This post is a contribution to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.
It feels a bit treacherous to Tennessee Williams in his centennial week, or even to the great Elia Kazan (this is surely his finest hour), but I browse the catalogue of screenshots I gathered while watching A Streetcar Named Desire and they're all about the actors - their expressions, their interactions, or merely their physicality. And I don't mean Marlon Brando with half his shirt ripped off, although I don't think anyone would disagree with that.
But what really makes Streetcar spark is the conflict between Blanche and Stanley that's embedded in the acting styles of Brando and Vivien Leigh, and how that complicates, deepens and enriches the relationship Williams created between the two. Stanley is the brute, the primitive man - but Brando's method acting is the new, modern way of performing. Leigh's heightened, classical style make sense of Blanche's wild, unbalanced existence. Streetcar is, finally, a film about two characters who cannot co-exist, and how two disparate acting styles shouldn't either - yet what the combination produces is inflammatory and magnetic while it lasts.
How to choose, though? How to choose between the animalistic intimidation of Stanley, the sensual intoxication of Stella (Kim Hunter), the sudden harsh fierceness of Leigh's face, the gothic spectacle of a limp Blanche, female heads bowed in some sort of fearful prayer, or this perfect encapsulation of the three central characters? My ultimate choice is one disconnected from the film itself - as I write this, somewhat stream of consciousness, I couldn't tell you what happens before or after this shot; I choose it purely for how it looks.
There's something so simple and bare here that kept pulling me back to this shot, over some of the more detailed compositions I mentioned above. Generally, Kazan's framing inside the apartment is quite tight - if a gap in the frame opens up, it's either filled by someone else, or the camera zooms to keep the image packed and claustrophobic. So the space here - the open window, the grey sheet - is unusual. Indeed, as Stanley's words echo eerily through Blanche's head - "Said you were married once, weren't ya?" - the camera zooms quite quickly onto Leigh's face.
But it does linger at this distance first, with a cowed Blanche feeling her first intimidation by the cool, unimpressed Stanley. The shadows (a constant contributor to fascinating shots throughout) creep slightly over her face, and the gossamer fabric makes her both vulnerable, by its slightness, and enveloped by its layers and its darkness. In this frame, Blanche is not trapped or intimidated by the world, the apartment or even Stanley - she's overwhelmed by her very self, closing her finery in on herself so she's suffocated by the very thing she holds highest. The space around her is empty, available, but she doesn't understand how to exist within it. It's the first vibrant indication we get of Blanche's troubled inner self, and it's a desolate one.