Streetcar Desire Essay, Research Paper
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a controversial film classic, adapted from Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 1947. This film masterpiece was directed by Elia Kazan (his first piece of work with Williams), a socially conscious director who insisted that the film be true to the play. The film challenged the Production Code’s censors with its bold adult drama and sexual subjects (rape, domestic violence, homosexuality, and female promiscuity or nymphomania) – it is the story of the pathetic mental and emotional demise of a determined, yet fragile, repressed and delicate Southern lady born to a once-wealthy family of Mississippi planters. Her downfall in the squalid French Quarter apartment of her married sister and animalistic husband is at the hands of savage, brutal forces in modern society. In her search for refuge, she finds that her sister lives (approvingly) with drunkenness, violence, lust, and ignorance.
The main character roles were played with remarkable performances – the Southern belle heroine was sensitively portrayed by Vivien Leigh who recreated her role from the London production of the play (which was directed by her husband Laurence Olivier). [Vivien Leigh's character was a logical extension from her Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone With The Wind (1939) - a post-Rhett Butler Southern belle.] Kim Hunter’s role as her sister (a role she originally played on Broadway) was pivotal, and Marlon Brando, in his second screen appearance and recreating his Broadway role, delivers an overpowering, memorable performance.
The film was nominated for twelve nominations and awarded four Oscars: Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, and Best Supporting roles to Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. In addition, Best B & W Art Direction/Set Direction was given to Richard Day and George James Hopkins. Remarkably, Tennessee Williams’ Best Screenplay nomination, Marlon Brando’s Best Actor nomination, and Elia Kazan’s Best Director nomination were defeated. And the hotly-contested, competitive year saw the Best Picture Award presented instead to Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951). Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951) took the Best Actor Award away from Marlon Brando. And George Stevens was awarded Best Director for his work on A Place in the Sun (1951).
Set in New Orleans, the film opens with the arrival of a train and a pretentious southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) – she has taken the train to the city. As a joyous wedding party runs by in the station, Blanche appears like an apparition out of a cloud of steam emitted by the train engine, carrying her battered suitcase. Blanche is frail and in a neurotic emotional state, a faded-beauty with superficial genteel Southern propriety. In her very first lines, she expresses her confusion to a young sailor, mentioning three streetcar stops which symbolize her desperate situation. She has come as a result of her sordid ‘desires’ to the last stop available to her:
They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.
The streetcar (named Desire after Desire Street) takes her to her sister Stella DuBois Kowalski’s (Kim Hunter) apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter. There at Elysian Fields [symbolizing paradise beyond death from ancient lore] where she has come for a visit, she is surprised at the downstairs living accommodations of her sister, a small, shabby two-room place in a run-down neighborhood: “Can this be her home?” She finds her sister at the local bowling alley where her brother-in-law Stanley is bowling. After hugging each other, Blanche worries about her appearance: “Oh no, no, no. I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare,” and is concerned about where her sister lives: “Only Poe. Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do justice to it. What are you doing in that horrible place?”
Stella has turned her back on her aristocratic background, and found happiness by marrying a working class, Polish immigrant husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche’s first glimpse of the loud, coarse, and brutish Stanley is on the bowling lanes. A fight erupts – and Stanley is in the middle of a rough and tumble controversy with some of the other players – but Stella admires him: “Oh isn’t he wonderful looking?”
While sipping on a cold drink (Blanche’s preferred drink is scotch, not soda ‘pop’) in one of the alley’s booths, Blanche tells her sister why she had to leave her poorly-paid, high-school English teaching position in Laurel, Mississippi before the spring term ended – she took “a leave of absence.” Holding on to reality and her struggles in life in an unreal world of her imagination, she just had to leave for a while, finding nowhere else to go but to her sister’s for protection. She directs the lights away from her face, lamenting: “Daylight never exposed so total a ruin.”
Back at the cramped, two-room apartment, Blanche expresses her need for human contact to find solace: “I’m not going to put up in a hotel. I’ve got to be near you Stella. I’ve got to be with people. I can’t be alone…” She is also nervous about Stella’s husband, as her main intention is to win back Stella’s devotion to her and her Southern aristocratic attitudes:
Blanche: Will Stanley like me or, or will I just be a visiting in-law? I couldn’t stand that Stella! (She looks at a picture on the dresser of Stanley in his military uniform)
Stella: You’ll get along fine together. You just try not to compare…
Blanche: (interrupting) Oh, he was an officer?
Stella: He was a Master Sergeant in the Engineers Corp. (proudly) Decorated four times.
Blanche: He had those on when you met him?
Stella: Surely I wasn’t blinded by all the brass…Of course, there, there were things to adjust myself to later on.
Blanche: Such as his, uh, civilian background. How did he take it when you said I was coming?
Stella: Oh, he’s on the road a good deal.
Blanche: Oh, he travels?
Stella: Umm, mmm.
A returning World War II veteran, Stanley was decorated for his service but now his job takes him on the road a good deal. Judging everything by the standards of Old Southern gentility, Blanche finds Stella’s love for Stanley severely lacking and somewhat incomprehensible.
Seeking to minimize her sister’s “reproach,” Blanche quickly explains how she tried to preserve everything by sticking to their home and struggling to salvage what she could:
…take into consideration you left. I stayed and struggled. You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself. I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together. Oh, I’m not meaning this in any reproachful way. But all the burdens descended on my shoulders…You were the one that abandoned Belle Reve, not I. I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it.
Blanche rationalizes about “the loss” – the fate of their old family estate, a beautiful dream mansion named Belle Reve (’Beautiful Dream’), the aristocratic DuBois homestead. Blanche had been left to care for the family holdings, but soon lost her home, her job, and her respect. Due to the family squandering its fortune, it was lost to creditors. Family deaths had also left her alone and penniless, while Stella was in bed with her husband:
I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body. All of those deaths. The long parade to the graveyard. Father, mother…You just came home in time for funerals Stella, and funerals are pretty compared to deaths. How did you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella. And I, on my pitiful salary at the school. Yes, accuse me! Stand there and stare at me, thinking I let the place go. I let the place go! Where were you? In there with your Pollack!
When Blanche first meets Stanley, he has just returned home from bowling. They stare at each other for a short while and then she introduces herself: “You must be Stanley. I’m Blanche.” He offers her a drink, but she declines, explaining she rarely touches it. He comments:
Well, there are some people that rarely touch it, but it touches them often.
Animalistic and exhibitionistic, he removes his hot sticky T-shirt in front of her, and changes into a clean one. She covertly sneaks a peek at his massive biceps. While they size each other up, he asks if she is planning to stay for a while: “You gonna shack up here?” And then he senses her distance from him – she is from an entirely antithetical culture:
Well, I guess I’m gonna strike you as being the unrefined type, huh?
Stanley knows from Stella that Blanche was married once when she was younger. Blanche explains what happened as she hears polka music, associating the music with her dead husband. A distant gunshot in her head silences the music: “The boy…the boy died. I’m afraid I’m, I’m gonna be sick.” [In the stage version of the play, her socially-proper young husband committed suicide because he had been caught in a homosexual encounter - it is retained only through vague suggestion in the film.]
Blanche’s large steamer trunks arrive, implying that she will be remaining for an extended stay. Because it is Stanley’s poker night and the disruption might upset Blanche, Stella plans to take her out to dinner, leaving Stanley with a cold plate on ice. With endearing kisses, she tries to persuade Stanley to be nice to Blanche who seems to be upset by everything. Stella suggests that Stanley tell her that she looks good: “Honey, when she comes in, be sure and say something nice about her appearance…and try to understand and be nice to her, honey. She wasn’t expecting to find us in such a place…And admire her dress. Tell her she’s looking wonderful. It’s important to Blanche. A little weakness.”
Stanley is very suspicious of Blanche’s account of the demise of Belle Reve, thinking both of them have been swindled out of an inheritance:
How about a few more details on that subject…Let’s cop a gander at the bill of sale…What do you mean? She didn’t show you no papers, no deed of sale or nothin’ like that?…Well then, what was it then? Given away to charity?…Oh I don’t care if she hears me. Now let’s see the papers…Now listen. Did you ever hear of the Napoleonic code, Stella?…Now just let me enlighten you on a point or two…Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what’s known as the Napoleonic code. You see, now according to that, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also, and vice versa…It looks to me like you’ve been swindled baby. And when you get swindled under Napoleonic code, I get swindled too and I don’t like to get swindled…Where’s the money if the place was sold?
He sees all her fancy clothing and jewelry in the trunk and gets all worked up, refusing to pamper her as Stella would have him. He throws Blanche’s possessions around, violating her trunk with all its clothes, jewelry (and her love letters):
Now will you just open your eyes to this stuff here. Now I mean, what – has she got this stuff out of teacher’s pay?…Will you look at these fine feathers and furs that she comes to bring herself in here. What is this article? That’s a solid gold dress, I believe…Now what is that? There’s a treasure chest of a pirate…That’s pearls, Stella, ropes of ‘em. What is your sister – a deep sea diver? Bracelets, solid gold. (To Stella) Where are your pearls and gold bracelets?…And here you are. Diamonds. A crown for an empress…Here’s your plantation Stella, right here…Well, the Kowalskis and the DuBois – there’s just a different notion on this.
When Blanche comes out of the bathroom from a hot bath (where she was “soaking in a hot tub to quiet her nerves” – and compulsively cleansing herself of her past), Stanley is waiting for her like she is his prey. Her lady-like affectations rub Stanley the wrong way. She notices her trunk has been partly unpacked (”exploded”), and he starts questioning her about her expensive-looking clothing (”It certainly looks like you raided some stylish shops in Paris, Blanche”). Stanley can’t believe Blanche’s pretentious attitude or her tales of rich and handsome suitors. He tells Blanche that he doesn’t believe in complimenting women about their looks, when she appears to be fishing for compliments:
I never met a dame yet that didn’t know if she was good-lookin’ or not without being told. And there’s some of them that give themselves credit for more than they’ve got. I once went out with a dame who told me, ‘I’m the glamorous type.’ She says, ‘I am the glamorous type.’ I said, ‘So what?’
He boasts to Blanche that when he said that, it “shut her up like a clam…it ended the conversation, that was all.” He isn’t “taken in by this Hollywood glamour stuff.” Blanche describes his attitude: “You’re simple, straightforward, and honest. A little bit on the, uh, primitive side, I should think.”
Blanche encourages him to ask any questions, because she claims that she has nothing to hide. Suspicious of her, Stanley explains the Louisiana Napoleonic Code to her: “…what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also and vice versa.” He clashes with her, not believing her stories:
Blanche: My, but you have an impressive, judicial air.
Stanley: You know, if I didn’t know that you was my wife’s sister, I would get ideas about you…Don’t play so dumb. You know what.
Laying her “cards on the table” [like his poker buddies], she admits to Stanley that she doesn’t always tell the truth, but when veracity matters, she does:
I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion, but when a thing is important I tell the truth…
Blanche swears that she never cheated her sister, or Stanley, or anyone else on earth. He insists on knowing where her papers are, insensitive to her frail emotional condition. In a tin box which contains most of her papers, he first finds her love letters, snatching them from her and tossing them around the room. She attempts to reclaim them from being durtied:
These are love letters, yellowing with antiquity, all from one boy. Give them back to me!…The touch of your hand insults them!…Now that you’ve touched them I’ll burn them…Poems a dead boy wrote. I hurt him the way that you would like to hurt me, but you can’t! I’m not young and vulnerable any more. But my young husband was…Everyone has something they won’t let others touch because of their intimate nature.
Then, Blanche locates the many Belle Reve papers (”there are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years affecting Belle Reve”), explaining its loss and how her family had squandered the fortune on ‘epic debaucheries.’ Her ancestors had lived animalistically [similar to Stanley's uncontrolled physical nature and libidinous way of life]:
Piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers exchanged the land for their epic debauches, to put it mildly, ’til finally all that was left – and Stella can verify that! – was the house itself and about 20 acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.
She defiantly thrusts the papers of her family estate at Stanley:
Here they are. All of them! All papers! I hereby endow you with them! Take them. Peruse them. Commit them to memory, even! I think it’s wonderfully fitting that Belle Reve should finally be this bunch of old papers in your big capable hands.
And then Stanley announces the underlying reason for his interest in her papers: “Under the Napoleonic code, a man has got to take an interest in his wife’s affairs. I mean, especially now that she’s gonna have a baby.” The news is a shocking revelation to Blanche. The sisters are restored to each other after the confrontation between Blanche and her brother-in-law over the lost home:
…maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve. We’re gonna have to go on without Belle Reve to protect us.
That night, as Stanley’s friends gather to play poker in the cramped apartment, Stella leads Blanche away: “The blind are leading the blind!”
One of Stanley’s poker game buddies in the sweaty, boozy game is shy, middle-aged Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Karl Malden) who often mentions his attachment to his sick mother that he must attend to: “I’ve gotta sick mother and she don’t go to sleep until I get home at night.” The two sisters appear back at home after a show, but before she enters, Blanche hesitates: “Wait till I powder. I feel so hot and frazzled.” Blanche meets Mitch as he comes out of the bathroom – she is slightly attracted to Mitch’s sensitive nature. Stanley is in a foul mood, half-drunk, domineering toward his wife, and angry that Blanche has turned on loud rhumba music on the radio.
Before leaving, Mitch strikes up a conversation with Blanche in the back room, naively admiring her genteel ways and impressed that she knows a quote from a “favorite sonnet” by Mrs. Browning inscribed in his silver cigarette case given to him by a dying girl: “And if God choose, I shall but love thee better – after – death.” A coquettish Blanche explains her name for him:
It’s a French name. It means woods, and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods. Like an orchard in spring. You can remember it by that, if you care to.
Mitch is most impressed by Blanche and behaves like a gallant gentleman, putting a protective “adorable little paper lantern” on one of the bare light bulbs at her request to soften the glare: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” With the paper lampshade and the proper atmosphere of subdued lighting, Blanche creates a soft, exotic, romantic dream-like world in the room: “We’ve made enchantment.” Symbolically, she is physically, psychologically, and emotionally fragile – and hypersensitive to glaring bright lights which would reveal her declining beauty. With the radio playing waltz music, Blanche dances while gesturing romantically in the air – Mitch moves next to her like a dancing bear.
Suddenly, after losing a poker hand, a drunken Stanley bursts into the room, and throws the music-playing radio crashing out the window. Stella thinks he has gone completely beserk: “Drunk, Drunk, animal thing you!” Stanley charges after his wife and assaults her with a few blows, causing a fight to break out to control his “lunacy.” His poker buddies hold him under a cold shower to sober him up.
Dripping wet with water, Stanley realizes he has struck and abused Stella, and feeling repentant, he searches for her. Stella and Blanche have sought protective refuge in the upstairs apartment. Animalistic and virile in a wet, torn T-shirt, he bellows repeatedly for Stella from the street in front of their building, begging for her return:
Hey Stell – Lahhhhh!
This scene is one of the most regularly-chosen clips played in film excerpts from cinematic history. With the low moan of a clarinet, Stella finally responds to her contradictory impulses – her anger melts into forgiveness, her fear into desire. She leaves the shelter of the upstairs apartment and stands staring down at him from the upper landing. Then, she surrenders herself to him – she slowly descends the spiraling stairs to him and comes down to his level. He drops to his knees, crying. She sympathizes with him as he presses his face to her pregnant belly, and they embrace and kiss. Stanley begs: “Don’t ever leave me, baby,” and then literally sweeps her off her feet – he carries her into their dark apartment.
Blanche comes looking for them, and finds them inside – she stops and catches herself before entering into the flat. Outside the building, she finds Mitch, who asks if everything is “all quiet along the Potomac now?” He assures Blanche that the feuding couple are “crazy about each other,” and things will be fine between them. Blanche thanks Mitch for his concern: “…so much confusion in the world. Thank you for being so kind. I need kindness now.” Blanche has found that Mitch offers her one final chance to realize her self-preserving fantasy.
The following morning, Blanche (who has spent a sleepless night upstairs) is surprised to find that Stella has forgiven Stanley so quickly: “He was as good as a lamb when I came back. He’s really very, very ashamed of himself.” Still lying in her bed under a sheet, lounging there following blissful submission to Stanley the night before, Stella winsomely reminisces about Stanley as a destructive smasher – he had smashed things before, like on their wedding night when he triumphantly broke all the light bulbs in their place with Stella’s slipper: “I was sort of thrilled by it.”
Blanche suggests a plan to get them away from the mad, crazy man (”You’re married to a madman”) but Stella defends him and their love – not willing to sacrifice the stability she has found in her life with Stanley: “I wish you’d stop taking it for granted that I’m in something I want to get out of.”
Blanche: What you are talking about is desire – just brutal Desire! The name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.
Stella: Haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar?
Blanche: It brought me here. Where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be.
Stella: Don’t you think your superior attitude is a little out of place?
Furtively, Blanche betrays an envy of her sister’s sexual involvement with her earthy husband. (Stanley, wearing a grease-stained undershirt, has returned from outside and overhears their conversation – in which he is condemned.) Then, Blanche describes him as obscene, bestial and common:
May I speak plainly?…If you’ll forgive me, he’s common!…He’s like an animal. He has an animal’s habits. There’s even something subhuman about him. Thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is! Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the Stone Age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you – you here waiting for him. Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you, that’s if kisses have been discovered yet. His poker night you call it. This party of apes!
Blanche contends that there has been progress in the human race with the development of the arts, poetry, and music – cultural elements which bring light to the darkness. She admonishes her sister: “Don’t – don’t hang back with the brutes!”
Antagonized by Blanche’s attempts to destroy his home, Stanley is increasingly hostile and unfriendly to his sister-in-law. Determined to unmask Blanche’s dishonest masquerade, Stanley begins to learn of Blanche’s tawdry past through information from a friend named Shaw. Shaw, who regularly traveled to Mississippi, reported that Blanche had been seen at the squalid Flamingo Hotel. When confronted, Blanche denies any association with the place, asserting:
The Hotel Flamingo is not a place that I would dare to be seen in…I’ve seen it and, uh, smelled it…The odor of cheap perfume is penetrating.
Stanley threatens to have his friend check again in the town of Laurel to verify whether or not it was her.
Nervous and on edge, Blanche is paranoid of “unkind gossip” from her past, confessing to her sister: “I haven’t been so awfully good the last year or so, since Belle Reve started to slip through my fingers.” She is morbid about the unpleasant realities of life and the impediments that face her in forming a permanent bond – her declining fortunes, her decreasing allure and beauty, and her advancing age:
I never was hard or self-sufficient enough. Soft people, soft people have got to court the favor of hard ones, Stella. You got to shimmer and glow. I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I-I’m fading now.
When Stella pours Blanche a drink – a coke with a shot of whiskey – it overflows and spills foam on Blanche’s dress. Upset by being sullied and violated [a symbolic suggestion to foreshadow the climactic rape scene], Blanche screams with a piercing cry about stains on her pastel-colored dress: “Right on my pretty pink skirt.” She is reassured and recovers when the skirt is gently blotted and the stain comes out:
Stella: Did it stain?
Blanche: No. No, not a bit. Ha-ha (hysterically) Isn’t that lucky?
Stella: Why did you scream like that?
Blanche: I don’t know why I screamed.
Blanche confides in her sister of her affection for Mitch, believing that she can be rescued, “waited on” and taken away from her problems by marriage:
Mitch is coming at seven. I guess I’m a little nervous about our relations. He hasn’t gotten anything more than a goodnight kiss. That’s all I’ve given him Stella. I want his respect. A man don’t want anything they get too easy. On the other hand, men lose interest quickly, especially when a girl is over, over 30…I haven’t informed him of my real age.
“Because of hard knocks my vanity’s been given,” Blanche is sensitive about her age, and she wants to keep living by illusion: “He thinks I’m sort of prim and proper, you know! I want to deceive him just enough to make him want me.”
When a young newspaper delivery boy comes to the door to collect the bill for The Evening Star [Stella's name means 'celestial star'] one rainy afternoon, Blanche is attracted to him as a lonely woman pathologically desperate for sexual attention. He reminds her of her young husband who committed suicide [in her head, she hears polka music again - a flashback reverie of his suicide], and still neurotically grieving, she wants to subconsciously make up for his death. She causes the bashful young man to linger with small talk, first asking for a light for her cigarette and then asking for the time:
Young man. Young, young, young. Did anyone ever tell you you look like a young prince out of the Arabian Nights? You do, honey lamb. Come here. (She seductively offers herself for a maternal kiss – he walks to her.) Come on over here, like I told you. I want to kiss you just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth.
But she catches herself after seductively pressing one kiss into his lips, knowing she has a weakness for young males:
Run away now quickly. It would have been nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good – and keep my hands off children. Adios. Adios.
Immediately thereafter, Mitch comes around the corner, arriving in the young man’s place. She demands that he court her chivalrously: “Look who’s here. My Rosenkavalier!” He presents her with flowers, bows chivalrously, and they go on a date to a dancing casino. Feeling dismal and depressed, they wander to the outside porch of the pier/dock where they talk under a lamppost. She apologizes for not being able to “rise to the occasion…I don’t think I’ve ever tried so hard to be gay and made such a dismal mess of it.”
Mitch doubtfully asks permission for a kiss, but Blanche declines expressing her natural feelings, explaining that it would encourage other familiarities: “…a single girl, a girl alone in the world, has got to keep a firm hold on her emotions, or she’ll be lost.” Mitch open-heartedly confesses: “In all my experience, I have never known anyone like you.” Blanche reacts with a laugh. To fulfill more of Blanche’s romantic dreams, she wants them to pretend that they are sitting in a little bohemian artists’ cafe on the Left Bank in Paris. To create a make-believe atmosphere, she lights a candle stub on the table and asks for “joie de vivre.”
Apologetic for sweating profusely, Mitch is persuaded to remove his “light weight alpaca” coat and then he explains why he has such an imposing physique and muscular strength – he lifts weights and swims to keep fit. He expects a kiss and fumbles to embrace her after putting his hands on her waist and raising her off the ground, but she evades him, calling him a “natural gentleman, one of the few left in the world.” Then, she excuses herself as having “old-fashioned ideals.” She slowly rolls her eyes up toward him. Mitch turns from her to cool off, and there is a long, awkward silence between them.
She asks Mitch if a hostile Stanley has talked about her and what his “attitude” is toward her. Uneasy, Mitch soon changes the subject and asks how old she is. An overgrown mama’s boy, he explains that his sick mother wants to know all about her, wishing him to settle down before she dies (in maybe just a few months). Reminded of a past love affair when she was sixteen, Blanche reveals her discovery of love –
All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky – deluded.
In a very veiled account in the foggy surroundings of the dance casino, she tearfully recalls the details of her tragic early marriage to a handsome youth named Allan. Her memories are a painful reminder and she struggles to talk about how she judgmentally failed to be loving toward him:
· He was homosexual: “There was something about the boy, a nervousness, a tenderness, an uncertainty that I didn’t understand.”
· Blanche wished to satisfy her need to protect and help the young boy: “He lost every job. He came to me for help. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything except that I loved him unendurably.”
· He was possibly impotent with her, his new bride: “At night, I pretended to sleep. I heard him crying. Crying, crying the way a lost child cries.”
· She regretfully blames herself for driving her husband to suicide by cruelly rejecting him – at another dance casino: “I killed him. One night, we drove out to a place called Moon Lake Casino. We danced the Varsouviana! [the polka dance] Suddenly in the middle of the dance floor, the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few minutes later – a shot! (A distant shot sounds) I ran – all did – all ran and gathered about the terrible thing at the edge of the lake. He stuck a revolver into his mouth and fired. It was because, on the dance floor, unable to stop myself I said – ‘You’re weak! I’ve lost respect for you! I despise you!”
Metaphorically, the merciless exposure of the revelation about the young man extinguished the momentarily-illuminated searchlight, dimming Blanche’s world ever since:
And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light stronger than, than this yellow lantern.
Afterwards, Mitch comes over to stand by her and he tentatively consoles her.
You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be you and me, Blanche?
He thinks about proposing to her and kisses her forehead. They huddle together and embrace, feeling a mutual need for each other – they kiss on the lips.
In a short scene in the machine shop where both Mitch and Stanley work, Mitch expresses shock and anger that Stanley has “wised” him up and revealed the truth about Blanche:
Stanley: You’re gonna kill who, you dumb jerk? You don’t even know when you get wised up. Come on.
Mitch: You don’t have to wise me up!
After five and a half months have passed, Stanley’s patience has grown thin with Blanche – he thinks “her time is up.” A vicious interplay of distrust and suspicion continues between the increasingly unsympathetic Stanley and sister-in-law Blanche. By now, Stanley has verified Blanche’s shady past in the town of Laurel:
She is as famous in Laurel as if she was the President of the United States, only she is not respected by any party!
While Blanche is in the bathroom taking a long, hot soak for her nerves, Stanley tells Stella of two major lies that he has discovered about his sister-in-law. After losing Belle Reve, Blanche turned to prostitution while at the Flamingo Hotel, and then was eventually evicted from there and run out of town. With no other place to go, Blanche was forced to take refuge in New Orleans with them:
She moved to the hotel called Flamingo which is a second class hotel that has the advantages of not interfering with the private and social life of the personalities there. Now the Flamingo is used to all kinds of goings-on. But even the management of the Flamingo was impressed by Dame Blanche. And in fact, they were so impressed that they requested her to turn in her room-key for permanently. And this, this happened a couple of weeks before she showed here…The trouble with Dame Blanche was that she couldn’t put on her act any more in Laurel because they got wised up. And after two or three dates, they quit and then she goes on to another one, the same old line, the same old act, and the same old hooey! And as time went by, she became the town character, regarded not just as different but downright loco and nuts.
Secondly, she lost her teaching position and was forced to resign her school position as a result of an affair with one of her students, a seventeen-year-old high school boy:
She didn’t resign temporarily because of her nerves. She was kicked out before the spring term ended. And I hate to tell you the reason that step was taken. A seventeen-year-old kid she got mixed up with – and the boy’s dad learned about it and he got in touch with the high-school superintendent. And there was practically a town ordinance passed against her.
Stanley has also poisoned her relationship with his poker-playing, bowling, and work buddy Mitch, dutifully telling him about her past (”he’s wised up”), and destroying what might have been between them. He breaks down any belief Mitch had expressed in Blanche’s worthiness as an object of his love: “He’s not gonna marry her now. He’s not gonna jump in a tank with a school of sharks.”
In the tense, memorable scene of Blanche’s birthday dinner, Mitch has been invited to the party, but he deliberately doesn’t appear. His absence is conspicuous. Blanche jokes about being stood up – playing a rejected woman, not knowing the real truth. During the party, Stanley eats greasy chicken – even Stella calls him a pig (”Mr. Kowalski is too busy making a pig of himself…Your face and your fingers are disgustingly greasy.”)
Viewing both of them as invaders of his territory, Stanley intimidates both women. He is threatened that Blanche may remind his wife of his lower-class breeding and limitations. He tells them off as he clears the table in his own way:
Now that’s how I’m gonna clear the table. Don’t you ever talk that way to me! ‘Pig,’ ‘Pollack,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘vulgar,’ ‘greasy.’ Those kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s tongue just too much around here!
Tired of being accused of being an inarticulate brute, he screams at them, crowning himself king of his run-down apartment:
What do you think you are? A pair of queens? Now just remember what Huey Long said – that every man’s a king – and I’m the King around here and don’t you forget it!
He hurls his cup against the wall, smashing it to pieces. “My place is all cleared up. You want me to clear yours?”
Blanche, fearing that Stanley has informed Mitch of her past and destroyed her last bit of sanity and hope because he hasn’t come to her birthday dinner, telephones him, but fails to talk to him. Stanley assures Stella that everything will be all right after Blanche leaves and after Stella has the baby:
Honey, it’s gonna be so sweet when we can get them colored lights going with nobody’s sister behind the curtains to hear us.
Stanley takes extreme offense at Blanche’s denigration of his ethnic nationality: “I am not a Pollack. People from Poland are Poles. They are not Pollacks. But what I am is one hundred percent American. I’m born and raised in the greatest country on this earth and I’m proud of it. And don’t you ever call me a Pollack!” Cruelly, he presents Blanche with a “little birthday remembrance,” a Greyhound bus ticket back to where she came from: “That’s a ticket back to Laurel on the bus. Tuesday.”
Stanley believes that sister-in-law Blanche has upset their good times since her arrival. He remembers back to earlier good times before she arrived and told them of the majestic Belle Reve and its columns:
Listen, baby, when we first met – you and me – you thought I was common. Well, how right you was! I was common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with them columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’! And wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all okay till she showed here? And wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all OK? Till she showed here. Hoity-toity, describin’ me like an ape.
Suddenly going into labor, Stella asks to be taken to the hospital to have her baby delivered. [With another member of the family arriving in the small apartment, there may be no place remaining for Blanche.]
In another memorable scene, a drunk and vindictive Mitch arrives to confront Blanche while Stella and Stanley are on their way to the hospital. Blanche is resting in a tense, awkward position, portrayed in an overhead shot through a revolving fan (the blades shoot shadows across her figure). Immediately, she fearfully notices his strange appearance and finds him to be an unrepentant suitor:
Oh, my, my, what a cold shoulder. And what uncouth apparel! Why, you haven’t even shaved!
The polka tune starts up in Blanche’s mentally-disturbed head, and she hears the shot of a distant revolver silencing it. The polka music dies out as it usually does. Mitch thinks she is “boxed” out of her mind. Angrily, he tells her he didn’t come to the birthday dinner because he didn’t want to see her anymore, enraged that she had betrayed and misled him. Mitch complains about the darkness, not ever being able to see her in the light. [The film's black and white cinematography, with extensive use of indirect lighting, adds to the shadowy, secretive atmosphere in which Blanche hides.] Vulnerable, Blanche finds comfort in the shadows, hiding the ravages of time on her face: “I like the dark. The dark is comforting to me.” Mitch rips the paper lantern off a light bulb [the one he had so graciously put there for her many months earlier], wanting realism and direct light reflected on her face. She prefers the pleasures of her fantasy world, not wanting to divulge her true age:
I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth.
After turning on the light switch, Mitch ruthlessly holds Blanche’s haggard face up to the merciless glare of a naked bulb and shatters her dignity. He complains not about the hard-edged lines on her face, but about how she deceived him: “Oh I don’t mind you being older than what I thought. But all the rest of it. That pitch about your ideals being so old-fashioned and all the malarkey that you’ve been dishin’ out all summer. Oh, I knew you weren’t sixteen anymore. But I was fool enough to believe you was straight.” Like Stanley, he checked up on her past and her association with the Flamingo Hotel and found the same damning evidence.
When questioned about her past and accused of having countless lovers, Blanche gathers together the remnants of her emotional strength and admits everything about her sordid past after the death of her husband. Describing her nymphomaniacal tendencies “with strangers,” she tells Mitch coldly and harshly even more than he wants to know:
I stayed at a hotel called the Tarantula Arms…Yes, a big spider. That’s where I brought my victims. Yes, I have had many meetings with strangers. After the death of Allan, meetings with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another searching for some protection. Here, there, and then in the most unlikely places.
She even confesses her affair with a seventeen-year-old student in one of her classes, and how she lost her job for being “morally unfit.” “Played out,” Blanche explains how she retreated to her sister’s place, and how a gentle-minded Mitch offered protection to her: “A cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in.” Mitch feels betrayed because she hadn’t been straight with him. Blanche replies that desire never travels a predictable track like the regulated trackway of a streetcar:
Straight? What’s ’straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?
Mitch berates her and accuses her of lying to him and hiding her past: “You lied to me, Blanche…Lies! Lies, inside and out! All lies!” She pleads: “Never inside! I never lied in my heart.” Suddenly, a female Mexican vendor calls out from outside the building, selling flowers for the dead: “Flores. Flores para los muertos.” [Flowers. Flowers for the dead.] At the door, the woman offers Blanche some of the brightly-painted, tin-blossomed, inert flowers. Somehow, Blanche senses that the flower delivery implies the imminence of her death, causing her distraught and fright. She slams the door: “No, no. Not now. No!” Blanche tells of the terrible choice she had to make between two extremes opposites: Death and Desire. She chose the company of the later – Desire – with strangers, traveling salesmen and young boys/men, anything to take away the loneliness:
I used to sit here and she used to sit there. And Death was as close as you are. Death. The opposite is Desire. Oh, how could you wonder? How could you possibly wonder?
She even divulges that she serviced young recruits from a nearby army camp.
Not far from Belle Reve, before we had lost Belle Reve, was a camp where they trained young soldiers. On Saturday nights, they would go in town to get drunk and on the way back, they would stagger onto my lawn and call – ‘Blanche!’ ‘Blanche!’
Mitch purposefully follows after her and forcefully kisses Blanche, as if she doesn’t deserve anything more than to be assaulted and sexually used – a foreshadowing of the final climax. Blanche entreats him: “Marry me, Mitch.” His reply devastates her when he rejects any possibility of a relationship with her. He prefers instead to retreat to his dependency with his mother:
No, I don’t think I want to marry you anymore…No, you’re not clean enough to bring into the house with my mother.
She covers his mouth, pushes him away and starts screaming hysterically, sending him running into the street. An inquisitive crowd gathers around the tenement. She retreats into the past, the darkness of the house and the shattered pieces of her fantasy world – she also closes all the shutters on the windows. A policeman knocks on the door of the Kowalski residence to investigate, but she assures him that everything is fine.
In the deserted house, she dresses herself in faded finery like a faded southern belle, walking around in a soiled and crumpled white satin gown and resurrecting a time that has passed forever. On her head, she wears a rhinestone tiara as a crown. Blanche speaks to a non-existent, admiring group of guests. During her rantings, she hears “Good Night Ladies,” and wishes to lay her weary head down. Stanley’s voice startles her from the darkness. The light is switched on, illuminating her face.
With Stella at the hospital delivering a baby, Stanley returns home to “get a little shut eye” – he is full of pride in being a father. He confronts a half-drunk and crazed Blanche, who confusedly explains she is waiting for a wire (telegram) from an old admirer, a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh from Dallas who has supposedly invited her on a Caribbean cruise on a yacht. [With Mitch deserting her, Shep is her one final hope.] Stanley believes she is manufacturing more unreal lies as he removes his shirt. Delicately, she requests that he not undress in her presence: “Close the curtains before you undress any further.” Looking for a bottle opener for his beer, Stanley describes one of his coarse relatives:
Did you know I used to have a cousin who could open a bottle of beer with his teeth? And that was all he could do. He was just a human bottle-opener. And then one time at a wedding party, he broke his front teeth right off. [He shakes the bottle of beer before opening it. The beer foams and shoots up like a potent, virile phallic geyser - a sexually symbolic gesture.] And then, after that, he was so ashamed of himself that he used to sneak outta the house when company came. Rain from heaven.
With white, foamy beer dripping down from his mouth, Stanley suggestively proposes, as a father-to-be, that they celebrate:
Hey whaddya say Blanche, you wanna bury the hatchet and make a loving-cup?
He marches into the privacy of her room as she draws back and covers herself with a thin veil. For the special occasion, Stanley pulls out the pair of silk pajamas he wore on his wedding night:
I guess we’re both entitled to put on the dog. You’re having an oil millionaire and I’m having a baby.
Blanche believes that her rich-man admirer Huntleigh will respect her, desire her for companionship, and not invade her privacy. He will want a cultured woman such as herself – with inner beauty. She convinces herself that she is not getting older, only better with age:
A cultivated woman – a woman of breeding and intelligence – can enrich a man’s life immeasurably. I have those things to offer, and time doesn’t take them away. Physical beauty is passing – transitory possession – but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart – I have all those things – aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!
She retreats into her non-existent fantasy world, insinuating that she lives with the piggish Stanley: “Strange that I should be called a destitute woman when I have all these treasures locked in my heart. I think of myself as a very, very rich woman. But I have been foolish – casting my pearls before…” Stanley finishes the sentence: “Swine, huh?”
To lessen the pain of Mitch’s rejection, Blanche turns the tables and imagines that she gave Mitch “his walking papers.” She describes how Mitch sought her forgiveness, but she felt it best that they say farewell:
He implored my forgiveness. Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty. And so I said to him, ‘Thank you,’ but it was foolish to think that we could ever adapt ourselves to each other.
In a memorable sequence, loosened up by the alcohol, Stanley accuses her of making up each of her stories: the wire, the millionaire, and Mitch’s departure: “There isn’t a goddamn thing but imagination, and lies and deceit and tricks.” He tells her to face facts and look at her ragged self. She may be a queen, but she is only a drunkard. He throws her on the bed, towering over her as he rips into her and her dress while depriving her of her illusions:
Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on. Now what kind of a queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes? You come in here and you sprinkle the place with powder and you spray perfume and you stick a paper lantern over the light bulb – and, lo and behold, the place has turned to Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne, swilling down my liquor. And do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? Ha ha ha!
Blanche is extremely frightened. Feeling cornered, she gathers up all her things. At the door, she hears and sees the chanting Mexican flower woman across the street, walking towards her in the evening mist. To prove that her illusory story about Huntleigh is true, she makes a frantic phone call to Western Union, but then dictates a message of her own:
Desperate, desperate circumstances. Caught in a trap. Help me! Caught in a trap!
Stanley comes out of the bathroom, now dressed in his silk pajamas – the ones he wore on his wedding night. He stares at her while knotting the sash around his waist and watching her pointless actions. He blocks her retreat out the door, asking: “You think I’m gonna interfere with you?…Maybe you wouldn’t be bad to interfere with.” Blanche moves back into her curtained-off bedroom when Stanley approaches toward her with a predatory look. She breaks a beer bottle and holds up the jagged edges at Stanley’s face, brandishing it in front of him and threatening to “twist the broken end” in his face. Promoting a little “roughhouse,” he grabs her wrist and snarls: “Tiger, tiger. Drop that bottletop. Drop it.” And then he overpowers her to complete her degradation, using intimate sexual union to permanently destroy any connection she has with the real world. An ornately-framed mirror is smashed and shattered in the climactic assault. In the reflection of the mirror, it appears that Blanche faints in Stanley’s arms. [An explicit rape scene was excluded by censors.]
Like the mirror, Blanche’s illusions of her refinement and moral sophistication are cracked and splintered. She is thoroughly traumatized by the violence and ravishment, sinking into madness and further aloneness. In the end, he has completely destroyed her sanity, causing her final break with reality – and on the same night that his wife is delivering their first baby – and on Blanche’s birthday!
The next scene abruptly cuts to a metaphoric, sexual analogy – the ‘phallic’ blast of water from a street cleaner’s hose as he sprays the gutter outside. It is probably a few days later, and Stella has returned from delivering her baby. Stanley is again playing cards with his male pals in their standard way – they are “making pigs” of themselves. He elatedly brags to them about luck: “You know what luck is? Luck is believing you’re lucky, that’s all…To hold a front position in this rat-race, you’ve got to believe you are lucky.” Blanche takes a cleansing bath in another part of the apartment.
The dilemma facing Stella is clear – in order to continue living with him, she has no choice but to deny the truth of Blanche’s story (the rape) and to accept Stanley’s lie: “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley. I-I couldn’t.”
To provide emotional support, Stella and the upstairs neighbor Eunice play along with Blanche’s fantasy about going on a trip with “the gentleman from Dallas” – Shep Huntleigh. Blanche is anxious to get away on the trip: “This place is a trap.” When she hears pure “cathedral bells” toll for her in the French Quarter, she is ready to leave. Instead of a vacation, they have arranged for her to be taken off to a mental hospital with a doctor and a heavy-set matron. [The shattered mirror on the wall has been replaced with a new one - and Blanche is convinced that she again looks "lovely."]
In a memorable farewell scene, Blanche moves fearfully through the room where the poker game is being played, excusing herself as she finishes the final part of her journey: “Please don’t get up. I’m only passing through.” At first, she resists the doctor because he isn’t the courtly gentleman she was expecting (”This man isn’t Shep Huntleigh”) and retreats in panic back inside. Stanley offers her the paper lantern to entice her to leave and she clutches for it. As Blanche collapses and is pinned to the floor by the overbearing, potentially-cruel matron, it is observed that Blanche will no longer need protective claws: “These fingernails have to be trimmed.” Mitch sits helplessly and shamefully at the poker table.
When addressed as Miss DuBois and offered an arm by the calm, elderly doctor, Blanche is led away [as if blind as she was earlier with Stella] to the institution with a trusting, childlike expression – accompanied to a place populated by “strangers” where her illusory fantasies will remain intact, but where real human contacts will once again be severed:
Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
She is led away by another stranger – this time, a kindly one. Disgusted by Stanley and suspicious of him, Stella vows to have nothing more to do with him and will not return to him. He will be justly punished for his lustful violation of his sister-in-law: “Don’t you touch me. Don’t you ever touch me again.” After Blanche has departed for the asylum, Stella takes her wrapped-up baby in her arms [a visual Madonna and child image] and refuses to listen to her husband’s entreaties. While nestling her new baby in her arms, she vows: “I’m not going back in there again. Not this time. I’m never going back. Never.” She goes to the upstairs neighbor’s apartment.
The arrival of the baby is just as disruptive to Stanley’s relationship with Stella as Blanche’s arrival was. Things will change forever as Stella will now be less dependent upon him for emotional support with her attachment to her child.
Stanley bellows: “Hey Stella. Hey Stella,” as the film ends.