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Review: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

Banish all thoughts of the regrettable “Island of Dr. Moreau,” “Don Juan Demarco” or even Col. Walter E. Kurtz; this is how Marlon Brando deserves to be remembered. Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” trimmed down and censored from Tennesse Williams’ play, is a snapshot of Brando when he was bursting with rakish charm and talent. As the volatile Stanley Kowalski, he all but melts lens right off the camera; he fills up the screen with his intensity. This is the performance that illustrates why Brando is still considered not just a great Method actor but one of the all-time great actors.

So Brando is a revelation. That point asserted, the actor — though mesmerizing and explosive — is not solely responsibile for charging “A Streetcar Named Desire” with predatory tension. In this task he has an unlikely companion: Vivien Leigh, every bit as mannered as Brando is not. She plays Blanche DuBois, living with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley in New Orleans’ French Quarter after a breakdown, as a hunter. With all the focus on the sexual tension, no one seems to notice that innate cunning is what makes Stanley and Blanche natural enemies. Since predators have a keen ability to peg their own kind, Stanley senses that Blanche preys on people. Unlike her brother-in-law, Blanche doesn’t use force to get what she wants, relying instead on a cultivated air of mannered, fluttery femininity; she uses people out of emotional necessity. But her façade is cracking, and the weaker Blanche gets the more Stanley readies himself for the pounce. The lead-up to that attack — censored initially, restored in the 1993 director’s cut — is nerve-wracking.

The Blanche/Stanley conflict hammers hard on the play’s pointed theme of illusion (the America of gentility and refinement) and reality (the rougher, more cutthroat immigrant America), with Blanche unwilling or unable to embrace the realities of her sister and Stanley’s life. Even more interesting, that juxtaposition seems to manifest itself naturally in the very different but equally effective acting styles of Leigh and Brando. Leigh — who admittedly does pour on the “Southern charm” a little too thick a little too often — uses planning and a great deal of forethought in constructing Blanche’s revolving door of personalities. From smoothing her hair to smiling wistfully at Mitch (Karl Malden), a friend of Stanley’s who falls for her shrinking violet act, every gesture and expression is deliberate. The way she seduces a nervous teen-age boy collecting for a newspaper, for example, is remarkably cool-headed. Improvisation has no place in her performance; Blanche lives to create enchantment, to “tell what ought to be truth.”

Then there’s Brando — nothing about what he does feels calculated. He’s running on animal instincts; Stanley wants what he wants right then and right there, and he doesn’t care to analyze his motivations. Note his ghoulish smirk as he corners Blanche, which wordlessly signals his bad intentions (getting some help from Alex North’s dramatic score), or listen to his drunken caterwaulling for his wife in the cliched-but-still-momentous “Stellaaaaaa!” sequence by the staircase. Perhaps the best example, though, is the infamous dinner table scene — partly improvised by Brando — where Stanley, napkin still tucked in his shirt, “cleans the table” by snatching up his dishes and smashing them on the wall. There’s a verocity in these moments that seems authentic, like Brando aimed for anger but overshot his mark with scarily persuasive results. Malden and Hunter fall somewhere in-between Leigh and Brando on this scale, as both essentially play trapped victims: Stella can’t override her sexual attraction to her husband, and Mitch, lonely for female companionship, falls for Blanche’s act. He just plain wants somebody.

Come to speak of it, “A Streetcar Named Desire” seems, above all, to be a study of want. The characters all want something different, but they think they need it to feel “right.” For Stella, it’s sexual attraction that keeps her entangled with Stanley. Blanche labors to create magic and illusion (by depending “on the (sexual) kindness” of strangers, which prompted censors to demand Kazan to skirt this point). And Stanley thinks he needs Stella, but what he’s really after is control and domination. He goes around believing himself to be king, but he forgets even rulers take a fall.

Grade: A-

No. 18: “On the Waterfront” (1954)

“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.” ~~Terry Malloy

More people live in the world of What Could Have Been — that place where the past looms so large it’s more like the present — than would care to admit the fact. In “On the Waterfront,” aimless dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is one of those people. Once a promising boxer, he threw a fight to let his brother’s boss (Lee J. Cobb) cash in on the weaker opponent — a choice that changed the course of Terry’s life, landing him what he bitterly calls “a one-way ticket to Palookaville” and a dim future as a bum. What’s worse, he can’t forget his old life for everyone reminding him of the past glory, all the promise he had that withered away. So he’s stuck in the worst kind of limbo.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles by New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson, Elia Kazan’s resolute, powerful drama examines the price of bad choices in the past and the way they inform the present. But the film, which nabbed eight Oscars, also grapples with the nature of conscience and civic duty. Every character, on some level, faces a dilemma that pits morality against loyalty and fear of retaliation. For Terry, it’s a question of whether it’s better to work for a murderous crook than be in his path. Others, like Father Barry (Karl Malden) or Terry’s fellow dockworkers (most notably Kayo Dugan, played by Pat Henning), must decide whether exposing corruption in the longshoreman workers’ union is worth their lives. The setting — scenes were shot on the rundown docks of Hoboken, N.J. — offers a silent reminder that their choices will have harsh and inescapable consequences.

No one knows this more than Terry, an errand boy for criminal Johnny Friendly (Cobb, menacing as he is explosive), who exploits New York’s dockworkers at every turn, pockets the profits and kills anyone who questions his authority. At the opening of “On the Waterfront,” Terry finds himself in a difficult position when his boss makes him an unsuspecting accomplice in the murder of Joey Doyle, a fed-up dockworker ready to expose Johnny Friendly’s corrupt enterprise. The event spurs his sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) to press Terry for answers about her brother’s murder and push Father Barry to rally the dockworkers against Friendly. Suddenly Terry, who’s never wasted two seconds thinking hard about much of anything, much less right and wrong, can’t play deaf and dumb (the dockworkers call it “D&D”) anymore. And as his life splits down the middle, Brando demands our attention, making Terry’s confusion and agony plain on his face. Forced to pick a side, he ends up at the docks in a violent showdown with Friendly and his henchmen, all out for blood.

Though this crisis of conscience forms the center of “On the Waterfront,” there are other elements at play that make the film compelling. Budd Schulberg’s airtight screenplay includes a thread about the tentative affection Terry forms for Edie. Given that he is, as she calls him, a man without “a spark of sentiment or romance or human kindness” in his body, their unlikely relationship softens his edges and allows us to see gentler aspects of his character. (Their barroom scene and early walk capture the essence of the rough-yet-sensitive charisma that made Brando’s name.) The script also brims with unforgettable lines like Brando’s iconic “I coulda been a contender” speech, Father Barry’s comparison of Joey Doyle’s murder to a crucifixion or Brando’s offhand “everybody’s got a racket.” When coupled with Boris Kaufman’s bleakly effective cinematography, lines like these give “On the Waterfront” an almost epic power.

The acting, naturally, finishes that job. Eva Marie Saint is affecting as Edie, whose kindness Terry hopes will fill the gaps in his life. Cobb,  so towering in his rage, suggests the unchecked menace he did in “12 Angry Men.” Nobody plays a villain with quite his mix of entitlement and menace. Malden provides an effective foil for Terry in his choice, early on, to take action. Ultimately, though, it is Brando who commands the screen with his raw and dynamic performance. He sees Terry as much more than a has-been; Brando finds in him the need for redemption. His performance is the greatest revelation in a movie already filled with them.

No. 5: “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

“I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.” ~~Chef

There’s a moment lurking in the soul-deadening “Apocalypse Now,” a moment nearly muted by the hum of machine gun fire, that seems thoroughly unremarkable: In the chaotic trenches outside the deep Vietnamese jungle, Cpt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), crawling on hands and knees in the dirt, asks who’s in charge. Wild-eyed, the closest soldier, reloading his gun, spits out: “Ain’t you?” 

That’s it, right there: the point of no return, the panicked realization that order and purpose have gone belly-up and taken hope right along with them. For in Francis Ford Coppola’s somber, haunting epic exploration of war and the shadowy places it drives men to, there is no hope. There’s just sweat mixed with the smell of napalm and dirty jungle water gone crimson with blood. Hope, Coppola informs us, left Vietnam long ago.

That abject despair — the kind that seeps down into your bones and slopes your shoulders — is what makes “Apocalypse Now” a masterpiece, a fearless and complex work of art that demands to be remembered as one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid. Coppola’s masterwork is something that must be looked at and felt simultaneously, but the experience takes a piece out of us every time.

The way Sheen looks through the camera, though, it’s not hard to see “Apocalypse Now” demanded that same kind of intense emotional commitment from everyone involved in the production. Sheen, in particular, fills the screen with Cpt. Willard’s weariness. He’s been worn down by the violence, pared down from a whole person into a shell who hates war but can’t stomach peace, either. His decision to accept an odd mission — hunt down Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an A.W.O.L. Army Special Forces soldier who’s playing God somewhere deep in the jungles of Vietnam — changes not only his life but the lives of the men, who are mostly young and stupid and wholly unprepared, unfortunate enough to be part of the crew ferrying him up the Nung River. Willard knows what he’s in for but has no interest in playing father to a bunch of kids who treat the war as some kind of grand adventure. They’re in for a hell of a lesson, but Willard’s not exactly the sort to savor teaching moments.

In fact, part of the dark beauty of “Apocalypse Now” is the way Coppola showscases what warfare does to the human spirit. There’s a wrenching scene — one of the most unnerving in the entire movie — where Chef (Frederick Forrest) boards a civilian boat to search for supplies, and one false move leads Clean (Laurence Fishburne), the definition of green around the gills, to blow apart every unarmed person. Willard’s matter-of-fact dispatchment of the only survivor is most chilling, and that moment shifts the balance of emotion; it’s a loud, clear move from the bliss of ignorance to the weighty horror of realization. By the time Willard makes it to Kurtz’s outpost, the remaining soldiers can scarcely function as human beings, let alone killers. They stumble about with eyes that can’t focus because they don’t want to see anything anymore.

And here is where “Apocalypse Now,” so dynamic and huge in scope, succeeds on a surprisingly intimate level: There are characters we get to know, not anonymous faces bound for body bags. Forrest’s Chef is particularly frightening as we watch madness descend on him like a bell jar, while the fear behind Clean’s shoot-anything-that-moves approach gnaws at us. We get the sense that Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore’s has hardened his disbelief into an ardent belief that victory is possible (or maybe he’s just that crazy). And though Brando does fine work creating a man driven purely mad by what he’s seen, it’s Sheen who perfectly captures how war mutes the spirit and deadens the mind, how it shines unwelcome light on the dark corners of the soul.

This, I believe, is where Coppola succeeds: He understands that war wastes all men, and he creates a movie that does the same to us.