The Story (continued)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
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" after taking advantage of their hospitality. 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 from Blanche's past that he has discovered about her. After losing Belle Reve that was sold for back taxes, his sister-in-law turned to prostitution while at the Flamingo Hotel, and then was eventually evicted from there and run out of town. Indigent and with no other place to go, Blanche was forced to take refuge in New Orleans with them, for food and shelter:
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 under-age students, a seventeen-year-old high school boy. The seduction incident was reported to the high-school superintendent by the boy's father:
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. He has dutifully told him all about her past ("he's wised up"), and destroyed 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 and plays being a rejected woman who doesn't know the real truth. During the party, when 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 with the swipe of his arm:
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 and crowns 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 and smashes 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 delivered their 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 deceptively 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 anyway.]
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 that hide 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 rather than divulging 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 and the possibility of respectable marriage: "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 reneges on his previous marriage proposal, after discovering her checkered past. 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.
Devastated, she covers his mouth, pushes him away and starts screaming hysterically. Her reaction sends 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 ritualistically dresses herself in faded finery like a faded southern belle, and then walks around in a soiled and crumpled white satin gown to resurrect 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 to illuminate her face.
With Stella at the hospital delivering a baby, Stanley has returned 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 that 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 - knowing how his undressing [a symbol of foreplay] will affect Blanche. Delicately, she requests that he not disrobe 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, but only improving 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 - a 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. After he throws her on the bed, he towers over her as he rips into her and her moth-eaten 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.]*" *(originally deleted)
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. [The explicit rape scene that followed was excluded by censors.]
Like the mirror, Blanche's sexual, narcissistic illusions of her own refinement and moral sophistication are cracked and splintered. She is thoroughly traumatized by the violence and ravishment, and sinks further into madness, make-believe, and aloneness. In the end, he has completely and systematically destroyed her sanity, and caused her final break with reality - 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." As part of her regular rituals, Blanche takes a cleansing bath in another part of the apartment.
The dilemma facing Stella is clear - in order to continue living with her husband, 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 climbs to the upstairs neighbor's apartment after rejecting him.
[In the play, Stella will stand by her husband Stanley and take him back, even after he has raped her sister. In the film, Stanley had to be punished after raping Blanche by losing Stella's love.]
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 and sexual support with her attachment to her child.
Stanley customarily bellows: "Hey Stella. Hey Stella," as the film ends.
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AMC Filmcritic's Review of A Streetcar Named Desire