A Streetcar Named Desire Plot Summary (Spoilers):
A Streetcar Named Desire begins with a train chugging through New Orleans. A woman named Blanche Dubois, played by Vivien Leigh, boards a streetcar named Desire and takes it to an apartment complex called Elysian Fields. She is looking for her sister Stella, but Stella has gone bowling with her husband.
Blanche locates her sister at the bowling alley and is very excited to see her. The pair have drinks. Blanche seems like a bitch, taking frequent digs at her sister, and she talks non-stop, like a meth head.
Back at Stella’s place, Blanche continues to shit all over Stella’s house and lifestyle and talk a mile a minute. Blanche tells Stella that she is “not well.” Blanche then starts in on a guilt trip about Stella leaving home, resulting in all the responsibilities of looking after the home place falling on Blanche. Blanche reveals that Belle Reve is lost and blames it on the expense related to the deaths of their family members falling to Blanche, who earned only a teacher’s salary. Blanche claims to have taken a leave from her teaching job due to her frazzled nerves.
Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando, arrives home and Blanche practically drools over him. When Stanley asks Blanche about having been married, she seems very disturbed. She tells Stanley she married young, but her husband died.
Stella encourages Stanley to be nice to Blanche. However Stanley is more concerned with what happened to Belle Reve, seeing as how according to the Napoleonic code, he’s entitled to a share of the proceeds if Blanche sold the place. Stanley rifles through Blanche’s belongings, insisting that her clothing and jewelry are too expensive for Blanche to have purchased on a teacher’s salary. Stanley is convinced that Blanche is trying to cheat her sister and him out of money, by claiming Belle Reve was lost.
Stanley accuses Blanche of cheating her sister and Blanche swears she never has. Stanley is not convinced, so Blanche shows him all her papers, though she becomes distraught when he grabs for what she claims are love letters from her dead husband, who she apparently hurt in some way. Stanley tells Blanche that he’s just looking out for his family and that Stella is pregnant, in spite of Stella’s previous request that he not mention the baby to Blanche.
Stanley hosts a poker game for several of his buddies. Blanche flirts with Mitch, one of Stan’s poker buddies, played by Karl Malden. After losing a hand, Stanley flies into a rage, throwing a radio through the window and busting up the house. His rage results in a fist fight between the poker players and Stanley beating his wife. Stanley’s buddies try to sober him up in the shower, but he runs them off. After his friends leave, Stanley immediately regrets what he did to Stella.
Stella and Blanche are holing up with the upstairs neighbor. Stanley iconically shouts “hey Stella!” Outside the building, trying to get his wife to come back home. The neighbor threatens to call the police, but Stanley persists and Stella comes downstairs. Stanley sobs on his knees and Stella comforts him and then begins to kiss him. Stanley carries her into the bedroom and Blanche follows, but then leaves after she sees what they are up to.
The next morning, Blanche questions Stella about returning to Stanley after his violent outburst. Stella says Stanley was ashamed of his behaviour and anyway, he’s always been violent and she finds his behavior thrilling. Stanley overhears Blanche trying to talk Stella into leaving. Stella insists she does not want to leave Stanley. Blanche compares Stanley to an animal and urges Stella not to hang back with the brutes, but when Stanley returns, Stella enthusiastically embraces him.
Several months down the road, Stanley confronts Blanche about a man named Shaw, who claims to know her from a seedy hotel. Blanche denies it. Concerned about what people have been saying about her reputation, Blanche questions Stella about what she has heard. Stella denies having heard anything untoward about Blanche. Blanche tells Stella that with her beauty fading, she has had to resort to tricks, like a paper lantern over a lightbulb, to attract men. Blanche now has her sights set on Stanley’s poker buddy Mitch and hopes to get a marriage proposal from him.
During her date with Mitch, Blanche tells Mitch about the death of her husband. She tells him that her husband had been depressed, but she didn’t recognize it until he shot himself. Blanche blames herself for her husband’s death, since she was critical and unsupportive of him, calling him weak. When Mitch talks about being lonely after his mother dies, Blanche tells him she knows what it means to be lonely and suggests the two of them need each other. Mitch proposes to Blanche.
The scene shifts to Mitch and Stanley fighting about Blanche at work. Stanley has been trying to convince Mitch not to marry Blanche, by telling him about Blanche’s past. Stanley tells Mitch to go ahead and marry Blanche, but to hurry up and get her out of his house.
Stanley tells Stella the same thing he’s been telling Mitch, that Blanche was run out of two different towns for her promiscuous behaviour and mental instability and that she lied about quitting her teaching job. He claims Blanche was fired for getting mixed up with a 17-year-old boy, whose father complained about her.
Mitch doesn’t show up at Blanche’s birthday party. Stanley gets pissed when Stella chides him for eating like a pig and being disgusting and greasy and he starts smashing things again.
Stanley gives Blanche a bus ticket as a birthday gift and she runs away sobbing. Stella is furious and confronts Stanley. The fight ends when Stella tells Stanley to take her to the hospital.
Mitch shows up at the apartment and confronts Blanche. She eventually admits to him the truth of her past. Mitch kisses Blanche, but refuses to marry her, saying she’s not clean enough. An enraged and possibly deranged Blanche orders Mitch out of the house.
Blanche follows Mitch into the courtyard and screams, prompting passers-by to ask if she’s OK. Blanche retreats into the house and closes all the shutters and douses all the lights.
The scene shifts to Blanch dressed up in an old gown and a rhinestone tiara and conversing with people who aren’t there. Stanley returns from the hospital. Stella is still at the hospital, awaiting the baby. Blanche tells Stanley she has received an invite from an old flame to go on a cruise. She also tells Stanley that Mitch returned with a box of roses, seeking her forgiveness, but that deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. Stanley at first, pretends to believe Blanche, but then calls bullshit on Blanche’s lies, mocks her and then leaves the room to change into his pajamas.
Blanche attempts to make a phone call to Western Union with the message that she’s caught in a trap. Stanley returns and Blanche tries to leave, but he stops her. Stanley pursues Blanche and she threatens him with a broken bottle, but he overpowers and then rapes her.
The scene shifts to poker night. The baby is sleeping and Stella is worried about Blanche, because she won’t eat and she has things all mixed up in her mind. Refusing to believe Blanche’s story about Stanley, Stella tries to trick Blanche into willingly leaving with a man and a woman from the nut house, but when Blanche realizes the man is not her old flame come to take her away, Blanche runs back into the house, saying she forgot something.
When Stanley rips down Blanche’s paper lantern she loses her shit and the old woman from the nut house tackles her. Mitch becomes angry and tries to punch Stanley. Mitch blames Stanley for making Blanche crazy. Blanche convinces the doctor to ask the woman to release her and then takes his arm, saying she has always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Stella weeps as her sister is taken away and tells Stanley never to touch her again. When he hollers for her, she grabs the baby and runs up stairs, vowing she will never return to him again. The movie ends with one last shot of the outside of the apartment building.
A Streetcar Named Desire Commentary:
A Streetcar Named Desire is an engrossing, but somewhat depressing film. When Blanche Dubois shows up broke and desperate at her sister’s place, she’s a hard person to like.
Blanche is constantly ragging on her sister. She insults Stella’s appearance, implies she’s fat, calls her husband a common Pollock and is constantly running down Stella’s home. In addition to the barrage of criticism, Blanche also seems very manipulative and full of shit.
As the movie progresses and Blanche’s lies are stripped away, she begins to become a somewhat more sympathetic character. Her alleged affair with a 17-year-old student is pretty skeezy, and she brings part of her problems on herself by living a life full of lies and manipulation, but I can’t help but feel for her. She is obviously very insecure and lonely, feeling her only value to the world is her physical beauty, which she sees as fading as she ages. She tries to fill the void in her life through her affairs with various men and that only brings more societal scorn down upon her.
The contrast between Blanche and Stanley is an interesting one. Blanche sees herself as refined and gentile, a woman of taste and high-class, while Stanley is a brutish, belligerent man who at times doesn’t seem to do much more than grunt and break things.
Neither end of the spectrum is presented in a particularly positive light. Blanche is an elitist snob, looking down her nose at others, while Stanley is a bully, wife-beater and rapist. Both characters basically live down to the stereotypes.
Stella also falls into the stereotype of the abused spouse who keeps threatening to leave, but always returns. When she learns Stanley raped her sister, she chooses to believe Blanche is lying, because she can’t bring herself to either leave Stanley or live with him, admitting that she knows he is a rapist. Stella claims she will never return to Stanley at the end of the film, but I suspect she probably did.
Blanche’s mental condition already seems fragile by the time she moves in with Stella and Stanley. The rape by Stanley seems to push Blanche over the edge, resulting in her being committed to a mental institution.
The exceptional performances by the cast combined with an interesting and thought-provoking story, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, make this my favorite of the 100 Best Movies I have watched thus far.