The Greatest films of all time: 46. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)(USA)


“A Streetcar Named Desire” film directed by Elia Kazan, was based on the play of the same name by the great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, written in 1947 and awarded the prestigious Pulitzer prize in 1948. This great American play adapted for the screen was the first play to be casted and directed by the same actors and director both on the stage and on the screen. The Broadway production of the play was also directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. The only difference was Vivien Leigh who did not appear on the Broadway stage, but in London production in 1949, directed by Laurence Olivier. Tennessee Williams also collaborated with Elia Kazan and Oscar Saul to write the screenplay.


There is no need to comment on Tennessee Williams who along with Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil are considered the three foremost of American playwrights. He has written many other classics for the stage that many of them such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth” have also been adapted for the screen. His “A Streetcar Named Desire” is widely considered as one of the three major American plays along “Long Day’s Journey into Night” of Eugene O’Neil and “Death of a Salesman” of Arthur Miller.

Elia Kazan who directed both the stage play and the film was a rarity in American cinema, in many aspects including working on these two performing art media. He was a Greek-American, born in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) to his Greek parents, moved to America at age four with his parents, that his story of immigration could be read and seen in his book and film, “America, America”. He studied drama art at Williams College and Yale School of drama, and acted professionally for eight years, before joining the “Group Theatre” in 1932 and later on co-founded the “Actors studio” in 1947 with Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford. 


In the Actors Studio, Kazan along Lee Strasberg introduced the popular “Method Acting” that dominated the Broadway and from there was taken to the Hollywood and in the films with such classic performances of great actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson among others. Kazan was the principal factor behind rearing quite several great American actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Gregory Peck, Montgomery Clift, Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Patricia Neal, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro.

Kazan brought the theatrical acting method on to the screen, and for the first time, gave such importance to acting in cinema, so this element became very essential in films since. He was an actor-director and according to many actors working with him, the best, as Marlon Brando hails him humbly in his autobiography:

I have worked with many movie directors—some good, some fair, some terrible. Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for… the only one who ever really stimulated me, got into a part with me and virtually acted it with me… he chose good actors, encouraged them to improvise, and then improvised on the improvisation… He gave his cast freedom and … was always emotionally involved in the process and his instincts were perfect… I’ve never seen a director who became as deeply and emotionally involved in a scene… he got so wrought up that he started chewing on his hat. He was an arch-manipulator of actors’ feelings, and he was extraordinarily talented; perhaps we will never see his like again.”

An all Emotional Acting Classic:

All what’s said briefly above, at least on the screen and for Marlon Brando started with “A Streetcar Named Desire”. There had not been such a powerful acting as Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and Karl Malden on the screen before, and that was a jumping start for the unknown Brando by then to become a Hollywood superstar since, led him to four consecutive Academy Award nominations for the best actor. 


Blanche (Vivien Leigh) travels to New Orleans to live with her expecting sister, Stella and her husband Stanley, arriving on a train, boarding on a streetcar, named “Desire”. She discloses to her sister that their family estate in Mississippi has been lost to creditors and she was broke and had no place to live unless with her. While Stella is receiving her sister with an open heart, from the start there is suspicion in Stanley about Blanche, who’s opposite to his frankness, roughness and jumpiness, very gentle and melodramatic. Not believing in any of her story and claims, including the loss of estate and marrying young to a young husband who killed himself at a young age, Stanley gets outrageous at Blanche and one such night into a fight with his wife, Stella over the sister, who led both to leave him and going upstairs to their neighbor.


Here the emotionally dependent on his wife, despite his rough and tough exterior, Stanley screams out of his need the very popular line of “Stella, Stella, hey Stella” to her to come back down to him. In the morning after, Blanche tries to convince her sister to leave Stanley, whom she calls a subhuman animal, but Stella refuses as there is a co-dependency between them, like the two opposite halves completing each other. As time goes by, the conflict and rivalry between Blanche and Stanley escalates to the point that Stanley finally discovers her real promiscuity past, having multiple sexual relationships and being mentally unstable. Having lost her chance of romance with Stanley’s friend, Mitch (Karl Malden), Blanche is driven crazy and reveals all her hidden inner world and her past deeds.

The acting of Vivien Leigh as Blanche at this stage is so emotionally powerful that brings out a superb and touching acting of Karl Malden as Mitch as well, who is deeply hurt and humiliated after hearing the truth about Blanche and having had fallen in love with her before. After Mitch running away from Blanche, and when Stanley comes back from hospital where Stella had stayed for her delivery, the two again get caught in a cat and mouse fight. But now Blanche is totally lost and delusional, yet still she is ignored and not empathized by Stanley. Soon the disposition of blanche to a mental asylum is arranged, but she has been told going away on a vacation, so not to be hurt. In this very emotional final scene, when even Mitch breaks into tears, feeling sorry for Blanche, she leaves the apartment hand in hand with the doctor, saying “Whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers”, leaving behind a guilt feeling not in Stanley and others in the room, but in the viewers of the film as well!


In addition to the superb direction of Elia Kazan to fit the play onto the screen by adding a few outdoor scenes, such as the train station, the streetcar Desire, and the French quarter of New Orleans, the music score of Alex North and the black and white cinematography of Harry Stradling perfected the film. For example the music score was written in short sets to reflect the psychological dynamics of the characters. That impressed many critics of the time to comment on the inner torments of Blanche performed artfully by Vivien Leigh, and the inner torturing of her by Stanley performed well by Marlon Brando, and later on by Mitch performed excellent by Karl Malden. But as always Academy Awards went short by only awarding Vivien Leigh as the best actress, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter for the best supporting actor and actress, and Richard Day and George James Hopkins for the best art direction and set decoration.  Marlon Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” that was a very tight competition, but the best film award that year went wrongly to “An American in Paris” and the best director to George Stevens for “A Place in the Sun”. This latter film undeservedly won the rest of the Oscar awards that year, for example for the best screenplay, cinematography, costume design, and music score.        



In closing remarks “A Streetcar Named Desire” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“A Streetcar Named Desire”is an original classic of adaptation of a play onto the screen directed and casted by the same director and actors. The film and the method acting of Elia Kazan originated a new line of cinema, focusing on acting as a major element, letting the actors to express themselves and improvise.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is in addition to its direction, hinges mostly on the acting that had not seen before that on the screen anywhere in the world. The perfect set design, music score and cinematography all completed the technicality of the play for the screen.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “A Streetcar Named Desire” has been so much on other films, TV episodes and music that for example the popular screaming of Stanley “Stella, Stella, hey Stella” has become a cultural . Also the names of “Streetcar Desire”, “Desire”, “Stella” and “Stanely” have been repeatedly brought back again and again in other films, TV episodes and songs.
  4. Survival:“A Streetcar Named Desire” has survived well to this very day and has been rated higher and higher by film critics, film historians, other filmmakers and actors. The film is still a source of method of acting for all the actors in the world on stage and on the screen.


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