Ranking: #24/111

Director: Elia Kazan (USA)

Genre: Film Noir Social Drama

In 1951, Elia Kazan successfully adapted Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire from Broadway to the Big Screen, using some of the same actors for the movie version, including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. His adaptation succeeded principally because he was a master of social realism. He could make the play come alive in cinematic terms through his attention to detail in the mise-en-scène and through his ability to convey psychological realism in his characterisations. In A Streetcar Named Desire, he creates a sultry cinematic mood to reflect the theme of moral decline the story explores. He turns the interior of the rundown New Orleans apartment building, where most of the action takes place, into a claustrophobic hothouse of conflicting emotions.

Kazan could invest power into the adaptation process from theatre to cinema by employing some techniques from Film Noir and Neo Realist cinema, such as stark contrasts between light and shadow and blacks and whites, creating a suspenseful atmosphere. He drew heavily, too, on the Neo Realist focus on the economic struggles of working-class characters.

The heart-rending script is translated into a dynamic, multi-layered cinematic social drama.

Blanche DuBois is a jaded belle from Mississippi who seeks refuge from her financial and social problems by coming to live with her sister, Stella, and her volatile husband, Stanley Kowalski, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The result is that the lower-class home becomes a cauldron of emotion, especially when Stanley begins to suspect that Blanche is hiding inheritance money derived from the acquisition of the family estate, Belle Reve, by creditors. He’s angry that the ancestral home has been lost and wants to get to the bottom of why this has happened and where the money has gone. With Stella falling pregnant, there are growing financial pressures on the young couple.

Blanche (“I’m always dependent on the kindness of strangers”) has been fired as an English teacher following the rumour of a scandalous affair with a 17 years old pupil. An alcoholic on the edge of a breakdown, she’s in a highly nervous state. Vivien Leigh is stellar in her portrait of a ruined person, exuding vulnerability, and it’s poignant to behold her character’s mental decline.

Kazan, Greek by blood, Turkish by birth and American by citizenship, has been praised for the emotional depth conveyed by his three main characters. Certainly, Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando just explode onto the screen in this movie. The dialogue between them is phenomenal.

It is thought that Kazan brought a new level of realism to the depiction of relationships in American cinema.  We see this not just in A Streetcar Named Desire, but also in his other influential films, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Wild River (1960). This body of work turned Kazan into one of America’s finest cinematic story-tellers.

Kazan was able to combine psychological realism with social realism, creating plausible settings and situations which raised social consciousness about the issues of his day. Switching from theatre to cinema came naturally to him because he intuitively understood the magic of cinema and was able to construct compelling filmic narratives in the most believable of settings.

The humid, claustrophobic Kowalski apartment in New Orleans is an iconic setting in American cinema, just as the Bates Hotel in Psycho and Xanadu and its palace in Citizen Kane are. The performances by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, and their volatile, on-screen chemistry, have lost none of their explosive power after over 70 years.

A Streetcar Named Desire is cinematic social drama at its very best.