looking after studio holdings. It’s almost a miracle that these clips were still around to be discovered, but good show in any event.

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