Sunday, March 31, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.11: Elia Kazan's East of Eden

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Even before his HUAC testimony, Elia Kazan was an outsider. Born a Greek in Turkey before his family emigrated to America, Kazan never felt like he belonged much of anywhere. His most contentious relationship was with his strict father, who demanded that Kazan follow him in the family business rather than follow his dreams to be a director. No doubt Kazan’s interest in John Steinbeck’s opus East of Eden was in the difficult relationship between father and son. Many book-to-film purists would no doubt wince at Kazan’s adaptation, which cut out the entire first half of the novel. Steinbeck, a good friend of Kazan’s, was less concerned, knowing that Kazan could capture the pulse of the story. He was right. East of Eden isn’t quite Kazan’s best film, but it might be the ultimate expression of some of his most powerful themes: alienation, the corrupting power of capitalism, and the pain of generational conflict.

Salinas, California, 1917: Caleb “Cal” Trask (James Dean) is a deeply troubled young man. His brother Aron (Richard Davalos) is an All-American Boy adored by his father Adam (Richard Massey), but the withdrawn and sullen Cal constantly quarrels with the man. Cal is further upset when he learns his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is not dead, as his father claimed, but the madam of a brothel. Cal tries to connect with his father, first by helping him with his ice business, then by asking Kate for money when Adam’s business fails. When America enters World War I, Cal’s business venture succeeds, but Adam turns him away for being a war profiteer. The matter is further complicated as Cal falls for Abra (Julie Harris), Aron’s girlfriend.

East of Eden was Kazan’s first color film, and further, it was shot in CinemaScope, which has a higher aspect ratio than most 35mm films. The director was initially nervous about shooting on such a grand scale, but he needn’t have worried: this film is gorgeous. More importantly, Kazan uses it to further his theme of alienation. In some shots, Kazan uses the wide-open, John Ford-like spaces to heighten the isolation of his characters, as with an early shot of Dean on top of a train, which barrels forward as Dean cowers and shivers in the center. In other scenes, Kazan uses the wide picture to heighten the distance between his actors, often as a way to show how removed Dean and Davalos are as brothers.

Best of all are certain scenes where Kazan brings in naturalistic frames within the shot to emphasize the center action. A notable sequence between Massey and his sons at a dinner table has the outer parts of the frame cloaked in shadow and darkness, a terrific frame for the long table that helps emphasize the distance between Cal and Adam. Better still are the scenes in the brothel hallway, which is dark and foreboding by design and indicates a certain fall from grace for the two brothers. It’s a deeply uncomfortable scene that predates Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in using big picture to make intimate moments feel more pronounced.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Kazan movie without a first-rate cast. Richard Davalos is quite good as Aron, a boy so upstanding that it seems there’s something not quite about him, which becomes clearer as he starts to treat Cal with disdain and cruelty later on. Burl Ives is also strong as Sam the Sheriff, a folksy, kindly, reasonable individual who’s the only one in the film with everyone’s best interest on his mind. Still, the best of the supporting males in the film has to be Massey, whose animosity with Dean on the screen was even more pronounced behind the scenes. Massey was just as sternly paternalistic and professional as Adam, and Dean’s Method instincts and unpredictable behavior riled him to no end. A reportedly furious Massey asked Kazan to get this kid to say his lines the right way and on time and to cut out the bullshit. Kazan, a master manipulator, encouraged Dean’s behavior, and Massey’s irritation and anger feels real as a result.

Jo Van Fleet was a difficult personality herself (Kazan claimed the only two times he ever yelled at an actress were with Van Fleet), but it was well worth her work in the film. As interpreted by Van Fleet, Kate is an often cold and difficult woman, one whose attitude towards her children and her ex-husband can be kind in one moment and vicious in the next. But Van Fleet never condescends to Kate. She comes off as a successful but deeply unhappy human being, one who chafed under Adam’s stern moralism but never found happiness elsewhere either. Her scene with Dean midway though the film runs the gamut of emotions: curiosity as to why he sought her out, irritation at his impetuousness, anger over her history with Adam, and a sad recognition in how similar her son is to her. Kazan’s hints that she may have a drug problem only add more to the sadness of her character.

Van Fleet would win a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but Julie Harris is even better as Abra. In a sense, it’s easy to understand why she might have been overlooked a year after Eva Marie Saint’s win for On the Waterfront: she’s the same kind of Kazan type, a warm and understanding blonde who bridges the gap between the main character and his problems. But Harris is wonderful in the role, and her scenes with Dean rival the Brando/Saint moments in the earlier film in their off-handed tenderness. Whether she’s stroking his face with a flower, goofing around in front of a funhouse mirror, or pleading with Adam to take Cal back into his heart, she’s an absolutely lovely character, and Harris sells every moment. She also shares something else with Saint: the ability to hint at how sexual desire pushes her towards a frightening young man. Abra’s relationship with Aron is pure and awfully nice, but there’s a clear sense that she’s bored with the upstanding Aron and fascinated with his more difficult brother. Kazan never quite underlines the sexuality between the two, but the hint of it is awfully powerful.

At this point in time, it’s often difficult to separate James Dean the Actor from James Dean the Icon. Dean is the ultimate symbol for young rebelliousness and live-fast-die-hard lifestyle, and it’s not without reason, considering how closely his life mirrored his persona. He was a boy who wanted very badly to be Marlon Brando, but while he shared the older actor’s unpredictability, he did not have Brando’s guttural sensitivity. Rather, Dean’s greatest gift was his shyness, his awkwardness, his painful vulnerability. Dean’s portraits of rebellious youth connect so well because he was that difficult, sensitive teenager whose every action was borne out of heightened sensitivity. Dean’s three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) show an actor of remarkable instinct and power, never mind his lack of training and sophistication compared to Brando and Montgomery Clift.

For me, Dean’s work as Cal comes as a close second to Rebel Without a Cause as his best work. He fits so perfectly in the role because, as Kazan and Steinbeck learned, he practically was Cal. Like Kazan, Dean had a difficult relationship with his father, and as soon as Kazan sensed that he knew the kid was perfect. As Cal, Dean’s every gesture and word is that of someone deeply unsure of himself, unbalanced and volatile, inarticulate and broken. Dean’s explosiveness comes out perfectly in a number of emotional outbursts, but that quality would be better used later that year in Rebel Without a Cause. Dean’s best instinct in this film is how much he retreats from others, often turning away in conversation and hugging an object close to himself, as if he does want to connect but is deeply afraid of what might happen if he does. Everything is a big deal for Cal, just as everything was a big deal for Dean.

East of Eden isn’t as overtly political as many of Kazan’s films, but there is more than a hint of social concern there. Kazan felt a deep connection to small town America that he didn’t feel with cities, but he nevertheless felt that small town values could easily be perverted by greater forces. An early shot frames Cal right next to an American flag, and it hints at just how capitalism will play in this boy’s life. Adam is an entrepreneur, to be sure, but he’s also an idealist who has less interest in money than he does in doing good for the people. When his business fails, it clearly hurts him, but not nearly as much as his involvement in the draft board when the war starts up. He feels that this war is unjust, that it’s taking Americans to terrible places, and that his involvement in the draft board is taking away his health. The war provokes prejudice from otherwise decent Americans as they persecute Adam and Aron’s innocent German-immigrant friend. More notably, a rival businessman profits off of selling beans to the government for exorbitant prices, something Adam cannot forgive, and something that becomes important later on in the film.

The film is at its most powerful, however, when playing up just how strong the generational divide is between fathers and sons. The film may take place in World War I-era America, but it’s playing to the teenagers of 1955. Cal’s every action seems alien to Adam- he stays out all night, he has no interest in the Bible, and his emotional outbursts are often outright frightening. Steinbeck’s novel made clear parallels between Adam the father and Adam the Biblical figure, the first man. Similarly, Cal and Aron are Cain and Abel, the bad and good sons of the first man. Yet Steinbeck and, more to the point, Kazan, don’t think of Cal as bad. He’s more misunderstood, good intentions and exposed nerves. And for all of Cal’s anger towards his father and mother, the only thing he wants is their love. When he tries to see Kate up close for the first time, he begs for her love as he’s dragged out by the brothel’s bouncers. A notable quote early in the film: “Talk to me, father”. He wants to know the goodness in his father, but the stern man cannot reveal any weakness or warmth to his sons.

The film’s most famous scene, with reason, is at Adam’s birthday celebration. Cal has just earned back all the money his father lost in his business, and he presents it to his father. When his father learns that Cal earned it via war profiteering, he rejects the present and rebukes Cal. At this point, Dean was instructed to storm out of the room, dejected. That’s what Massey expected, and of course, that’s not what Dean did. Instead, Dean shrank and twisted down, only to rise up, cry out, and embrace his father. An angry Massey could only think to shout out “Cal!”, which only adds to the power of the scene. Kazan uses Dutch Angles at various points in the film to show how off-center their relationship is, but it’s most effective here. It’s deeply emblematic of the nature of the film’s central relationship- a loving but stern and furious father, and an emotionally volatile son who only wants his affection.

Of course, that Cain/Abel metaphor has to go somewhere, but it doesn’t go exactly where one might think. At this point, Aron has grown increasingly moody and spiteful towards his brother. Kazan smartly stages Cal’s retreat from his father by putting him behind a tree, his face obscured, as Abra rushes out and embraces (and likely kisses) him. Aron pulls Abra out, and at this point he faces Cal, his back turned to camera, as he cruelly chastises him- “You’re mean and vicious ansd wild”- while Abra, in the foreground, belabors over her love for both of them.  Cal, the rejected brother, often made out to be the bad one, now does something understandably spiteful, though destructive. The film cuts to the brothel and Cal introduces Aron to the mother he thought was dead. It’s a deeply disturbing scene as Cal pushes Aron into a room with his mother, with Kazan emphasizing the claustrophobia of the situation. He then cuts to a high shot of Cal walking down the corridor, his shadow sticking out as if he’s finally embraced his dark side.

It’s a devastating moment, made more so as Aron joins the war. His family races to find him, but as the train pulls away, it’s clear that he’s finally broken off and turned into the true dark brother. In a moment that plays like something out of a David Lynch film, Davalos breaks the train window with his head, towers over his father, and laughs like a madman. “Cain rose up and slayed his brother”, as Ives quotes the Bible, and indeed Cal has damned his twin, not to mention driven his father to a stroke. Ives’ suggestion that Cal should run away brings the boy’s sense of alienation and self-loathing to new heights.

But the film is ultimately more optimistic than that. This youth-divide film takes on a John Ford/Frank Capra populist side by the end. Harris’ angelic mediator Abra certainly helps, but it’s ultimately a moment that fulfills Cal’s earlier promise that “some day he’ll know who his real son is”. Cal’s every action is one of love, and as he screams at his father’s horrid nurse (truly the least helpful nurse in the history of film not named Ratched), a slight smile forms on Massey’s face. Dean bends forward, prostrate, practically praying at his father’s bedside as he promises to take care of him. The camera pulls back, and Abra leaves the two alone. Where earlier wide shots emphasized their distance, this one now emphasizes proximity. Kazan no doubt felt that any difficult relationship could be reconciled through love. East of Eden’s strength is making that relationship so combative that one can’t help but fall way to the warmth of its ending.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.10: Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

In 1952, Elia Kazan was called before the HUAC, where he named names, implicating a number of former colleagues of the Group Theatre and effectively putting them on a blacklist. This cost him the friendship of a number of former collaborators, most notably Arthur Miller, who had been developing a waterfront crime film with Kazan, tentatively titled The Hook. More importantly, it poisoned Kazan’s name for a number of critics and fellow artists (Ed Harris and Nick Nolte notably refused to stand and applaud for Kazan when he was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1999). Kazan’s testimony, for better or worse, changed and colored the perception of his films for the rest of his career.

Kazan would return to Broadway, directing productions of Camino Real and Tea and Sympathy all while developing his waterfront film project with a new writer, fellow HUAC friendly witness Budd Schulberg. On the Waterfront would go on to be a massive success at the box office and with critics, winning 8 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Art Direction) and becoming one of the most acclaimed films of its era. It would further influence the work of great directors (notably Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) and actors (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, you name ‘em). For many, however, this tale of corruption on the waterfront is a disguised allegory and justification for Kazan and Schulberg’s testimony.

It’s hard to ignore the influence that element probably had on the film (Schulberg denied it, Kazan admitted it). At the same time, it speaks to the all too common practice of emphasizing a film’s possible subtext over the more present and important text. Sure, that unfortunate truth about Kazan and Schulberg’s lives likely helped shape the film and made it more personal. One could easily see Terry Malloy as a stand-in for Kazan, with the same doubts, inner-conflict, and feeling of guilt about allowing corrupting, manipulative influences to take control of decent people, not to mention the feeling of alienation that came with naming names. But it ignores Kazan’s real interest in everyday social issues, in the common man, and in the possibility to overcome. It would lead to a simplification and reduction of Kazan’s crowning achievement, one of the finest films ever made.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a former prizefighter now working as a dockworker and hood for “Johnny Friendly” (Lee J. Cobb), a gangster who has taken over the waterfront union, and Charley “The Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), his smarter, corrupt brother and Johnny’s right-hand man. Terry plays as a semi-unwitting accomplice to the death of a man who informed on Johnny, but the move against crime can’t die. Local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) stands up for the dockworkers, while Terry’s allegiances are torn between his mobster friends and his love for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the dead man’s sister.

Kazan had filmed on location before with Panic in the Streets and Viva Zapata!, but On the Waterfront hits the peak of his commitment to cinematic realism. The film’s use of real Hoboken, New Jersey locations bring a sense of reality then-unparalleled in American cinema. The docks are ugly and beaten up, and the rooftops and apartments don’t look much better. The skies and streets are filled with smoke. The bars are seedy and shadowy. Most of the extras are locals, and their day-to-day actions help create a sense of verisimilitude. Even better, the film was shot in the dead cold of winter, and the actors all look believably miserable. Kazan’s use of long takes and deep focus, meanwhile, give a great balance between the real locations and the performers bringing everything to life, whether he’s in the film’s most tender love scenes or most violent scuffles.

And yet, Kazan doesn’t abandon his gifts at pure cinematic expression either. One scene shows a very real Hoboken alleyway but uses a wide shot to make it look small and claustrophobic as a group of longshoremen are beaten to pulps by Johnny Friendly’s thugs. Another great sequence shows Malden’s father Barry preaching to the longshoremen after the death of one of their friends. Barry gives the most impassioned sermon of his life, but he’s framed like a man in a gladiatorial area, pleading for his life to death ears; he and the man’s body are then lifted out of the room, like a spirit and his caretaker ascending into heaven. Yet another masterful moment plays as a precursor to the restaurant scene in The Godfather, with a foghorn blaring over Terry’s confession to Edie, the sound serving as a scream as she realizes that the man she loves is semi-responsible for her brother’s death as Kazan cuts back and forth between the two, a tighter close-up each time.

Better still is when Kazan mixes these elements for maximum effect, as he does with a pair of back-to-back sequences between Terry and Edie late in the film. In the first, the likely virginal Edie is in a white slip in her tiny Hoboken apartment. She locks the door to keep Terry out, but it’s no use- this is Marlon Brando at his most powerful, and he’s getting in one way or another. The details in the apartment are realistic, but the emotions are heightened, and a strategically placed lamp highlights a crucifix in the room, emphasizing the sense of Catholic guilt the two share. Edie tries to keep Terry away, and the intensity of their emotions make it feel like he could assault her at any point. And then he pulls her into an impassioned kiss, and she’s powerless. The world outside might be crazy, but in a wonderful close-up, Kazan shows the two sink to the floor, as if love is enough to keep them safe.

The very next scene illustrates the opposite, as Terry is called out to the alleys to see his brother. Edie accompanies him, and the two are soon chased by a truck that’s distressingly close to them. Again, Kazan’s use of shadows and claustrophobic framing speak to his formalism, but the location and the likely real danger (Saint later complained about just how close that truck was to them) brings in a startling element of realism. And then, as they find a safe place and the truck passes them by, Kazan hits another great mix- formalism for the reveal of Charley, perfectly lit as he hangs on a hook, dead; and realism for Terry’s reaction, of disbelief, then sorrow as he pulls Charley down (notably wrapping his dead brother’s arms around him), and then anger.

Kazan had plenty of help from the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who would win Best Cinematography) for his formalistic side, but perhaps an even greater aid is Leonard Bernstein, who composed his only dramatic film score. A master of classical music and musical theatre, Bernstein’s work brings a further sense of heightened emotion with every cue. A terrific video essay on the new Criterion release explains it better than I could, but I’d be remiss not mentioning what’s one of my favorite film scores of all time. From the opening mournful French horn, standing alone as Terry will stand alone later in the film, to the frantic drums and jazz for violence, to a sensitive, swooning love theme for Terry and Edie’s love scenes, this is remarkably expressive, varied work. Bernstein would later take most of his cues for a wonderful symphonic suite, but he left the best cue alone for the film: a strings-theme for the two major scenes between Terry and Charley, which play to the deep mixture of love and deep disappointment in their relationship. Bernstein would lose the Oscar for Best Original Score. He was robbed.

On the realism front, Kazan had my pick for the finest cast in the history of film. Aside from Bernstein’s loss, the only other Oscars the film didn’t win were in the Supporting Actor category, where Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger likely canceled each other out. Malden had already won an Oscar for a previous Kazan film, A Streetcar Named Desire, but he’s nearly as good here as Father Barry. Based on a real crusading priest, Barry is a man of the people, just as willing to preach on the streets as he is in the church. When he gets a real idea of just how bad the longshoremen are being treated by the mob, he becomes a fierce advocate for their rights. When he promises longshoreman Kayo Dugan (a terrific Pat Henning) that he’ll stand by him all the way, he does- right up to Dugan’s murder. Yet for all of Barry’s righteousness, Malden wisely brings a certain self-righteousness to keep him human: his initial dismissal of Terry might be understandable, but he’s quick to react with violence when Terry insults him late in the film. And yet he’s still a decent man, buying a beer for Terry when he’s suffered the greatest loss of his life.

Lee J. Cobb gave his best screen performance as vicious mobster Johnny Friendly. Best known at this point for originating the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Cobb takes on a far different role as a charismatic, brutish, frightening thug. An early scene in his bar shows a man who wears a friendly blue-collar demeanor on the exterior, palling around with his men until he’s shortchanged by one, who he then slaps around and humiliates. He shows the same attitude towards Terry- he’s like a father-figure who “took Charley and me to ball games when we was kids”, but he turns into a monster as soon as he’s crossed. He’s just as unforgiving with his loyal right-hand man Charley, putting the heat on him for Terry’s cooperation with the police. The role required someone who could believably scare everyone else in the film. Cobb succeeds.

Still, I would have given the Oscar to Rod Steiger for what’s easily the quietest performance in a career full of larger-than-life (often hammy) work. Steiger never pushes any of his moments, always seeming like a bookish kid who fell in with the wrong crowd and now will go to any ends to keep what he has. A great early moment shows him in Friendly’s bar, nervously insisting that Terry “has a good friend here” in Johnny. Steiger beautifully underplays the sense of being torn between his loyalty to his boss and his love for his brother, particularly in the film’s most famous scene (which I’ll get into more detail later).

On the Waterfront was Eva Marie Saint’s first film role, and while she’s a wonderful actress, she would never top her work here. Kazan pushed the relatively inexperienced Saint to the brink in her most emotional scenes, and the results show: she’s believably distraught at the death of her brother, conflicted and furious when she learns of the truth behind Terry’s involvement in his death. But her best scenes are her love scenes with Brando, in which she brings a deep feeling of warmth, sensitivity, and understanding for his misdeeds and for his sense of inner conflict. It’s the first time a humanizing love story in a Kazan film has worked entirely. Where the dull relationships in Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky were completely perfunctory, the Brando/Jean Peters grouping in Viva Zapata! underdeveloped, and the Panic in the Streets relationship strong but minor, this is the heart of the film, and much of the credit goes to Saint that we can believe Terry would turn a new leaf for Edie.

But the film undeniably belongs to Brando in the best performance of his career, not to mention one of the three or four greatest leading male performances in the history of cinema. Brando had mastered a mixture of animalism and sensitivity in A Streetcar Named Desire. He tops it here, capturing the soul of Terry Malloy like no other actor could: unsophisticated, ignorant, and often course, but with a strong conscience, an undeniable charm, and an inner goodness that makes him redeemable. So much of his performance is now legendary for how unexpected and off-handed it is: playing with and putting on Saint’s glove after she drops it, an improvised moment that serves as a symbol for how this brutish guy gets inside an upright girl’s heart; casual flirtatiousness manifested in shrugs; shock and confusion after his protégé kills his beloved pigeons for testifying.

Still, the film’s most famous moment- the best scene in the careers of Kazan, Brando, and Steiger- is the “I Coulda Been a Contender” scene, in which years of hidden, deep-rooted conflict between the two brothers boils over. Producer Sam Spiegel went cheap on this scene, refusing to pay for a real cab or rear projection. Kazan and Kaufman covered it up by putting a venetian blind in the back window, and one could easily complain at the lack of realism, not to mention the continuity breaks that came from Brando leaving the scene and forcing Steiger to read some of his lines alone. But these mistakes actually enhance the scene’s power, closing them off from everyone else while bringing real hurt in Steiger’s performance.

In what’s just about the best two-shot ever, Kazan smartly focuses on his two actors, bringing them close together in an uncomfortably claustrophobic interior. The two have clear love for each other, but Charley knows that if he can’t get Terry to shut up that he’ll have to lead him to his death. Terry is reticent, Charley impassioned. When Terry admits he hasn’t made up his mind about what he’s going to do, Charley impulsively pulls out a gun and pleads to him. And Brando gives one of the all-time great reactions: not anger, but deep disappointment and heartbreak as he pushes the gun away- “oh, Charley”. As Steiger leans back and the music starts up, he laments Terry’s lost boxing career, blaming a shitty manager. But as soon as Kazan cuts to a close-up of Terry’s face, and it’s clear what’s coming before he can even start- “It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you.”

The next two shot shows Terry telling the story of his brother’s betrayal plainly, while Charley can barely contain his regret. In the next close-up, Charley turns his head, giving the most half-hearted defense imaginable, before Kazan cuts back to a close-up on Terry for one of the greatest movie lines ever- “You don’t understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody! Which is what I am, let’s face it!” Brando’s face here crosses over to a brief flash of anger before he goes back to disappointment. “It was you, Charley.” In the last two shot, Charley sits, defeated, knowing how things are going to end for him for what he’s about to do. He has one last chance to help Terry, but he’ll pay the ultimate price. This scene probably inspired more actors than any other scene in film history (lord knows it got me to take it up for a few years), but it’s also the purest and most powerful expression of Kazan’s interest in family conflict.

That feeling of betrayal and disappointment in a loved one is something Kazan had an innate understanding of, having dealt with a father who disapproved of his artistic side. Even more powerful- the profound sense of alienation that Kazan always felt, more so after his HUAC testimony. Kazan knew how to tap into his characters’ heads perfectly- Barry’s mixture of righteousness and self-righteousness, Johnny’s sense of entitlement, Edie’s fury over her brother’s death, Charley’s sadness and guilt over his involvement in his brother’s downfall- but Terry’s sense of alienation and guilt is clearly the strongest. Kazan would later write that his HUAC testimony was the hardest situation he ever made- “I would lose something either way”- and Terry showcases that feeling from the opening scenes, when he realizes that he’s complicit in the murder of the only man willing to stand up to the mob. If he doesn’t help, he’ll wind up without the woman he loves. If he does, he’ll betray his brother and a number of good friends.

But his guilt for not testifying becomes more pronounced as more good people die, and he’s finally pushed to do the right thing. Still, it’s going to affect him adversely. Schulberg’s script includes a rather lyrical metaphor regarding pigeons (stand-ins for good people) and the hawks (the bad) that prey on them. As soon as Terry testifies, he’s hated by cops and longshoremen alike. He’s undoubtedly done the right thing, but as a boy he taught to raise pigeons kills all of his birds, a profound sense of melancholy comes over him. In the film’s final scenes, he goes down to the waterfront where he’s the only one passed over for work, and Kazan’s use of a wide shot on Terry, alone, speaks volumes to his sense of alienation.

In the end, there’s no doubt that he did the right thing. The film features several impassioned pleas for real people to fight against corruption- Father Barry’s “that’s a crucifixion/this is my church!” speech, Terry’s agreement to finally stand up for what’s right- but the best might be in the climax, where his rebuke of Johnny turns violent. Kazan places Terry on the high ground above Johnny, but he’s on a shaky wooden plank compared to Johnny’s solid ground. His confrontation has a number of memorable quotes- “You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty stinkin’ mug! And I’m glad what I done to you!”- but really takes off as the fight gets physical, with Terry fighting like a champion and only losing after Johnny’s goons gang up on him. At this point, the men who previously ostracized Terry crowd around him. It’s a stunning proletarian moment as they cast Johnny into the lake and show that they can take charge of their union again- they refuse to work unless Terry works.

But Terry’s been beaten half to death. Barry and Edie can help him to his feet, but he has to march to the warehosue by himself. Blood and saliva leak from his mouth, and Brando does some great physical acting as he stumbles and falters at every other turn, his face expressing a sense of excruciating pain. Kazan uses a shaky, often out-of-focus POV shot as he stumbles towards the dock, and the longshoremen rally around him. Kazan’s use of faces here recalls that of Eisenstein, but now for true of-the-people advocacy rather than propaganda. And as Bernstein’s score swells, the crowd pushes past a now lonely Friendly, ignoring his threats, and shutting the warehouse door behind him forever. Of course, here the film goes more Hollywood than realism- in real life, Friendly’s “I’ll be back” threat wouldn’t be so idle, and Terry would likely end up floating in the river in a few days. It doesn’t matter: Kazan’s touch is too assured, the moment to richly deserved to deny. Maybe if one man stands up, we can all stand up.

NOTE: The recent three-disc Criterion DVD presents On the Waterfront in three separate aspect ratios, as Kazan and Kaufman shot the film so it would look good both in widescreen cinemas and on full-screen TVs. This video essay explains the differences between the aspect ratios. The film looks amazing no matter what, but I personally prefer the split-difference of 1.66:1.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.9: Elia Kazan's Man on a Tightrope

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 67/B

Elia Kazan had an incredible run in the 1950s, from instant classics (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) to strong social commentaries (Panic in the Streets, Viva Zapata!) to more controversial masterworks (Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd). One Kazan film from this period, however, is almost totally overlooked. 1953’s Man on a Tightrope is likely the least-seen film of Kazan’s prime, a Cold War era thriller that’s intelligent and well-made but never more than diverting. Still, the film isn’t without its charms even if it stands out as a decidedly minor work from a master.

Karel Cernik (Fredric March) is a Czech clown and the manager of the Cernik Circus. Cernik is stifled under the harsh communist regime, which constantly interferes and demands propaganda be put in his show. Cernik plans to escape across the border into Bavaria, but he suspects a spy in his circus after the Secret Police take him in for questioning. Cernik believes it to be Joe (Cameron Mitchell), actually an American deserter, who has fallen in love with his daughter Tereza (Terry Moore). Cernik’s closest friends suspect his wife Zama (Gloria Grahame). Cernik plans his escape, but Propaganda Minister Fesker (Adolphe Menjou) is hot on his tail.

Man on a Tightrope was filmed on location, as with most later Kazan films, in Germany. Most of the film’s action is set in or around the circus, but Kazan makes the most of the locations, which have an openness that suggests that freedom is just out of reach. A scene between Moore and Mitchell swimming in a German spring is particularly lovely in this regard (although it’s slightly distracting to hear Bedrich Smetana’s Vtalva in a film other than The Tree of Life). Better still is the contrast between the scenes in the circus, lively and inviting, and the scenes of an anxious, defensive March in the Secret Police state security offices.

The latter scenes are particularly good in showing Kazan’s strength at toying with psychology. March is down an almost funereal corridor to a room where two unnervingly bright lamps bear down on his face. In front of him are a pair of cold, humorless officials. Behind him, the false-charm of the grandfatherly Menjou. He cannot escape, and there’s a strong feeling of doom within the room. It’s a masterful, German Expressionist-worthy sequence. Kazan is also good at exploiting, and even subverting, other movements, particularly in his use of faces, which plays like a reverse version of Sergei Eisenstein, now critical of communism rather than laudatory.

The film is a bit thin, dealing with Kazan themes of alienation (March from Czechoslovakia, Mitchell from any sense of home) and family conflict (March with his lovelorn daughter Moore, his willful wife Grahame) in the margins but never completely satisfactorily. And while the film is of interest in its rebut of communism among the arts, considering Kazan’s testimony to the HUAC, it’s largely thrown to the wayside in the second half as the thriller business starts up. But it’s a well-crafted thriller with strong performances from March, Menjou, and Grahame, and being the least notable Kazan film from a period this strong is an honor.
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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.8: Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 83/A-

Panic in the Streets kicked off an incredible run for Elia Kazan, while A Streetcar Named Desire represented his mastery of cinematic realism and expressionism. His next film, Viva Zapata!, is not quite as fondly remembered as the earlier films, but it nevertheless an important work in his filmography. Released a mere two months before Kazan’s infamous HUAC testimony, one cannot help but look at the film’s fascinating mix of leftist politics and pragmatic look at revolution and sense a connection to Kazan’s own political decisions. But that’s part of what makes Viva Zapata! such a fascinating film.

When the president of Mexico dismisses complaints about rich landowners taking from poor farmers, illiterate farmer Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando) and his brother Eufemio (Anthony Quinn) start rebellion. With the Zapatas in the south and Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) in the north, they overthrow the Mexican government. Zapata and his followers pick the well-intentioned Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon) to lead, but the man is easily manipulated by the corrupt and power-hungry General Victoriano Huerta (Frank Silvera). Soon, Eufemio is corrupted himself, and Zapata’s follower Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman) pushes Zapata to become just as repressive and dictatorial as the previous government. But Zapata must ultimately fight for the rights of the people, and fight he shall.

Before we get to the problematic area of Marlon Brando playing a Mexican, one must say that Kazan gets a lot of mileage out of filming on location in Mexico. Where The Sea of Grass looked backlot-bound and stifled, Viva Zapata! gives John Ford a run for his money. The shots of the vast plains and corn fields look absolutely gorgeous,  and Kazan uses the wide open spaces as a great way to play with depth of field. When Aguirre is first introduced to the Zapatas, Kazan uses an incredible wide shot to show the man’s persistence to meet the revolutionary leader, rifle-fire be damned. Even better, Kazan captures the spirit of the area, whether it’s through the lively celebrations after victories in battle or Zapata’s wedding, or, better yet, as a way to establish danger, as in the Mexican countryside as landowners shoot through the tall corn fields at poor farmers. The film’s portrait of revolution could perhaps do with more battle scenes to show the massive stakes of the war, but what we do see is incredible.

Credit for one of the best scenes belongs to Anthony Quinn as much as Kazan. An actual Mexican actor (unlike Brando, though we’ll get to that), Quinn was tuned into the little details of Mexican towns, and he had a brilliant idea for one scene. When Zapata is captured by the Mexican police, Quinn’s Eugenio kneels down to the dirt and picks up two rocks, clicking them together as a way to get the attention of the town. Kazan cuts throughout the town as the rocks echo and other townspeople follow Quinn’s example. The sound of clicking rocks overpowers the sound of the horses’ hooves as the police lead Zapata away, a great moment of sound indicating just how the peasants are going to overcome the state. There’s a steady of build of peasants coming in to Kazan’s wide shots until they’ve surrounded the police. There’s no question as to who has the real power now.

Kazan is just as good at quieter moments. The relationship between Zapata and his wife (Jean Peters) isn’t as fleshed out as it should be, but one scene between the two on their wedding night ranks among the best in the film. Kazan shows Brando and Peters in close-up as they embrace, but Brando soon leaves the bed and stares out the window. Light comes in through the window, giving the room a distinctive early morning look as Zapata knows he’ll soon have to leave his bride to go back to speaking for the Mexican people. He sighs as he laments that he cannot read, and implores his more privileged wife to teach him. She pulls out a Bible, reading “In the Beginning…”. It’s an extraordinary moment of intimacy.

Brando pulls that scene off with his special mixture of instinctiveness and sensitivity, and the rest of his performance is equally successful. Yes, it must be said that he doesn’t pass for Mexican, but he captures Zapata’s soul better than almost any other actor of the era could have, never falling into caricature or mannered dialects. As interpreted by Brando, Zapata is a simple but dignified man who only wants what’s best for his people, and his moments of righteous anger at tyrants, corrupt politicians, and his own followers who have failed him are exhilarating.

Quinn, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, is even better as Eugenio. As played by the gruff, charismatic Quinn, Eugenio is a more flawed version of his brother, less noble and more prone to vice. His happiness after his brother’s marriage is clear, but he snaps at his friends when they say that problems are coming, saying that he wants to enjoy it while it lasts. It’s a sign of his volatile nature, and his self-righteousness gets the best of him as he turns into the same kind of tyrant he fought against. “I am a general!”, he yells, “I have nothing to show for my battles!”. It’s a sad justification for taking the land and wives of poor farmers for himself, but it’s a sure sign of the corrupting influence of power.

Emiliano Zapata himself is not perfect, however. True, he fights for the peasants honestly, speaking John Steinbeck’s lyrical words with measured determination. When told to have patience that the farmers will get their land back, he opines that “We make our tortillas out of corn, not patience”. When a boy is beaten by a rich man for stealing food, Zapata is quick to intervene for the hungry child. He’s an idealistic figure, and he turns down a ranch begotten unto him after certain victories, saying that he did not fight for or earn that ranch. But later, when Zapata becomes president, he is put in the same position as the same president he faced earlier in the film, and he makes the same tyrannical decision as the earlier man. As the camera dollys up to Brando’s face, he realizes he’s made a terrible move, that power has corrupted him, and that he alone cannot stand as the supreme leader of the nation.

Kazan was a man with natural sympathies for the poor and downtrodden, and he flirted with communism in the 1930s before rejecting it for a more balanced liberalism. Kazan rejected it, in his words, as a result of the repressive Stalinist regime, which he saw only as another extension of totalitarianism similar to that of Hitler and Mussolini’s fascism. In Viva Zapata!, one character wonders aloud if “a good thing can come from a bad act? Can peace come from killing? Kindness from violence?” It’s a blunt point, but it’s clear. Zapata rejects the corrupting force of Aguirre, posited as a Stalinist figure, and rejoins the people to fight for their rights. In a stirring Steinbeck monologue, Zapata delivers this sage advice:

  “This land is yours. You must protect it. It won’t be yours if you don’t. Do not look for strong men with no faults. There aren’t any. Follow no leaders but yourselves. Strong people are the only lasting strength.”

His later line, “strong people don’t need a strong man”, rings just as true. Wiseman’s Stalinist figure pushes to wipe Zapata and his men out, and he succeeds in the former in a scene reminiscent of the finest work of Eisenstein (or as a direct pre-cursor to Bonnie and Clyde). Zapata is led to the middle of a town square, where he is ambushed and cut down, riddled full of bullets in a scene that’s shockingly violent for the time- no blood, but the visceral feeling is clear. And yet, he remains as an inspiration to the Mexican people even as the regime announces his death. “I rode with him. They can’t kill him”. 
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Monday, March 25, 2013

Overlooked Gems #54: 8 Women

Grade: 84/A-

One month ago, the 86th Academy Awards pronounced the movie musical to be alive again. It’s true that more musicals have been made into films as of late than in the previous couple of decades, but it doesn’ address whether or not these films are any good or not. Rob Marshall’s musicals are edit the numbers to hash, show little imagination, and can’t evoke the periods they celebrate. Tom Hooper showed with Les Miserables that he didn’t know how to frame a shot or edit a sequence to compliment the musical rhythm. The less said about Phyllida Lloyd’s film of Mamma Mia! the better. It seems like editing and staging movie musicals is largely a lost art. Yet in 2002, French director Francois Ozon’s 8 Women showed how a modern musical could match the delight of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen’s musicals while still feeling vibrant and new.

A wealthy French family gathers for Christmas. They include host Gaby (Catharine Deneuve); her college-age daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen); her teenage daughter Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); her high-strung sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); her wheelchair-bound mother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux); their loyal cook Chanel (Firmine Richard); and new chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Beart). When Gaby’s husband is found murdered, the women determine that one of them must have killed him. They are soon joined by the victim’s estranged sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), who claims to have received and anonymous phone call. Cut off from society because of a severed phone line and a snowstorm, they investigate the crime themselves. They soon find that each of them has a motive, not to mention a secret that might challenge their perceptions of each other.

Ozon has made a career out of overt genre pastiches and movie-centric films to the point where he can often seem alienating, but 8 Women’s frothy surface is more inviting than some of his works. The film’s gorgeous Technicolor-influenced palette recalls the great musicals and melodramas of the 1950s, and Ozon knows that audiences pay to see musicals so they can actually see the musical numbers. He trusts his performers to give all the flash the numbers need. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a cast of some of the finest French actresses of the past several generations, from Sagnier as the spirited Catherine to Ardant as the confidently sexy Pierriete. Huppert is particularly strong as Augustine, a woman so frightened of romance that she buries her natural beauty and charm underneath neuroticisms.

The way Ozon veers back and forth between the ebullient (Sagnier’s “Papa, You’re Out of Touch”) and the melancholy (Richard’s “So as Not to Live Alone”) is also masterful, and it’s indicative of the real pain hiding beneath the seductive surfaces of the films he loves. There’s a lot of joy in the lives of these eight women, but their successes hide years of money worries, slights against each other, unfulfilled passions, and darker secrets. Those who looked at 8 Women and saw little more than entertaining fluff weren’t looking hard enough. It’s a musical that understands the genre’s base appeals as well as the feelings of longing and dissatisfaction that make many of the best ones so memorable.
Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.7: Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 97/A

Before Elia Kazan changed cinema, he conquered the stage. Kazan’s direction of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman made him the biggest director in theatre, and his version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire ran for three years with its original cast. When 20th Century Fox decided to take Williams’ sexually charged, controversial play and make a film of it, they reached out to Kazan. Initially reluctant to repeat a past hit, Kazan agreed, grabbed most of the original Broadway cast, and made a film that likely inspired more young men and women to become actors than any other film of that era. A Streetcar Named Desire is a near-perfect adaptation of the play, and possibly the greatest stage-to-screen adaptation of all time.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) has just lost her Mississippi home and most of her dignity, and she travels to New Orleans to live with sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche struggles with alcoholism, fraying nerves, and a guilt-ridden incident involving her late husband, and she’s not helped by Stanley, a brutish man who doesn’t take kindly to Blanche’s pretensions and dainty attitude. Stanley’s friend Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Karl Malden) falls for Blanche, but she can’t run away from her past forever, and she slowly begins to lose her grip on reality.

Kazan had worried in the past that his films would look too much like canned theatre, but he needn’t have worried about that here. Streetcar is easily the most florid and theatrical of his films, and yet it shows him at the height of his mixture of psychological realism and cinematic expression. Kazan only used New Orleans locations for some shots, but it hardly matters when the Kowalski house feels so lived in and believably seedy. The director’s use of close-ups and deep focus underline how performance driven the film is, but his blocking is immaculate. With every shot it’s clear how the characters affect each other- Stanley stalking around like a panther in the background, wearing on Blanche’s nerves; Blanche primping in front of Stanley, who’s clearly annoyed with her every action. There’s still a level of expressionism, however, be it in the film’s use of shadows (hanging over Blanche like a gloom that won’t go away), the use of veils or mirrors to highlight how Blanche hides behind her beauty, and especially in the set design. As the film goes on, the set slowly becomes more cramped and claustrophobic, which matches how much tighter the close-ups get. There’s nowhere for Blanche to run or hide anymore, and it leaves her exposed, enclosed in a small space with her greatest persecutor. Kazan is further aided by Williams’ perfect script and Alex North’s sultry, sexy jazz score.
Of course, the greatest mix of expression and intense realism comes from the performances, three of which (Leigh, Malden, Hunter) won Oscars. Hunter would be blacklisted in the span of a few years, a shame considering how spectacular she is here. Stella is the soul of the film and play, the one fought over by the protagonist (Blanche) and main antagonist (Stanley). She’s a happy medium between the two- she shares Blanche’s upbringing but lacks most of her pretensions, coming off as a far earthier and sexually comfortable woman. She responds to the visceral, primitive sexual thrill that comes with Stanley, but she also abhors his behavior around Blanche and retains certain aspects of her background. Her finest moment in the film comes early after Stanley hits his pregnant wife and she hides from him. As Stanley breaks down, Stella emerges from her friend’s apartment, silent, with a mixture of fear and sexual desire. As she slowly makes her way down and passionately embraces him, Kazan highlights Hunter’s earthy sexuality, her full figure. It’s one of the sexiest moments in all of film, in part because of the danger underneath it.

Malden, one of the greatest of all character actors, is the film’s conscience, a man with some of Stanley’s same animalistic behaviors but a more kindly demeanor. His genuine sweetness towards Blanche makes for some of the film’s most touching moments, particularly on a date where he reveals he talks to his mother about Blanche. Malden speaks of his mother with a mixture of love and (more subtly) hate, a desire to impress her mixed with an anger towards how she holds him back from his basest instincts. In that moment, Mitch and the damaged Blanche feel like they’re on an even keel even as she withholds some of the more troubled aspects of her background. That’s what makes his explosion of rage in the film’s final act so troubling- he’s been made a fool of by Blanche, who claims to be proper but has a sexual history that shamed her out of her hometown. Malden picked up Leigh like she weighed nothing earlier in the film, so his grabbing her and throwing her around like a rag doll here is particularly frightening. At this point, his genuine goodness has fallen away to primal rage.

Much like Jessica Tandy, who had originated the role of Blanche alongside Brando, Malden, and Hunter in the stage version, Vivien Leigh’s strength is the difference between her acting style and that of the other actors. Where Brando and company came from the Actor’s Studio and went for a more instinctive style, Leigh was classically trained on stage and screen, and almost everything she does on film seems slightly rehearsed until she breaks down. That’s largely the point- until she veers into psychosis, Leigh is the ultimate Southern Belle, proper and more than a little condescending. This plays not only with her history on screen (she won her first Oscar for Gone with the Wind), but with her own struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. Kazan reportedly pushed Leigh to the brink, getting easily the best performance of her career, which makes sense. Kazan only cast actors who he felt had the part in him. There was more than a little of Blanche in Leigh, the damaged heart of the film.

Still, it was Brando as the film’s antagonist who wound up making the greatest impression, and with reason. As Stanley, Brando seems less like an actor and more like a force of nature and messy human being who wandered on set and took over production. More than any role other than Terry Malloy, Stanley Kowalski embodied the contradictions that made Brando such a fascinating presence: brutish yet sensitive, instinctive and wild but masterful at manipulation, frightening yet charismatic and sexual. Brando captured Stanley’s soul even if he mumbled and garbled his words, which ended up making him more believable anyway. Stanley is a monstrous character, and Brando privately said how much he hated him, but he also managed to give him his humanity. Stanley is cruel and abusive to both Stella and the clearly unwell Blanche, but he’s also often tender towards Stella and sees through most of Blanche’s lies and pretensions. He’s trying to protect what he has, and it that means acting like an animal, so be it. Of course, his best moment comes with the famous “Hey Stella!” scene, in which Stanley’s brutish side falls away to reveal the possibility of shame and sorrow if he loses what he has.

The sexuality of that scene, and a number of others, got Streetcar in trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency, which required a number of edits in order to lift the “Condemned” rating. Whenever Stella isn’t furious with Stanley, she’s clearly enthralled with him (“I can hardly stand it when he’s away for a night…”). His animalistic intensity and lack of pretension (not to mention his tight, tight t-shirts) make for one of the sexiest characters in screen history, but there’s also something terrible there. As the film goes on, Kazan uses a subtle visual trick involving the color of Stanley’s shirts, which go from white and dirty when he’s merely annoyed with Blanche to stained with oil when he first considers her as an object of lust to black when the film reaches its climax. Stanley may despise Blanche, but there’s something in him that wants her, though that gives way to a need to assert his dominance over both her and Stella’s soul. Williams, Kazan, and Brando play with the idea that Stanley is an instinctive, sexual animal, but they also know when he’s expressing his base instincts (his relationship with Stella) and establishing a horrifying power (his rape of Blanche).

Of course, Stanley’s not the only sexualized character in the film- the censors also took issue with Stella’s clear desire for her husband (seems absurd to be, but whatever), not to mention her post-coital bliss the morning after the “Stella!” scene. More to the point, many were up in arms with Blanche’s troubled past. Kazan and Williams had to nix the play’s overt references to her dead husband’s homosexuality, but the hints towards his lack of desire for her remain. More overt is her own troubled history, first with gentleman willing to lavish expensive gifts for her sexual favors, then with a 17-year-old student Blanche had an affair with. Her brief kiss with a teenage newsboy serves as a painful reminder of her past misdeeds just as she’s trying to get away from the past. Mitch takes offense when he learns she wasn’t as proper as she pretended to be, but it’s less out of condescension than her desire to find someone who genuinely loves and desires her and will stay with her. When Stanley reveals the truth, that all falls apart.

There’s a level of alienation and family conflict in all of Williams’ major works, not to mention Kazan’s, but it might be at it’s most heated for the former in Streetcar. Blanche certainly picks away at Stella for her abandonment of their old home, Belle Reve, and for her relationship with a commoner, but she ultimately worries for her sister and battles for her soul. Of course, her airs of nobility don’t take well to the Stanley, who’s not one to give out compliments. Her every action undermines his authority over Stella and his home, and her every pretension serves as a reminder for all the things he’ll never have. Even when Stanley tries to hold back from picking on Blanche, he can only hold back for so long as she picks at him, calling him a Polack and a pig. He does soften towards Blanche after Stella goes into labor, but it can only last for so long, her lies and exaggerated fears grating on him to the point where he loses whatever sense of balance he might have had.

The “desire” of the title certainly points towards sexual desire, but it’s also desire for something that makes sense, something that either Stanley or Blanche can hold on to and keep with them forever. Blanche’s beloved Belle Reve (with a hilariously Americanized pronunciation of Belle REEV) is a wonderful symbol for Blanche’s past. Translated as “beautiful dream”, it speaks to her dream of sexual fulfillment, of happiness, and of security. In those few moments where she drops her pretentions around Mitch, she reveals bone-deep exhaustion that comes with the disappointments of life and aging. Blanche deserved better, and her breakdown is the tragedy of the film.

Kazan’s formal mastery compliments Leigh’s own neuroticisms and imbalances, heightening them to an unnerving fever pitch. Buildings and people menacingly tower over Blanche only to back her into a corner, whether Kazan makes the walls close in or traps her in a tight close up and space with Brando. When the rain starts up after Stanley accuses Blanche of certain sexual affairs, it’s a clear sign of her slowly falling apart. When the carnival music in North’s score starts up and the other characters’ voices start to echo, Blanche is haunted by the ghosts of her past.  Her line “I don’t want realism, I want magic” shows the impossibility of her situation, and as she’s exposed first to Mitch then to Brando as a mad dreamer, Leigh’s performance reaches a new height in theatrical mannerisms, emphasizing just how much she’s retreated from the rest of humanity. Kazan knew how to get into his characters’ heads as well as any other director who ever lived, and his work with Leigh on Blanche ranks as one of his crowning achievements.

The rape scene is the final crack in her façade, and Kazan stages it as a point where she finally has nowhere to run. There’s a shot/reverse shot of the two in deep focus that emphasizes his advance to her futile retreat, and then, in a moment of expressionistic horror and beauty, a cracked mirror as the deed is done. In the film’s final scene, Blanche has retreated totally to fantasy, and she can no longer handle any sign that what she says might not be true. The film has a brief sour note as a Production Code-imposed ending forces Stella to leave Stanley for what he’s done (in the play, Stella stays with her husband), but it doesn’t linger nearly as long as the film’s true ending, a haunting moment where North’s score swells as Blanche is taken to be shut away in a mental hospital, away from her beloved sister and any hope of happiness, under the delusion that she’s being taken away by another admirer. “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”.
Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on Letterboxd.