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Best Shot: "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Hit Me With Your Best Shot continues with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). This week's film was chosen in light of the Tennessee Williams Centennial, the great writer's 100th anniversary is this weekend. If this is your first "best shot," partipicants are asked to watch a film, and select its best shot (or their favorite, natch) and post it, with or without an accompanying essay.

Stanley: Yknow there are some men that are took in by this Hollywood glamour stuff and some men that just aren't.
Blanche: I'm sure you belong in the second category.
Stanley: That's right.
Blanche: I cannot imagine any witch of a woman casting a spell over you.
Stanley: That's right.

Elia Kazan's masterful adaptation of Tennessee Williams happens to be, by a significant margin, the best film version of any of his work. It moves more elegantly around Hollywood's censorship of then risque material than the other biggies that followed (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Birth of Youth) and it's managed to be more definitive than any film version of the other play vying for most immortal Tennesse Williams Creation (The Glass Menagerie). The 1951 film will forever be revered, and justifiably so, for providing an irreducibly perfect 'moment in time' look at the shifting of Hollywood acting; the friction between pre-50s artifice in Vivien Leigh and Blanche DuBois and post-50s "realness" in Brando's "Method" Stanley is still absolutely sensational 60 years on. As are both approaches to acting, I might add as a fine point (provided the actor is a skilled one). Too often we view all sweeping artistic shifts as progress when they are more often than not, merely lateral aesthetic shifts, opening up new pleasures but not truly replacing the old ones. Time marches on; we explore new things.

In the understandably immortal hoopla surrounding two of the greatest screen performances of all time, we often lose sight of other pleasures. A Streetcar Named Desire has many of them from Tennessee William's indestructable poetry to Elia Kazan's assured guiding hand to the Oscar-winning art direction and the expressive shadowy lighting from Harry Stradling Sr. Stradling manages effects that are both harsh and ethereal, both ugly and beautiful, but not always in the combinations you'd expect them to be and sometimes both at ones. His camera and lights perfectly bridge all of the performances, moods and characters.

But the way he lights Stella (an inspired Kim Hunter) has always fascinated me. In her scenes with Blanche, the shadows often obscure one or the other of her faces and in those scenes which highlight the mad desire for Stanley her eyes are often obscured, with only tiny sparks of light flashing and reflecting from them.

Stella: Isn't he wonderful looking?

Blanche: What you're talking about is desire, just brutal Desire. The name of that rattletrap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.
Stella: Haven't you ever ridden on that streetcar?

Stella seems unknowable, feral, as dangerous in her own singlemindedness as Blanche is in her self-deception and Stanley is in his brutality. Her eyes have an animalistic defiant glint but it's not just her irises; this is one of the horniest performances ever captured on film.

This shot in particular is just fascinating, pulling the central triangular drama into sharp (deep) focus.

My pick for best shot.

The sisters have been having a serious chat. The previous night's tumult involving poker, flirtations, drunken messiness, abuse, "Stelllllaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!" and an obvious offscreen fuck-a-thon between Mr & Mrs Kowalski have disrupted their bond. If they're not quite seeing eye to eye the sisters are beginning to really listen to each other until they hear Stanley's return. We see his shadow first on the left side as then his body as the women immediately stop talking.  For the next agonizing few seconds, they seem absolutely frozen with indecision, though there's a curious sapphic charge to Blanche's silenced pawing pleas. There's another "Stella", Stanley's foolproof siren call, from the background and then Stella, ever so slightly turns his way, catching the light, his light if you want to get figurative though not literal.

She's lost to Blanche and herself again. Though Stella ends the movie an hour and some minutes later swearing Stanley off forever, our guess is she hops right back on that rattletrap streetcar named Desire once the credits roll. She's up one old narrow street and down another with Stanley as her violent conductor.

The Kindness of Strangers
Enjoy these participating posts at other fine movie-loving blogs.


Next Wednesday
Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) in celebration of the release of a stunning debut novel "What You See In The Dark" by Manuel Muñoz which brushes up against this movie in interesting ways. Coming soon: an interview with the author and a book giveaway. But about BEST SHOT: It's impossible that everyone will love the shower scene best, right? Why don't you join us and try to pinpoint your favorite image? Next Wednesday at 10 PM right here... and at your place if you participate.

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Reader Comments (26)

Once again we come perilously close to picking the same shot. I noticed that composition - the two sisters huddled together apart from Stanley - repeated a few times, when Stanley "clears his spot" from the table for example. What a gorgeous movie.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I had your choice under consideration myself, although you've managed to catch it a precise moment, with the light catching Stella, that adds even more interest to it. As Michael mentioned, it's a repeated idea - the sisters at the table was one I mentioned in my own post, I love the morbidly funny edge to their bowed postures.

Stella's horniness is really something I sparked to during this viewing - when he embraces her on the stairs and she's so overcome by just him... it's so sensual, it almost smells. You can practically smell Brando's sweat all the time, though.

Loved this piece; loved taking part.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Dave -- i noticed we both led with the collision of "old" and "new" acting -- but we went to different places thereafter. And yeah, that look Hunter gives when she descends the staircase... i kind of feel like that's it's own totally pervy movie "Stella Descends The Stairs" MPAA rating: XXX

and i love it almost more that she is never striving for attractiveness in those shots really. it's just so primal... which matches Brando who is so sickeningly hot in this movie despite being just ugly in behavior. Truly common.

Michael -- serioiusly gorgeous. at first i was like HOW DID THIS LOSE BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY and then I realized it was up against A Place in the Sun which is also disgustingly beautiful. so beautiful it's sickening. But i really think all these amazing shadows are part of the reason that the also stunning art direction took home the Oscar.

March 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Wow, I am absolutely in love with the shot you chose! What perfection!

I have to say that watching it over again I definitely noticed Kim Hunter much more than I had first viewing, so glad to see her represented here. Why didn't she get as much film work as her equally talented co-stars?! I know she did well in TV and then there's 'Planet of the Apes', but nowhere near Brando or Leigh's careers. So sad!

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMattyD.

Hey Nathaniel,
Can anyone contribute to your 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' series? (Forgive me if I'm the thousandth person to ask you this) I was interested in doing something on 'Psycho' for the next episode, and I wasn't sure how to get the link to you (leave it in the comments?). Thanks. =D

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames C.

I am really revealing my true Oscar nerd colors here, but while I was watching I couldn't help imagining what if the release had been in 1950 instead of 1951. You would have a Best Actress ballot with Bette Davis in All About Eve, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. Can you imagine trying to choose between that powerhouse line up?

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Michael I asked myself the exact same thing and realized Judy Holliday would've still won, so I shuddered and was happy Vivien easily swept the competition in her own year.

Speaking of horny performances from the 50's, what about Anne Baxter in "The Ten Commandments"? Although now that I think about it, Baxter was horny in EVERYTHING.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Jose - Ha!

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Michael and Jose -- clearly we all are major Oscarnerds as i thought of the same thing. Only i think Leigh would have won.

James -- anyone can participate yes. You can either leave the links in the comments, tweet me the link or send it by email to filmexperience (at) gmail (dot) com -- THE MORE THE MERRIER

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Rogers

Ack. This time I posted my blog contribution only to rush off to a staging of Angels in America at the Signature Theatre--gorgeous play--and forgot to link the post itself. Here it is. I notice that many others have mentioned the two hugely different acting styles that Leigh and Brando put on, but in my case I'm still struggling with the vast chasm between them.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterColin Low

Marlon Brando in this film was the sole reason I pursued acting. I'm know I'm not the only one.

Also, my favorite shot would have to be when we first see The Collector. (The young man who likes cherry coke that reminds Blanche of her former husband.) Either something about the way it's shot, written, or acted just really draws me into that scene.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathon

My 'entry,' although this was a post from a long time ago,

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

This film is awesome. It's one of my favorite movies of all time, but I can't quite seem to explain why to anyone who asks me. It's only after I've watched it again that I can understand what a cathartic feeling the movie leaves in me.

It's so real, so passionate, so authentic. Brando and Leigh are outstanding but so are Malden and Hunter. It's a true ensemble piece which all four actors on top form.

Love it. A lot.

Nathaniel, I left you my link on Twitter some minutes ago. Am I still allowed to participate? I planned posting it at midnight, Portuguese time, but alas Blogger didn't agree with me and only published it a while ago.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Nathaniel, I love that your write-up focuses on the pinpricks of light in Stella's eyes. Never noticed those before, but it must have taken IMMENSE calibration on Stradling's and Kazan's part just to ensure those magical glints. Seems like a very under-explored cinematographer's skill set, light in the actors' eyes, especially if they're moving at all within the shot.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterColin Low

I want to second the love MattyD has for Kim Hunter. She was the one performance in this film that stood out in the best possible way! Hunter's work here feels the most contemporary in that if it were plucked, then stuck into any film made today it wouldn't feel out of place.

I don't understand how Brando never looked this fine prior to Streetcar nor did he care to keep himself up after. (Yes his character is gross but some men are just that damn fine -- Richard Gere in Interal Affairs, David Strathairn in Dolores Claiborne)

Poor Vivien to suffer the same fate in real life as her on screen counterpart.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

I had prepare the shots and then, yesterday we had no Internet connection because dad forgot to pay the bill (thanks dad) Anyway, great job everyone!

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDimitra

Dimitra -- i can add you late if you post, it's an ongoing series. if not, join us next week for Psycho.

March 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

During the scene involving the broken bottle, we see a shot of Blanche in the cracked mirror right before they cut away. That is my choice for best shot.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

Andrew R -what is it about mirrors cracking that's so eternally fascinating... i guess mankind is still in a primal way that superstitious. mirrors have captured our souls and when they distort our image -- SCARY NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES.

/3rtfull -- yes that's hard to think about while wathcing this (Vivien's own struggles with sanity)

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Rogers

Oh, oh ok. Here it is!

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDimitra

Imagine me saying nay to Tennessee, but I hate that he has the film ending with Stella casting off Stanley. Because as you say, I'm sure she doesn't stick by it and it sort of makes me wonder, if she's leaving Stanley why let Blanche go to the sanatorium in the first place.

But, I don't care for Stella.

(Oddly, watching SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH again recently I think I like it way more now even with the unwarranted "happy" ending - maybe even than this, which I feel like a heathen saying.... Geraldine Page. GAH! Irresistible.)

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

@Andrew - in the play, she doesn't leave or try to reject Stanley at all. The film ending is just Hollywood-ized.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Nathaniel, glad it's on going and cuz of the time zones i miss out but next week! i'm totally going to join in Psycho!!
good old times from my film studies days.
can't wait

March 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjazz

caroline & andrew -- i think the film and performances are clear enough that she's going right back to him as soon as he sweats and cries out for her again late at night. so well done. even if they make you Hollywoodize it, you can subvert it through performance direction.

jazz --- yay. For anyone worried about time zones, you can always post early and send me the link and i'll include on that evening's roundup.

March 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

After watching it last night, for me Leigh gave one of the best performances by a female that I have ever seen.

I mean she really embodied a character that is so crazily annoying but still stole our heart asking for understanding and sympathy at the same time. Not to mention that she was so shining and beautiful asking for our attention and admiration.

What a coincidence that Akira will be next on April cos I just borrowed it from library. I really wanna try join this.

March 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

Vivien Leigh has always been the top 5ish to me when it comes to greatest female performance on the big screen. Her Blanche Dubois is so powerful, weak, tender, double acting, transparent, nevroutic, whimsical, DRAMATIC and beautiful. Leigh has strong moments with all other actors in this movie and there are lots of exploding moments between her and Brando

HOWEVER: after watching Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois at JF Kennedy Center in Washngton DC, I no longer picture Leigh but also Blanchett as the character. Blanchett blew me away and for each scene we get closer and closer to Blanche. Liv Ullmann directed Blanchett resulting in the best performance by Blanchett ever and surpassing Leigh as THE BLANCHE, for me

Nathaniel you must know that I flew all the way from Europe to watch Blanchett do her magic. I will for ever treasure that

March 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterManuel
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