The Effectiveness of Setting, Costume, and Cinematography in A Streetcar Named Desire

         A lot of work that people never think about goes into making a movie. When making a film adaptation of a play, for instance, someone has to make all the script adjustments required to make the story pack a punch in a foreign medium. More basic than the story, however, are the settings, costumes, and cinematography, and the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan and based on Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, presents all three perfectly.

         The setting of A Streetcar Named Desire is New Orleans, where the days and nights are hot, at a time before air conditioning. The duplex the main characters live in is well-constructed and has a Mardi Gras atmosphere. The lights out the window and the street below the apartment create a bustling, sweltering, dilapidated feel. The job of translating the stage set to a film set is no easy one, and the set designers succeed in creating a plausible, living world for the action to take place in.

         The costumes used in the film capture the attitudes of the characters wearing them. The white tank top of Stanley (Marlon Brando) reveals his masculine nature and hot temper. The floating, effervescent dresses worn by Blanche (Vivien Leigh) capture her superficiality and lack of money sense. The effectiveness of the apparently hot and humid atmosphere is accented by the characters’ sweatiness, and sweat is certainly a big part of what makes the setting and costumes believable.

         The cinematography of Harry Stradling in A Streetcar Named Desire makes the film intimate and intense. In scenes where tension between characters is high, as in the dining scene in which Stanley breaks plates, the camera remains fixed at an angle that shows all the people involved and their alienation from one another. In more intimate scenes, like the rape scene, the date between Blanche and her beau, Mitch (Karl Malden), and the scene in which he forces Blanche into the light, close-ups are used to accentuate the emotion of the scene and reveal characters’’ emotions in their facial expressions. This film uses cinematography to heighten the emotional power of the story.

         Settings, costumes, and cinematography can make or break a film. A Streetcar Named Desire uses these tools to tell its story effectively. The emotional power and vivid detail afforded by these elements makes this film an enduring favorite.

Eric Hovis

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