“A Streetcar Named Desire” is perhaps my favorite film of all time. Adapted from the Tennessee Williams play, “Streetcar” weaves excellent performances, rich dialogue and poetic cinematography. “Streetcar” follows Blanche DuBois’s (Vivien Leigh, “Gone with the Wind”) months-long visit to her sister Stella (Kim Hunter, “Planet of the Apes”) in New Orleans with her husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando, “The Godfather”). Blanche was once a southern-belle socialite, and her obsession with her appearance is a vain attempt to hide her deep emotional and psychological trauma. For Stanley, the arrival of Blanche has had an upsettingly negative effect on his way of life. Blanche, quite ironically, holds a mirror to her sympathetic sister and her “common” husband. Perhaps a result of Blanche’s pointed remarks and unkind words, the clash between Stanley and Blanche has devastating outcomes. “Streetcar” is a movie about loss — loss of love, life, light, youth and innocence.
I turn to “Streetcar” this week because Mar. 22 would have been Karl Malden’s (“On the Waterfront”) 107th birthday. Malden plays Mitch, the gentle and sorrowful gentleman among savages. Aside for perhaps Blanche, Mitch is the character most deserving of sympathy. He’s a genuinely caring man, looking after his ailing mother. Mitch’s actions are sincere, and his motives are always exposed.
This theme of sincerity runs throughout the film, culminating in the interrogative scene between Mitch, Blanche and a bare light bulb. When the two first meet, Blanche remarks to Mitch that “sorrow makes for sincerity.” Here, Blanche speaks frankly, from her heart and past experience. It will take Mitch some time to realize the full extent of Blanche’s pitiful losses and the lasting psychological pain inflicted when she was much younger.
Malden gives a powerful performance as Mitch. While Mitch is overwhelmingly a temperate man, his few moments of rage reveal Malden’s prowess. Responding to a holler from the other room, Mitch turns, face filling the frame, and yells back. Malden reveals in key moments the sorrowful anger deep within Mitch, which in juxtaposition to Blanche’s fragile and wilted soul may be a commentary on masculinity, or on the consequences of insincerity.
“Streetcar” is above all an unconventional love story. Stanley and Stella are deeply infatuated with one another, a passion foreign to Blanche. Blanche is broken, drawn to the vulnerable. Her love is predatory; Mitch becomes prey. By bringing us into the dirty and unaffected French Quarter, Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) paint a Faulknerian portrait of a fall from wealth and Southern grace. Blanch has lost a good dream and is condemned now to live in a nightmare.
Malden’s character is incongruous with the other players. His deep and youthful sentimentality compliments his large build in causing Mitch to stand out. Malden’s performance captures the essence of Mitch’s tormented soul perfectly and allows the viewer to feel Mitch’s pain. “Streetcar” would be incomplete without Malden’s Mitch. One easily overlooked moment subtly enforces Mitch’s necessity in the film: When Stanley’s poker buddies scatter away from the Kowalski home, Mitch pauses on the street and looks back up to the second floor, to which Stella has just fled. He cares, he’s invested in the well-being of Stella and Blanche; a wrong done unto them is taken personally. Mitch is the kind of man we all should emulate. So, I say a heartfelt happy birthday to Mr. Malden, with gratitude for enriching and adding depth to my favorite film.