If any star could be said to have changed the face of acting, it would be Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. As brutish Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' landmark play, Brando was, quite simply, dynamite. The unaffected naturalism of his performance, combined with his sheer masculinity, set the benchmark for method actors from then on. In Kazan's film, Vivien Leigh stars as faded southern belle, Blanche Dubois, forced to live off her sister Stella's charity at her home in New Orleans. However, on coming into conflict with Stella's husband Stanley, Blanche's world begins to collapse, and long repressed secrets are revealed. With a supporting cast including Kim Hunter and Karl Marlden, the movie wasn't lacking for strong performances but Brando's brute aggression is what drives the film, and his scenes with Leigh feature the kind of chemistry that all directors wish for.
Equally groundbreaking was the original score by Alex North. Just as Brando was re-writing the rulebook in front of the camera, North was also re-writing it from the scoring stage. In an era saturated with the romantic European sensibilities of Korngold and others, North's score was a bolt from the blue, the very first one to draw on 20th century jazz as a dramatic device. A landmark in film scoring, it was a watershed moment that influenced virtually every other composer, from Elmer Bernstein (The Man with the Golden Arm) to Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown).
North's genre-defying approach was to become a hallmark of his work, be it the intellectual, avant-garde (and unfortunately rejected) score for 2001: A Space Odyssey or the understated, psychological approach to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Goldsmith was especially influenced by North's style, the latter becoming a close friend and mentor up until his death in 1991. It's hard to listen to Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes and not be reminded of North's progressive, modernistic techniques. And it's for this reason that Goldsmith decided to re-record a host of North's classic works, including Streetcar.
Working once again with The National Philharmonic Orchestra, Goldsmith's treatment of his friend's seminal work is as dynamic and thrilling as one would expect. It's easy to underestimate the score when listening from a modern perspective as so many of the techniques were borrowed in subsequent scores, be it the sultry interaction between the trumpet and strings or the omnipresent rumbling piano lending a sense of ominous menace. Things kick off with the wonderfully portentous, sexy Main Title, in which John Barclay's powerful trumpet performance goes full pelt, establishing the moody milieu and setting of the film. As Leigh's Blanche steps from the fateful, eponymous streetcar, the following track New Orleans Street takes on a sense of blustery energy, reflecting the alien environment in which she finds herself. Such an approach is taken for granted today but back in 1951, North's psychological approach to film music was astonishing. This approach feeds into the treatment of the characters: North's score was probably the first example of how film music could "underscore" the action, reflecting internal feeling rather than external action.
Consequently, the score brims with anguish, painting a vivid picture of Blanche's mental state. But what's really impressive is how emotional it is: the score is no mere collection of musical techniques but instead takes time to build compassion for the characters, before the climactic descent into madness. The moody interpretation of the title theme in Belle Reve Reflections casts a dark sheen over Blanche's past, while, by contrast, Stan Meets Blanche smoulders with slow burn-energy, reflecting the animal attraction yet mutual antagonism between these two very different people. The emotional nuance North is able to wring from his musical set-up is remarkable.
The trumpet work in Blanche and Mitch carries a more overtly melancholic air, hinting at the redemption she might find in the arms of a kind man. North gives equal prominence to the strings and woodwinds in this track, ensuring it carries a haunting, anguished quality. A tinkling music box midway through serves as a dramatic device, as Blanche recalls her tragic past in Belle Reve. Stan and Stella is an absolute knockout, the jazzy woodwinds leading into a terrifically slinky piece for piano and trumpet that is the embodiment of sexy. It's hard to imagine how revolutionary this music was to audiences back in the 50s; what's more remarkable is how fresh it seems today, a sure sign that North was a composer ahead of his time.
In the later stages, the moving, haunting string section comes to the fore. As the score progresses, so the sense of desperation increases, hence the wavering string lines at the start of Belle Reve and the choppy, fragmented terror of Mania and Seduction (the latter underscoring the play's notorious rape scene, which was cut from the finished film). Seeing as the strings are often compared to the range of the human voice, it's an effective device in humanising Blanche's struggle. Soliloquy is a heartbreakingly beautiful and unremittingly tragic rendition of Blanche's theme, incredible music from a score not often noted for its emotional content. Things are then wrapped up in the pessimistic finale of Della Robia Blue and The Doctor/Affirmation, denying the listener the traditional sappy ending and instead concluding on a sense of pragmatic melancholy. Blanche's open-ended fate is reflected in the music, yet another startling, modernistic masterstroke in a score dotted with them.
Every so often, an artist re-writes the rulebook. Alfred Hitchcock did it with the shower scene in Psycho; George Orwell did it with 1984; and, in 1951, Alex North shattered audiences expectations of what film music could be. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most important scores in the history of cinema but it's no mere exercise in attitude and swagger. It's emotionally involving and very moving, reflecting the needs of the story while standing on its own. Every film score since has been following in its wake. This essential recording of an historic score is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.