Vivien Leigh is a faded, and little loopy, Southern belle by the name of Blance Du Bois. She is newly arrived in New Orleans, where she has come to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stella's brutish and brooding husband Stanley (Brando). She's a prim and proper type, not entirely suited to the hectic New Orleans lifestyle and certainly not to where she finds her sister living; in a downstairs shack in the midst of a district rife with drink and low class characters. Blanche has lost the family home and has come to (possibly) swindle her sister, as everyone back home has got wise to her game. Stanley the uneducated, violent and often shirtless caveman sees through her straight away.
Leigh (who appeared in less than 20 films in her career) is perfectly flighty and diminished, with an active and intelligent mind spinning off in various directions. She's a faded seductress and is constantly talking, constantly getting everyone to pay attention to her, to listen to her, to wait on her. Brando is in direct contrast, preferring to do most of his conversing with grunts. When they don't suffice he shouts and pushes and punches. He exudes raw, dangerous power, often of an obviously sexual nature. They disgust one another and the ensuing four months under the same, cramped roof come to press down on both of them. An explosion of some sort is inevitable.
Brando is magnetic. It's not hard to understand how he became one of the biggest stars, and finest actors, of his generation. His performance here, full of power and subtlety, is more than enough to make me want to track down more of his early work, such as On the Waterfront (also directed by Elia Kazan). And Life magazine has just posted this fascinating timeline of his life and career, to celebrate 60 years since his first screen appearance.
Though adapted from a play, and set largely in one location, the film never feels stage bound. Kazan has worked wonderfully to break the action out from the stage with a set that is both expansive and claustrophobic. He shoots and shoots and shoots from a variety of angles, often moving with the actors and keeping things alive, the tension growing. No easy answers are given in this adaptation, no quarter given; Brando is a wife-beating brute, but he's just so damned sexual Stella can't keep away from him. Your sympathy for Blanche dips and crests as you become annoyed and fed up with her, then understanding and finally crushed come the end.
The mere fact that I got to see this on the big screen, to have Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando once more stride at 24 frames per second, was wonderful. This marks the beginning (I hope) of the Embassy Theatre's programme of classic film for 2011. I know I'm not the only one who appreciates it, judging by the size of the audience in attendance. Even the Sunday matinee showing was reasonably busy. Film like these... they are cinema. At least to me. To see them at a cinema, in the dark and surrounded by strangers with the projector click-click-clicking away in the background (not that you can hear the Embassy's)... that's pure magic to me. And I'll never stop loving it.