April 2016 Blindspot: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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It’s been ages since I wanted to see A Streetcar Named Desire, not sure why I’ve put it off. I feel like I have watched it as one day I actually watched a bunch of clips from this film on youtube. There’s of course the famous scene where Brando yelled ‘Stellaaaaaaa…!’ that’s been parodied many times over, but I definitely need to see it to understand the significance of this steamy Southern classic.

Based on a hit play by Tennessee Williams, it’s one of those rare films that happen to be directed by the same person who did the original Broadway production, Elia Kazan. It’s interesting to see Vivien Leigh as yet another Southern belle, as I’ve only seen her in Gone With The Wind (1939), but really, the appeal of this film for me is Marlon Brando, whose brutish performance is the quintessential sexy bad boy.

As with any of my blindspot reviews, there are definitely spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film yet, proceed with caution.

First Impressions

Well, what can I say… my first impression had more to do with Marlon Brando. Can you blame me? I mean look. at. him.

tumblr_o2qnvyjTWj1qd6639o1_500tumblr_o2qnvyjTWj1qd6639o3_500 From the first moment he came on to the screen when he saw his sister in-law Blanche at his house, Brando’s definitely got a magnetic presence like nobody’s business.


The trivia section of this movie on IMDb is filled with interesting tidbits. So apparently fitted t-shirts could not be bought at the time, so Brando’s apparel had to be washed several times and then the back stitched up, to appear tightly over the actor’s chest.

Err, what was I talking about again?

Ok so obviously there’s SO much more to the movie than Brando’s immense sex appeal, though obviously this role cemented his sex-symbol status.

A classic story adapted beautifully on the big screen

I could see why there are still countless stage adaptations of Williams’ classic story all over the world. Even though time has changed and to a certain degree, gender roles and social norms have evolved, the very core of the human condition still remains. Stories that deals with obsession, distorted reality, fears of aging, etc. are still relevant today and will always remain so. The film version underwent a major change in terms of the homosexuality of Blanche’s late husband, due to the Production Code demands that the film toned it down. The same with the depiction of rape, though it’s implied that Stanley did rape Blanche with the scene of smashed mirror and a firehose spurting onto the street.

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It was a clever way Kazan dealt with the strict Code, and also when Stella was in bed the morning after Stanley hit her. She had a big, gleeful grin on her face that indicated they had um, a very satisfying make-up sex.

Kazan’s big screen adaptation not only look beautiful in black and white, but it has an atmospheric and moody feel to it. I read that he worked closely with the production designer to create the authentically sordid look and literally had the walls around Brando and Leigh closed in on them during filming to create a claustrophobic tension within the space. Well that worked because that constricted feeling practically ricochets off the screen and into my living room!

Blanche and Stanley are such an interesting pair to watch on screen because there’s all this nervous energy around them. They’re attracted as well as repulsed by each other at the same time, at times they couldn’t even reconcile the two, which creates such interesting dynamic.


Kazan doesn’t immediately expose that Blanche’s dark past and the fact that she’s got mental issues, but it’s more of a steady buildup that escalates to the boiling point. The more her brutish brother in-law relentlessly torments her, the more she goes off the rails.

I’m constantly torn in how I feel for the characters as well, which is what a good movie should. A good character is not simple, one-dimensional and how we feel about a character could (and perhaps should) change as the movie progresses. Well, I initially feels sorry for Blanche but also exasperated by her, even if she couldn’t control it. As with Stanley, what starts out as a carnal attraction to this brooding, hunky man (as any full-blooded woman would) quickly changes to disgust and repulsion. I literally want to strangle him many times as I watch the movie, especially his treatment of his pregnant wife!

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Performance wise, the film definitely belonged to Leigh and Brando. The British actress played yet another American Southern belle but in a completely different role. Leigh definitely got to display her vulnerability even more, especially towards the end when Blanche’s gone completely mental. It’s interesting that she had played the character in the London production under her husband Laurence Olivier’s direction. Per IMDb, she later said that Olivier’s direction of that production influenced her performance in the film more than Elia Kazan’s in this film.

Brando has had many memorable roles in his illustrious career, but no doubt this is one of the earlier ones he’s most remembered for. His intensity is second to none, there’s few actors who are as explosive on screen in terms of presence and charisma as Brando.

Kim Hunter was pretty memorable as Stella, but I think every cast member was practically outshone by the two leads. So was Karl Malden as Blanche’s potential suitor. I think both were believable in the roles, it just didn’t leave a lasting impression to me. I guess it has less to do with their performances, but more about the strength of the two leads. I wish Brando had won Best Actor as well, but then again I hadn’t seen the other male performers of that year.

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Does it live up to the hype?

The film won four Oscars out of twelve nominations and also rank #47 in AFI Top 100 Films. Elia Kazan was certainly one of those stellar directors who have won acclaimed in film AND on broadway, winning multiple Oscars as well as Tony awards. I’m always astonished when a story could work as well on stage as on screen.

I have never seen the stage adaptation, but my impression of the film was that it was sexy, gritty, but deeply unsettling to the point that by the end I was just quite revolted by the whole thing. None of the characters are likable except for Stella, Blanche DuBois’ devoted younger sister. I think that was the point though. This wasn’t going to be a cheerful movie with a happy ending and there’s also very little humor to give you relief from all that tension.

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I’m glad I’ve finally watched this film from start to finish. It’s one that won’t easily escape from one’s memory. I have to say though, compared to other classics like say, Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or Roman Holiday, I’m not sure this is something I’m keen on watching again. It’s just not a pleasant film overall, and I don’t find it to be an emotionally-gratifying film either as it’s hard to care for any of the characters. That said, it’s definitely essential viewing for cinephiles. The story is such an intriguing character study that is chock full of riveting-but-inherently-imperfect relationships.

Final Thoughts:

The film ending is apparently different from the stage version. In the film, Stella no longer trusts her husband and she took her baby and leaves. We hear Stanley yelling ‘Stellaaaa….’ again as he did in the most famous scene in the film. I read that in the stage version, Stella chooses to be with Stanley as her sister is escorted to a mental institution. I’m not sure which version I prefer, I think it’s riskier to have an ending that isn’t tied neatly with a big red bow, though not necessarily better.

Regardless of the different ending, there are certainly plenty of thought provoking themes to grapple with. Delusion, denial, forbidden passion, and tragic irony… Williams’ timeless play has all the ingredients for an engrossing story, and Elia Kazan certainly had what it takes to do it justice… both on stage AND on screen.

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Have you seen A Streetcar Named Desire? I’d love to hear what you think!

Forgotten Christmas-themed Movie: Fitzwilly (1967)

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Merry Christmas, all and sundry!

Taking a brief respite from the strategy of “What?”s and “When?”s in regards to baking family Christmas gifts. I’ve fallen back upon a request from our Hostess regarding favorite holiday-hemed films. While A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life hold their proper place high in the firmament. And have been critiqued to death. I’ve opted for a later film directed by Delbert Mann.

Whose sublime detail in its many sets firmly ensconce this work in the still glamorous world of 1960s Old Family wealth. And the continuous, often humorous sub rosa and covert scams and grifts employed to maintain it. All under the subtle of of the unassuming family butler.

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Imagine if you will a cabal of Old School and generational full liveried staff and servants attached to Old Family Money all along the East Coast. Loyal to a fault and quite content their positions, lifestyles and standing. Yet, also often willing to bend the rules of social propriety (The Law) to maintain that standing. And the rather relaxed and elegant lifestyles of their respective “families”.

Put that concept in the more than competent hands of director, Mann. Allow him access to a stellar cast of then up and coming character actor and television talent. Back that up with an exceptionally harpsichord and brass heavy orchestra under the touch of an equally up and coming Johnny (John) Wiliams’ Ladle on opulent oaken and maple home estate and high end department store sets. To reinforce the carefree confidence of more the than financial stability of a half century ago.

Then put it all in the hands of Claude Fitzwilliam. (Dick Van Dyke. Rarely better!) A generational manservant and honors graduate of Williams College and completely devoted to the welfare and care of Miss Victoria Woodworth (A very spry and sharp, Edith Evans). Who enjoys the life of elegant luxury. While indulging in esoteric hobbies. Like a dictionary of phonetically misspelled words. Or dabbling in her and her family’s rather racy memoirs. Completely oblivious to (Or is she?) the goings on of her staff of footman, Albert (John McGiver). A bevy of maids and attendants. Chauffeur, Oliver (A very young Sam Waterson) and Fitzwilly. As Oliver guides a rather posh Rolls Royce Silver Cloud into Manhattan. On a walking and rather slick plundering tour of Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s and other high end establishments.

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Checking off items on Fitzwilly’s shopping list: Silver cutlery, forks, spoons, sugar tongs on one level of Altman’s. Antique mirrors and leaded crystal one floor up. Television consoles on the ground floor. Vintage wine at another location. With Fitzwilly affecting a different voice, accent, infliction and body language for each purchase. Billing each to a fictitious family. Then calling the Shipping Department for a cohort (Noam Pitlick) to send on their way to St. Dismas Charitable Fund and its many thrift shops.

While Miss Vickie is otherwise occupied and in need of an assistant. In the shape of initially bookish, smart and bespectacled, Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon in her first and best film role!). Graduate of Business and Literature from Smith college. Expanding her repertoire with Post graduate work at Columbia and wanting to branch out on her own.

Fitzwilly and Ms. Nowell do not hit it off right away. As her evening arrival and interview had been arranged by Ms. Vickie and against his wishes. Creating an possible unwanted intrusion into the butler, staff and other familiar monied families’ staff operating under Fitzwilly’s umbrella. A solution is sought. And found in the holiday remodeling of a Palm Beach manse. Whose $15,000 budget (What roughly a half million would be today! Remember, this is 1967.) is placed into the hands of Byron Casey (Stephen Strimpell). Who wishes to spend as little as possible. And pocket the rest. A quick meeting with Fitzwilly and staff reveals all sorts of possibilities in keeping hold of Casey’s proposed half of the total budget. While procuring a Steinway Grand Piano, Crystal, Silver, Entertainment systems and other accoutrements of the idle rich.

Plans are discussed and set. Along with contingencies to keep Miss Vickie occupied along with Ms. Nowell. Who, besides being terribly efficient. Is also blessed or cursed with the curiosity of a cat. And finds Fitwilly’s and staff’s basement “work shop”. Full of paper stocks, printing presses, inks, pens, labeling machines, letterheads, mimeograph machines. All of the recently used tools of the illegal arts had been used to begin shipping items from north to south.

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A confrontation is to be had as Ms. Nowell kind of misreads what she’s seen. And kind of doesn’t. After quickly executed biblical bar grifts (Sampsom and Delilah) are executed across upper and mid town establishments to cover unexpected shipping costs. Made worse by Ms. Nowell accidentally mailing out Casey’s $7,500 “retainer” check to a charity Fitzwilly has no control over. And can not intercept or stop its payment.

Others would see this as a irredeemable catastrophe, but not Fitzwilly. Who enjoys a challenge and come up with “one last caper” to cover the loss. And perhaps, turn a profit. With Altman’s being an optimum target. Along with a few other reputable firms.

All these plans, schemes, times and places of execution are known by far too repentant Albert (John McGiver). Who is snatched up in the middle of the Christmas Eve rush. And is more than willing to bare his soul as Miss Vickie politely crashes the interrogation between Albert, store manager, Oberlatz (Norman Fell) and Assistant District Attorney Eliot Adams (Dennis Cooney). Who want to nail Albert and company’s hide to the closest wall. As Miss Vickie; who knows Eliot and his family. Begins very polite, yet scandalous negotiations which focus on poster boy, Adam’s less than stellar past in boarding, prep schools and colleges. Watching and listening to the grand old dame effortlessly knocks back proposed felony charges to misdemeanors is a singularly memorable thing of insinuating and groveling beauty.

Clearing the decks for a Happy Ending. Whose details I’ll avoid while avoiding Spoiler Territory.

Now. What Makes This Film A Notable Favorite?

One of the last, most meticulously detailed and executed examples of being rich in the 1960s. And how the rich behave, though little of that has changed over the decades. Used to a certain level of comfort and discretion few may attain. And never apologizing for it.

Part of the film’s humor is in seeing how dropping the right name. Or having the right looking work orders. The right clothes. Behaving in certain cultured, mannered effete ways. Opens doors that most thoFitzwillySoundtrackrough background could never accomplish. Especially when Fitzwilly and his crew in brand name logo coveralls allows them to wrap up and walk out with a full blown African Safari floor display from a top line department store for Miss Vickie’s “Platypuses”. Her version of a rich kids’ Boy Scouts.

This film also possesses one of the best and most helpful soundtracks I’ve enjoyed in a while. Gently enhancing the austerity of Miss Vickie’s posh estate one moment. Then lightheartedly advancing suspense the next. Kudos to young Mr. Williams for so cleverly making an early mark before being “the go to guy” with the creation of later blockbusters.

Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc is lush and opulent. Everything one could ask for. Indoors and out. Sets have already gotten their due. Costume design and execution by Donfeld are flawless. From Mr. Van Dyke. To Ms. Evans and Ms. Feldon’s early penchant for knit scarves and turtlenecks on down.

Overall Consensus:

This is a film for Mr. Van Dyke to carry, if not take the lead on. Setting well inside the template started with Bye Bye, Birdie and Mary Poppins. Having fun with playing different characters, no matter how briefly. While Ms. Evans delicately manages to steal every scene she is in.

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The chemistry between Mr. Van Dyke’s Fitzwilly and Ms. Feldon’s Juliet is fun to watch from the start. Equals in more way than one. Matching talents and wiles in a film that features the buyers’ insanity of the last minute Christmas season. Though is not centrally themed around it.

Note: This film has finally been getting some proper air time on Turner Classic Movies and is available to be viewed Full Length on YouTube.


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Have you seen Fitzwilly? We’d love to hear what you think!

Classic Actor Spotlight: Sterling Hayden – Variations On A Theme

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Greeting, all and sundry!

After taking a step back as the latest addition to The Hunger Games sweeps through theaters near and far, I’ve decided to tidy up some loose ends. With a pinch of Paula’s What A Character Blog-A-Thon. And a subtly expressed desire to learn more of the machinations of director, Stanley Kubrick.

To that end. Allow me to introduce a superb character actor. Who was born poor. Lived large and rich. Was something of a swashbuckler during World War II. And brought that vast experience to countless roles. This offering will cover four of his most popular and memorable characters. Under the assured touch of three historic directors:

Sterling Hayden: Variations On A Theme.

Who first grabbed my attention at a very tender age. Playing the towering, gruff, often dissatisfied thug, Dix Handley in John Houston’s The Asphalt Jungle. A 1950 film that is notable for its time in revealing crime being anywhere. And everywhere!

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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From the corner diner and soda shop run by a hunchbacked ex convict, James Whitmore. To insurance companies with policies on diamonds and other precious stones. To monied families led by Louis Calhern as Alonzo Emmerich. Who pads his family coffers through bank rolling high end heists. When not spending obnoxious sums to his his pampered girlfriend, Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe).


To keep afloat, Emmerich moves on a diamond heist that requires a master “Yegg”. (Safe cracker). A small crew. And an expendable hooligan in the form of Dix Handley. Who walks into the conspiracy with eyes wide open. Seeing a chance for some quick money and a one way ticket back to Tennessee and his Quarter Horses.
Dix uses his height, voice, bulk and ominous shadows to diversions to a minimum. While taking on the role of just paroled, “Doc” Erwin Reidenscheider (Sam Jaffe’s) personal protector. The prep for the heist in the basement of a jewelry exchange is well detailed. With diagrams, maps and layouts. Lookouts are set. The vault is drilled for Nitroglycerine. An alarm goes off. Police arrive as the thieves are making their escape. shots are fired. One criminal goes down. So does a cop. And Emmerich is none to pleased to see “Doc”, Dix and two others with a satchel full of stones. And wanting their cut. NOW!

Emmerich stalls. One of Emmerich’s associates draws a pistol. Dix drops him, but catches a shot to the gut. Emmerich gives up what cash he has. Dix goes to see his girlfriend, “Doll” Conovan (Jean Hagen) for a cross country trip home. As “Doc” sedately takes the slow route home in a taxi. With a side stop to a diner and a comely young lady who catches “Doc”‘s eye. Before being recognized and pursued by police.

What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role?

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A solid Rock Of Gibraltar upon which to build a wondrously devious tale on the intricacies of high end crime. With Dix bullying his way when necessary. Yet unaware that his benefactor, Emmerich is spending money he doesn’t have for maps, tools and expertise required. And hoping to buy the stones cheap and sell them dearly. To remain solvent for another year.

All this is Greek to Dix. Who is willing to take the risk. For an immediate payoff. And is not really surprised when angers rise and things head south after the heist.

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The Killing (1956)

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Which lays a decent foundation for a very early Stanley Kubrick ode to a “sure thing” race track heist, The Killing from 1956. Put together and overseen by Mr. Hayden as Johnny Clay. Who is much smarter than he seems and plans for every contingency as his crew comes together. Hot headed, womanizing Val Cannon (Vince Edwards). Over the hill, former race track cop, Marvin Unger (Jay C. Fliippen). Nebbishy numbers guy, who knows a reasonable fence, George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.). And creepy as Hell looking, budding sociopath, Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey).
The men gather. Talk about non specific specifics regarding the heist amongst smoke laced, still air and naked, shadow casting light bulbs above a poker table. Each has a task. either inside the race tracks terminus and betting windows. Or beyond in the parking lot that skirts the backyard stretch. Everything depends on the day’s last race. Plus time for the losing bettor’s money to be gathered and put in the Counting Room. And afterwards the vault. The trick is for Clay and his crew to intercede after the count and before the vault. To the tune of two million dollars. Serious money, indeed!

Secrecy is essential. But men will be men. Egos will be egos. And Clay and Peatty have girlfriends. Clay’s girlfriend, Fay (Colleen Gray) is frightened of her man. While Peatty’s wife, Sherry (Acid tongued and cheating, Marie Windsor) has other plans. Courtesy of Val Cannon in a classic double cross.
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The day arrives. The races are run. Money is gathered. The last race comes up. Nikki waits with a rifle in his red convertible as the gates opens and the race starts. The diversion occurs at Nikki’s hand. Everything goes as planned. Though a guard does manage to get shot and Johnny is wounded. Double crosses happen. Members of the crew are killed. Clay and fay seek any of numbers of ways out of the city ahead of news reports. Airline tickets are purchased and their suitcase full of money is weighed, tagged and sent on its way to the waiting, idling airliner…

I’ll leave it right there. Lest I move into spoiler territory.

What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role as Johnny Clay?

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An iron fist inside a somewhat clumsy glove. There are members of Clay’s crew whom he knows. And others he does not. Using greed and the allure of big money, he does get them to work together. When a few aren’t busy working their own angles. To claim their prize at the end of the rainbow. Those whom Clay cannot intimidate. He sometimes brow beats as dents and small problems are worked out.

Refreshingly, the ladies, or dames in attendance are often just as greedy and clever as the men. With Marie Windsor’s setting the standard for ruthless molls to come.

In a straightforward, B&W shadow filled and close to Noir heist film. That looks and feels like a procedural. Completely from the criminals’ point of view.

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1965)

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Which brings in a later, 1964 Kubrick film. A Doomsday, Black Comedy filled with superb, deadpan comedic talent. And a heavt hitting supporting cast much more recognizable for drama. Yet excelling at comedy. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

Mr. Hayden’s role is mostly dramatic. As the commander of a Strategic Air Command Base, General Jack D. Ripper. Who has sent his wing of B-52s off their “Fail Safe Points” to bomb Moscow and cities beyond. Encompassing all the physical attributes, gestures, pauses and enunciation of Four Star General Curtis E. LeMay (The Grandfather of SAC). As he explains in his own warped logic, his reason for eradicating Russia from the map. To a befuddled, prim and proper RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers in one of three diverse roles).

Mr. Hayden’s General Ripper is one of the few straight dramatic roles. And gets the ball rolling to an at first nervous, then frightened and near Panicked Pentagon. Its War Room, Big Board. Russian diplomats and dryly funny use of “The Red Phone” as solutions (Outside of the Army overrunning and taking back the SAC base and arresting Ripper) are sought. Cutting between the Pentagon and the lead B-52 piloted by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as it dodges missiles and gets ever closer. Then back to the War Room and the besieged Burpleson Air Force Base. And Ripper supplying offensive fire with a .30 caliber Browning Machine Gun pulled from a Golf Bag (Don’t ask!)With cuts getting shorter, tighter and more suspenseful as new courses and targets are selected by Kong for his bomber.

What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role as Gen. Ripper?

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One the most accurate physical portrayal of an American Military icon in cinema. Shot from low set cameras angled high to bring forth the full measure of a man feared and respected more than the Presidents of two administrations in the early 1960s.

Mr. Hayden’s and Ripper’s soliloquy to Peter Sellers’ Mandrake regarding Clemenseau. The Military Generals, Politicians and war could easily have been uttered at any time during Kennedy’s embarrassing “Bay of Pigs” invasion and fiasco. Or his later mediocre redemption during The Cuban Missile Crisis. Which, I believe is one of the reason the film works and has aged so well. The possibility of “What if?” taken to first, dramatic and later, comedic extremes.

***

The Godfather (1972)

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Which created an eight year sojourn into smaller films and larger plays. Creating the opportunity to fulfill a small, but essential role as corrupt, bought and paid for Captain McCluskey in Francis Coppola’s landmark, The Godfather.

Though Mr. Hayden isn’t on the screen very long. He makes more than the most of each scene. Radiating intolerance, arrogance and bullying legal brute force. From the moment McCluskey pushes through the clutch of uniformed cops to confront an equally arrogant and sarcastic Michael Corleone. (Al Pacino). Before breaking a sinus and jaw while clocking him into the next time zone.

Throwing down the gauntlet for all to see. Before inching back as Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) rolls up and disgorges an equally large group of plain clothed, licensed and armed “investigators” to protected the hospitalized and moved Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). In that fleeting moment there is a palpable hate between the two. Enough to tinge Michael’s later compound strategy with Tom and Sonny. To a bit more “personal” than “business” regarding the expedient demise of Sollozzo and McCluskey.

What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role in The Godfather?

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A thoroughly unlikeable character in Captain McCluskey. Who seems to tower over most with rigid posture. A thrust out chest and chin. And enough experience intimidating others to be openly snide with his comments. Especially his “punks like him” comment after frisking Michael on the way to the restaurant summit and double homicide.
Was I pleased with Mr. Hayden’s performance? Absolutely! I couldn’t come up with a comparable actor for the role while reading Mario Puzo’s novel. And I felt more shock than surprise or sadness when McCluskey met his fate.
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Overall Consensus:

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Sterling Hayden epitomized the Hollywood “Tough Guy” through the 1950s and 60s. Often down and out and with few options. Who could deliver and take punches on the same level as Robert Mitchum. And handled firearms with respect and familiarity. And full knowledge of what they could do.

Overbearing? Sure. When the character required it. Though there were smarts in abundance behind that steely gaze. Either from experience or the school of hard knocks. Very much like Burt Lancaster. Though not nearly as physical. Willing to play unlikeable characters. And never apologizing for it.


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Thoughts on Sterling Hayden and/or any of his roles mentioned above?