Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – Alex North


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Original Review by Craig Lysy

Elia Kazan had achieved widespread critical acclaim while directing Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway. At the bidding of Williams, he was exhorted to duplicate this success on the big screen. Warner Brothers bought into the idea and purchased the film rights with the proviso that Williams himself write the screenplay. Since Kazan was already quite familiar and comfortable with the Broadway cast, most of them were brought in to reprise their roles, including Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Kim Hunter as Stella Kowalski and Karl Malden as Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. Studio executives however vetoed the talented Jessica Tandy from the Broadway cast for the lead actress role of Blanche DuBois, preferring to add the star power of Vivian Leigh.

The story deals with the aristocratic southern belle Blanche seeking refuge with her poorer sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley in their small two-bedroom apartment in New Orleans. She arrives out of the blue one day on a streetcar named “Desire”. All is not as it seems as Blanche is running from her past and comes into conflict with Stanley, who takes an instant disliking of her. One day Blanche becomes smitten with one of Stanley’s poker friends and nurtures hope of restarting her life anew. All goes asunder when a mistrustful Stanley investigates her past and discovers that she has been treated for mental illness, that her husband committed suicide after she discovered him sleeping with another man, and that she was fired from her job and run out of town for having sex with a minor. When Stanley informs Mitch, who was preparing to propose, he becomes outraged at her deception and abandons Blanche. Blanche is shattered and begins a descent into madness. Everything comes to a head when Stella is taken to the hospital to deliver her child. When a drunken Stanley returns home for the night a fight ensues with Blanche, which ends up with him raping her. The rape breaks Blanche and she is committed to a sanitarium, but not before she informs Stella of the rape. Stella, in time, comes to accept Blanche’s story, takes her child and leaves Stanley.

Trouble arose immediately as Hollywood films in the 1950’s were more tightly regulated for content than Broadway plays. The script’s sordid narrative ran afoul of the Hollywood Production Code, which demanded 68 edits, and the National Catholic League of Decency (NCLD) threatened a financially ruinous “Condemned” rating unless the references of rape and homosexuality were removed. Kazan fought valiantly against the censorship, as he believed these plot elements – especially the rape – were integral to the film, without which its narrative and final outcome would lose meaning. He filmed the scenes for a director’s version, but the NCLD would not relent and so the film was released with the sanitized screenplay. Years later in 1993 Kazan would be vindicated as the cut scenes were discovered in the studio vaults, which lead Warner Brothers to restore and release Kazan’s vision.

The film was a huge critical success, gaining twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Score, and Best Sound Recording, winning four awards for Best Actress, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Art Direction.

Kazan first collaborated with Alex North for his film Death of a Salesman in 1949. He was impressed by North’s talent and believed his more modernist sensibilities would align well with the film’s gritty, hard edged and sordid narrative. Indeed Rory Guy relates;

“North’s score was a bombshell. He was the first to use jazz and dissonance as vital elements of a dramatic score. His Streetcar music shouted, derided, moaned and cried hot notes, blue notes, bent notes, the low dirty sounds of blues trumpet and trombone, and the piercing wail of clarinet and saxophone, punctuated by jazz percussion.”

It should be noted that North wrote a seminal score in the history of film in that it was the first time a jazz idiom was used as a dramatic underscore. Until this effort jazz had always been used in the context of source music. In terms of scoring approach, North understood that this was a character driven drama with both overt and covert emotional drivers. As such he resolved early to write intimate character based identities. For Stanley he created a descending two-note motif, an appoggiatura carried by carnal trumpets and trombones, but also a sultry saxophone. The theme informs us of his masculinity, strength and sex appeal. Juxtaposed is Blanche’s Theme, which offers the score’s most romantic writing. The theme opens with plaintive descending phrases, from which arises a classic tenor sax Blues, which cannot be assuaged. North will augment the theme’s articulation with a haunting solo trumpet and lush strings as Blanche and Mitch fall in love. The Belle Reve Theme alludes to Blanche and Stella’s childhood home. Violins carry the melodic line, but North eschews an idyllic expression as discordant and disquieting accents by trumpet, clarinets, trombones and low register piano inform us of loss. Indeed throughout the film whenever Blanche suffers a loss, the theme supports the narrative. A recurring musical reference in the story is the “Varsouviana,” a French polka tune that accompanies Blanche’s haunted memories of the death of her young husband. The theme is a painful recollection twinkling on celesta, and North increases the dissonance accompanying the tune as Blanche becomes more unbalanced. He employs variations of the melody as she laments her passing physical beauty.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight, which launches to the Warner Studio’s logo and supports the roll of the opening credits. North adroitly unleashes his dirty jazz to perfectly set the tone of the film. Brash horn fare and lyrical strings are juxtaposed informing us of the coming storm. The Seamy New Orleans jazz, which is born from a dirty synergy of horns and percussion, reeks of booze, gambling, cheap women and no questions asked. Bold trumpet blares are answered by kindred trumpets as a low register piano churns to brushed cymbal. In ‘New Orleans Street” North unleashes a funky jazz rift as we see Blanche arrive, unsure of where to go. A young sailor guides her to the streetcar she seeks – Desire. Pounding piano, strummed bass clarinet, alto sax and drum beats set a seamy vibe and night mood as dirty trumpets blare. We see by the music that Blanche is so out of place.

“Belle Reve Reflections” offers a score highlight as we see Blanche and Stella at home as they spend time catching up before Stanley returns. Blanche breaks the bad news that their childhood home Belle Reve has been foreclosed and Stella is devastated. North introduces his Blues imbibed Belle Reve Theme, a sad identity, which informs us of good ole days never to return. Woven within the scene is a recurring musical reference, the “Varsouviana”, a French polka tune. North uses its identity to accompany Blanche’s haunted memories of the death of her young husband. I believe it genius how North transfers the articulation of the melodic line among his instruments; violins, clarinet, alto sax, piano, all of which are beset by discordant and disquieting accents by trumpet, clarinets, trombones and low register piano. In “Stan Meets Blanche” we get a score highlight, which features an extended rendering of Stan’s Theme. Stan comes home from bowling and meets Blanche. He is raw, unpolished and oozes sex appeal. She is clearly curious, yet uncomfortable. North uses Stan’s two-note motif as the vehicle for their introduction and their emotional juxtaposition. His masculine theme is introduced by a muted trumpet, buttressed by sultry saxophones. A later shift to saxophone intensifies his sex appeal as it flows over pizzicato bass.

“Blanche and Mitch” is a cue of uncommon beauty and my favorite of the score. We are provided a respite from the dissonance and dirty jazz where North graces us with gorgeous melody. We see that Mitch is clearly smitten with Blanche and North uses the moment to offer an extended rendering of Blanche’s Theme. We open on a plaintive tenor sax that ushers in the melodic line, which is transferred to strings with flute adornment. Yet at 1:53 a contrapuntal “Varsouviana” Theme on celesta joins, an allusion that Blanche’s past will not allow the two of them to find the love they are desperately seeking. “Stan and Stella” is a powerhouse scene, which offers a superb cue by North. Stan is drunk, losing in poker and becomes enraged when Blanche turns on the radio to support her dancing with Mitch. He throws the radio out the window, hits Stella and gets into a fight with the boys. Stella and Blanche flee to the neighbor’s upstairs apartment as a remorseful Stan bellows out Stella repeatedly until she returns to his arms to reconcile. North scores the aftermath with a jazz piece carried by a sultry clarinet, sensuous saxophone and seductive strings, which just oozes with raw sexuality. Stella is clearly aroused by him and as she descends the stairs and jumps into his strapping arms the music’s allusion to make up sex is obvious.

“Blanche” offers another score highlight where we are graced by a full rendering of her theme. The three descending opening phrases are carried by piano and usher her melody carried by languorous solo clarinet, supported by piano, brushed cymbals and strummed bass. In “Belle Reve” Blanche is fretting that her past may be catching up with her after Stan says he met a man who asserted he met Blanche at a notorious hotel. As she confides to Stella her insecurities her worsening madness is becoming more and more apparent, enough to startle Stella. As with any reminiscence North renders the plaintive Belle Reve Theme to carry the moment. “Revelation” offers an emotional powerhouse with the score’s most evocative rendering of the Blanche Theme. Blanche is alone and a young man comes to collect the paper fee. We see in her eyes that he reminds her of her young husband, whose death plagues her with guilt. Her theme opens on a plaintive flute with counter by oboe. Slowly, yet inexorably the theme becomes more overt and lush in the strings, as we see she desires him, asking for a kiss. Her theme and the Varsouviana Theme now join in a sad tête-à-tête, culminating with their kiss. North’s music fully fleshes out the pain, suffering and guilt, which torment Blanche, and which are driving her into madness.

In “Birthday Party” we have another powerfully emotive cue. It is Blanche’s birthday and Stan gives her an envelope for her present – a one-way ticket back home. She is devastated and flees. Stella is outraged at his cruelty and they fight, which causes her to go into labor and be rushed to hospital. An anguished Belle Reve Theme supports Blanche’s and Stella’s devastation. As Stella defends Blanche’s to Stan a plaintive solo violin emotes her sisterly love, yet the “Varsouviana” Theme on celesta joins when Blanche’s past is brought up. We closed upon impassioned strings of anguish as Stella asks to be taken to hospital. “Soliloquy” is a scene of devastation, which presents a score highlight. A drunken Mitch confronts Blanche about her past, which she at first denies, but then acknowledges with a prolonged soliloquy, recounting the pain of her life. Mitch is angry yet embraces and kisses her. She however is shattered when he admits that the kiss is for sex, not marriage as she is too dirty to bring home to his mother. Blanche is devastated, snaps, and then screams repeatedly causing Mitch to flee. An emotional torrent of regret, pain and betrayal unfolds before our eyes as Leigh gives the performance of a lifetime. Mournful French horns and strings usher in a pastorale by English horn countered by bassoon. Blanche’s Theme struggles in its expression, thus reflecting her deepening madness. When it finally coalesces and is rendered, the “Varsouviana” Theme is now fully entwined, resulting in pathos of sadness.

“Mania” reveals the aftermath of the confrontation with Mitch as Blanche’s screaming has caused uproar with the neighbors. She has snapped, runs into the apartment, and begins slamming shut all the shutters – the world must be shut out as her only solace resides within her mind. North speaks to her manic behavior by offering a testament to agitation. Contesting pizzicato figures and chattering woodwinds with horn blast support her efforts. In “Seduction” we bear witness North’s mastery of his craft. Stella has been admitted to hospital, leaving Blanche and Stan home alone. She presses all his buttons and they begin to fight. He has had enough and in a fit of rage lashes out and rapes her. North scores the scene grimly with a slow, yet inexorable amplification of tensions. Bleak repeating woodwind figures and horn blares join with unsettling pizzicato strings in an increasingly agitated accelerando, which grows in menace and power. We bear witness to a horrific onslaught of dissonant terror, which culminates with a shattering crescendo.

In “Della Robia Blue” Blanche has descended into madness and will soon be committed. She has told Stella of the rape, but Stella does not want to believe her story. As Blanche prepares for her trip, she dons her favorite Della Robia blue dress. North weaves auras of pathos atop bleak woodwind figures joined by weeping strings. A descent launches a dire march, replete with tolling bells as we come to conclusion upon a nostalgic and tender rendering of Blanche’s Theme, which is supremely moving. We conclude with “The Doctor – Affirmation”, where Blanche is expecting the man of her dreams to take her away on a trip. Warm French horns speak of this bright future. When an elderly physician and nurse arrive tense strings agitato inform us that she is terrified and refuses to go. Yet the kind physician earns her trust and she does agree to leave. A final sad rendering of Blanche’s Theme carries her progress. Stella then rejects Stan for the rape and leaves him, never to return. North relates that studio executives “insisted I make a big statement for the end…and there’s always the question of retribution. Stanley had to be blamed at the end.” As such we conclude with a grand crescendo in the finest traditions of the day.

I wish to thank Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande for this remarkable restoration of “A Streetcar Called Desire”. I believe this to be a seminal score in the history of film in that it was the first time a jazz idiom was used as a dramatic underscore. Until this effort jazz had always been used in the context of source music. The recording quality is excellent and the sound, superb. Folks, North had to find the right idiom to speak to this sordid tale set in the poor tenements of New Orleans. I believe he succeeded on all counts with a jazz and blues infused score, which perfectly captured the film’s setting and emotional core. The juxtaposition of Stan’s raw, masculine jazz theme with Blanche’s softer, feminine string laden theme was illustrative, persuasive and enhanced the film’s narrative. With repeat listens you discover the beauty and intelligence of this score, one which I believe is one of the 100 Greatest film scores of all time. I highly recommend this score as an essential member of your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Main Title and opening scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7ywQVL63sE

Buy the Streetcar Named Desire soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:23)
  • New Orleans Street (1:29)
  • Belle Reve Reflections (2:15)
  • Stan Meets Blanche (3:03)
  • Blanche and Mitch (3:43)
  • Stan and Stella (3:01)
  • Blanche (2:43)
  • Belle Reve (2:50)
  • Birthday Party (3:09)
  • Revelation (5:12)
  • Mania (2:00)
  • Soliloquy (3:50)
  • Seduction (4:31)
  • Della Robia Blue (2:52)
  • The Doctor/Affirmation (4:16)

Running Time: 46 minutes 17 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5500 (1951/1995)

Music composed by Alex North. Conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Performed by The National Philharmonic Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Alex North. Recorded and mixed by Mike Ross-Trevor. Album produced by Jerry Goldsmith and Robert Townson.

  1. March 13, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    I had trouble getting the youtube video to work, here is another featuring the main title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkigcwc9Gqk

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