A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan and adapted from Tennessee Williams's award-winning play, first premiered in 1951. A gripping domestic drama filled with sex and violence, the story presents a most interesting use of poker as both a plot device and a means to emphasize one of the film's themes, namely, the stark, conflict-causing differences that can sometimes exist between men and women.
One scene in particular, coming relatively early in the film, well demonstrates how poker — especially during its early history — was not only considered by some to be a game reserved for men, but also a ready context in which men fulfill cultural expectations about masculinity.
Williams's play in fact began with a different working title — "The Poker Night" — and in its finished version still retains numerous poker references all of the way down to the characters drinking "Jax" beer.
"Poker Night" was retained as the title of a pivotal scene early in the play and film, by which point we've already gotten to know the story's three primary figures, Stanley Kowalski (played by Marlon Brando in the film), his wife Stella (Kim Hunter), and her sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh). By then we've also come to recognize the disruption caused by Blanche coming to New Orleans to stay with the young couple.
In a way, Blanche moving into their small apartment near the French Quarter instantly draws attention to several differences that exist between her vulnerable, newly pregnant sister and the callous, muscle-bound Stanley, a WWII vet turned factory worker.
Stella, like Blanche, hails from rural Mississippi, much different from the gritty urban setting in which Stanley seems comfortable. There is also a class conflict of sorts going on, with Stanley's modest upbringing clashing with the (now lost) aristocratic heritage of the DuBois family.
The most prominent conflict in the film, however, is the ongoing one between men and women, something Blanche's upsetting the balance of in the Kowalski household certainly brings to light. And the arrival of poker night — happening shortly after Blanche's arrival — particularly underscores the contrast between the sexes the film intends to convey.
During the afternoon before the game, Blanche says to Stanley "I understand there's to be a little card party here tonight, to which we ladies are cordially not invited." "That's right," answers Stanley, wasting no words.
It's obvious that the game represents something wholly off limits to the women. In fact, Stanley's response suggests even talking about the game with Blanche is inappropriate. Stella understands the need for the men to be alone, and thus plans to take Blanche out for the evening. Before they leave, however, Blanche attempts a bit of flirting with Stanley, and when he resists Blanche responds with a back-handed compliment.
"I can't imagine any witch of a woman casting a spell over you," says Blanche. "That's right," responds Stanley, repeating his same terse reply from before. Undeterred, Blanche continues.
"You're simple, straightforward, and honest. A little bit on the... uh... primitive side, I should say. The way to proceed a woman would have to..."
"She would have to lay her cards on the table," Stanley says, abruptly halting her with a poker metaphor. Some shouting ensues, and their conversation-slash-argument ends without much resolution.
Cut to later that night. In the play, Williams's stage directions unmistakably reveal his intention for the poker game to highlight the players' masculinity.
Explaining how each of the actors are to wear colored shirts, Williams notes "they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors" they are sporting.
While we can't see the colors of the men's shirts in the black-and-while film (co-scripted by Williams), we can certainly appreciate the other masculine notes being loudly sounded in the scene.
It is upon the ladies' return that we first glimpse the game, now many hours old. The men are drinking and smoking cigars, the room darkly lit and claustrophobic-seeming.
From upstairs comes banging and yelling from the wife of one of the players, impatient with the noise the men are making and wishing for the game to end. She threatens to repeat an action she's apparently done before to end their games — pour boiling water through cracks in the floor.
Stella and Blanche hover over the game momentarily while a hand being is dealt.
"Poker's so fascinating!" Blanche says. "Could I kibbitz?" she asks while reaching down to peek at one of the player's cards.
"You could not!" angrily yells Stanley while pushing her hand away. Not incidentally, Stanley has been losing, and soon he suggests the women should leave.
"How much longer is this game going to continue?" asks Stella. "Until we get ready to quit!" responds Stanley, giving his wife an aggressive slap on the backside when she is slow to exit.
The game continues while the women move to the neighboring room, the card playing having literally segregated the sexes. The sisters start to make noise, laughing and playing the radio, prompting Stanley — not unlike the wife upstairs — to yell across for them to keep quiet.
Eventually one of the players, Mitch (Karl Malden), leaves the game momentarily to talk with Blanche, with whom he's instantly enchanted. Meanwhile the poker continues, and when it's Stanley's turn to call the game he announces Spit in the Ocean, a draw poker variant employing a community card.
Blanche eventually has the radio back on and begins dancing for Mitch. In the other room, a hand is concluding.
"Three bullets, mustache," says Stanley to Pablo as he reaches for the money in the middle. "A straight, I gotcha!" yells back Pablo with a greedy grin as he grabs Stanley's arm.
Incensed, Stanley gets up and races into the next room. There he grabs the radio and shockingly throws it through a closed window, the glass shattering in a loud explosion.
Stella responds in kind, rushing into the room where the men are sitting and pushing one of the players, the light above the table breaking in the process. An enraged Stanley then begins to beat his pregnant wife, the attack ending only after one of the men knocks him unconscious.
"We should not be playing in a house with women!" Mitch yells out amid the tumult, a line he repeats when Stanley, after finally coming to, throws everyone out. The scene ends with a disoriented Stanley outside and alone, yelling for Stella who has taken refuge upstairs — the iconic "Stella!" scene everyone remembers from the film. Stella forgives him (this time) and comes back down.
There are a few possible reasons for Stanley's outburst, including his well-founded suspicions that Blanche's story about "losing" the DuBois family estate and being on a leave of absence from her job as a school teacher is untruthful. That's an issue that will become more significant later in the film when her seduction of Mitch has further progressed.
But really here Stanley seems most upset at how the poker game — an arena for "men to be men," perhaps not unlike the war from which he's recently returned — has been disturbed. It is almost as though that "manhood" Williams describes the players possessing has been somehow threatened or at least compromised by the women's intrusion.
Later Blanche talks to her sister about Stanley, calling him an "animal" and "subhuman." Poker, too, becomes part of her argument when she refers to "poker night" as "his party of apes." Blanche, arguing for the arts and other refinements, tries to convince Stella that she shouldn't stay with Stanley and thus "hang back with the brutes," but her argument isn't working.
Those familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire know things do not turn out well for Stanley, Stella and Blanche. The fact that the men reconvene to play one more round of poker at the end of the film seems to underscore the fact that the divide between men and women has only widened by the story's conclusion.
Indeed, here "poker night" ultimately appears designated as an arena in which men might readily indulge their most "primitive" tendencies.
It's worth noting this view of poker — as it existed mid-20th century (or at other times in history, before or since) — isn't necessarily shared by all, although it certainly reflects the game's long male-dominated legacy. Tennessee Williams's decision to portray the game this way was no doubt influenced by his own experience with it, including his alcoholic, abusive father having had part of his ear bitten off in a poker fight (no kidding!).
Much more could be said about the use of poker in A Streetcar Named Desire, including how the game reflects other themes in the story, such as the way luck sometimes steps in to punish the deserving and reward the unworthy. Or the various kinds of "bluffing" characters perform, masking reality with their "poker faces." Or even the way successful poker players, like Blanche, "have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
That said, the way the game appears to divide the sexes, pitting men and women against one another, seems the most significant use of poker in Streetcar.
From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.