A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 4
ON THE WATERFRONT
50th Anniversary Retrospective
1954, no MPAA rating, 108 mins.
Brando: Terry Malloy
Malden: Father Berry
J. Cobb: Johnny Friendly
Sainte Maire: Edie
Steiger: Charlie Directed by Elia Kazan / Written by Budd Schulberg
ON THE WATERFRONT
50th Anniversary Retrospective
1954, no MPAA rating, 108 mins.
Marlon Brando: Terry Malloy / Karl Malden: Father Berry / Lee J. Cobb: Johnny Friendly / Eva Sainte Maire: Edie / Rod Steiger: Charlie
Directed by Elia Kazan / Written by Budd Schulberg
ON THE WATERFRONT, even 50 years after its release, still remains one of the greatest of all American films. It won eight Oscars and would go on to be one of the most important films for actor Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan.
The film may
arguably be the most crucial to emerge in the last fifty years if you
look closely at the performance by its young star.
To watch Brando, in his Oscar winning performance as Terry Malloy,
is to witness history in the making. It
just may be the most influential piece of screen acting in American
cinema. His gritty and emotional charged performance was something
new to audiences in 1954. They
found something fresh in the way he delivered his portrayal of the
down-on-his-luck boxer. He had a spontaneity, looseness, and realism, and film
acting was never quite the same afterwards.
The film was inspired by "Crime on the Waterfront", a series of articles in the New York Sun that won Malcolm Johnson the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Reporting. Elia Kazan did approach Arthur Miller to write the screenplay, but he immediately turned it down because he felt, at the time, that Kazan might have named him as a Communist during his secret appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. ON THE WATERFRONT was the film made in 1954 after Kazan agreed to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee, where he named former associates who were involved with the Communist Party.
Some critics and film historians have commented on the eerie parallels between the story in WATERFRONT and Kazan’s own life. In the film Brando testifies against his employer, an evil and unscrupulous mob union boss who rules the dockworkers with an iron fist. Some feel that WATERFRONT was a “justification” film for Kazan. In the film, Malloy pleads with a mob and justifies his decision to testify. History has shown that Kazan did believe that Communism was an evil force that took over him for a short time; thus, he felt it needed to be combated. He has even called ON THE WATERFRONT “my own story.”
Other critics despised the idea that Kazan used the tale of union
corruption as thinly veiled vehicle to speak his mind, validate his own
views and explain his decisions in life. These
critics miss the point, I think. Films
always have an agenda, and the great directors always speak through their films. Was Kazan’s move shameful and unforgivable?
I’m not really sure, but you can at least give him some
constructive credit for standing his ground, speaking honestly, and not hiding
behind his beliefs. Just because
WATERFRONT had a hidden agenda does not diminish its power as one the great film
experiences of the 1950’s. Controversial?
Yes. Significant? Undoubtedly.
Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay
of the film which was produced by Sam Spiegel, one of the greatest of all
producers (his next film would be another classic, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI).
It was Spiegel that first suggested Frank Sinatra for the role.
Spiegel, thankfully, made the right decision for the then
up-and-coming Brando, who was slowly becoming a hot property in Hollywood.
This may just be the most crucial casting decision change ever committed.
It makes for one of those great “what if” scenarios if Sinatra took
the role that Brando made both famous and monumentally important.
The screenplay, widely regarded by
many as one of the most perfectly written scripts ever, is a gritty, violent,
and dark take of union corruption and of the workers that slave away while their
union bosses reap all of the benefits. Kazan shot the film on location in
Hoboken, N.J. on and near the docks, and he even used real longshoremen playing
themselves as extras. Union life
and work was slowly taking a strong grip of the American labor force, and ON
THE WATERFRONT now can be seen as an extremely gutsy and forceful film, one that
had the tenacity to look hard at union corruption when most films at the time
would have never dared to. In
context, WATERFRONT is film with such a resonating truth about it, people could
see it and relate to it, in one form or another.
The main character in the film is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) a former boxer turned longshoreman that freelances his days doing “jobs” and errands for his employer Johnny Friendly (played by the great Lee J. Cobb). Friendly also just happens to be the crooked boss of the local docker’s union, and also employs Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger). Terry seems, more or less, a trusted and loyal member of Friendly’s inner circle because of his brother. The film opens with a bang, when a longshoreman threatens Friendly and is subsequently killed, with the unwilling assistance of Terry. Terry thought that Friendly's goons were only going to rough up the man, and becomes somewhat disillusioned by his indirect participation in the man’s death.
This moment in the film
strikes Terry so difficultly that he begins to re-evaluate both his life, his
position in it, and his dark ties to union corruption.
While this occurs, a local priest (in a flawless performance by Karl
Malden) tries to gather up the longshoreman in an effort to combat the
corruption of the union bosses and urges them testify against them at the
Washington Crime Commission. The
plot escalates to an emotional peak where Terry must make a serious decision
that could have grave consequences. He
becomes increasingly torn between his loyalty to Friendly and his brother and
the enormous guilt over the murder of the longshoreman.
This is further complicated by his meeting and growing attraction to the
dead man’s sister Edie (played by newcomer Eva Marie Saint).
Terry is finally pushed to act, and his decision causes him to loose
those he cares for.
To look at this film from a microscope 50 years in the future, it’s amazing what a fresh and tense picture it has remained. Schulberg’s famous screenplay is frank, to the point, and clearly speaks from a mindset without trivializing the themes or outright preaching them incessantly. In context, the film’s candor was as revolutionary as it was eye opening. For a film to deal with such a seedy and troublesome content in an era of safe productions that lacked substance, ON THE WATERFRONT remains a strong political and social editorial on the workingman and the corrupt conditions that exploit them.
Clearly, I was born decades after the film was set and released and the
political climate has changed drastically, but the screenplay sets everything up
so flawlessly and simply. You never
really feel out of the loop, and Schulberg’s ability to provide quick audience
empathy and understanding is a bold achievement indeed.
It also a wonderful combination of various styles and genres, its part
union picture, part commentary piece, and a lot of parts gangster, film noir
Kazan’s direction is equally
sinuous and masterful. He made
WATERFRONT at the peak of his career (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and VIVA ZAPATA!
were some of his other successes) but it was also a time, as previously stated,
that he participated in those HUAC hearings.
He emerged from the period as a masterful director who also was the most
highly profiled witnesses to speak out and avoid blacklisting.
It’s just so difficult to separate the film from Kazan’s own life.
In one of the film’s most emotionally wrenching moments, Malloy stands
before the court and “rats” out Friendly and his corrupt union partners.
Does Terry do this because he wants to?
Maybe. My guess is
that, ideally, he would not want to rat out all of his closest friends and
colleagues. But, ultimately, it is
his own conscious and guilt that he fears will last with him a lifetime
that acts as a catalyst for his decision to testify.
Whether you agree with Kazan’s own decisions in life or not, the scene
in the film is powerful not only because its well acted and filmed, but because
it has so many meaningful layers of subtext.
Marlon Brando was paid $100, 000 to play Terry (peanuts if you consider the outrageous sums he received to play future roles that could be best described as cameos). ON THE WATERFRONT is his film, and his trend setting performance is its heartbeat. This was not Brando’s first film with Kazan (he also worked with him on STREETCAR and ZAPATA). They collaboration and partnership would result in the most important union of creators ever in film. It was with Kazan that Brando was given the necessary guidance and push to fully embrace "The Method", a form of acting that he started in STREETCAR, but mastered on WATERFRONT.
Kazan called Brando’s work the best performance in a film
ever. Is it? Well, it's not so much the best as it is the most
solidified Brando on the map of great actors, but it also single-handedly
changed screen acting forever. Just
look at all Hollywood films before the 50’s and WATERFRONT and I need very
little room to embellish. Actors
were generally stiff, uninvolved, and wooden in their delivery and performances
This all changed with Brando. His performance, which
is so charged with energy, vitality, spontaneity, and raw animalistic charisma,
there was no doubt that he was acting completely differently than the
previous generation of actors were. He
took modern acting conventions, stepped on them and completely changed
everything. His mannerisms, his
voice, his body language, everything he did was done with a fresh
eagerness. His characters felt real
and not like performance pieces. The
De Niros, Pacinos, and a handful of modern Hollywood talent would not have
emerged as they are now without Brando.
So many scenes demonstrate Brando’s creativity. There is one deceptively simple scene where Terry and Edie stroll around and talk and she drops a glove, which he proceeds to pick up and toy with endlessly. Its a small moment, but so huge in meaning. That small scene of improv adds so much texture and context; you just knew that you were witnessing a different approach to acting. An earlier scene where Terry tries to dodge local investigators is equally well handled. And who can forget one of the greatest scenes ever when Brando confronts his brother in a powerful one-on-one conversation in the backseat of a taxicab.
It’s as intimate and direct of a scene between two wounded men that I
have ever seen. They are brothers
who love each other, but nevertheless have not expressed their love for quite
some time. Brando then engages in,
arguably, the most immortal and famous screen monologues ever, pleading
with his bother on how he wished he “could have been a contender,” instead
of the bum that he became. That
speech, where he chastises his brother for making him throw a crucial fight that
essentially ended his boxing career, is the greatest film confrontational moment
ever. Brando confronts his brother
with such passion, so much regret, so much melancholy, and so much feelings of
distaste for his brother’s lack of proper guidance and responsibility…you
bear Terry’s pain with him. Its
truly one the defining movie moments.
As great as Brando was, the rest of
the cast were also equal to the task. I
especially liked Karl Malden as the local priest with the right ideas in his
head, even if those ideas are foolhardy and difficult to see forward to
fruition. He brings a right amount
of conviction and pathos to the part, and he really gives you a sense that he
can’t take any more corruption (a great scene has Terry pleading with the
priest that if he “spills”, then his life is not going to be worth a nickel,
where Malden lashes back with strong authority, “how much is your soul worth
if you don’t!?). Eva Saint
Maire’s introductory performance is also memorable, and her first screen work
nabbed her an Oscar. She is
radiant, soft-spoken, and well mannered…a real lady amongst a seas of thugs,
and she makes a very effective counterpoint to both the character of Terry and
the terrible world he occupies. Rod
Steiger is, I feel, highly unappreciated in this film.
His part is small, but crucial, and the way he works with Brando in the
taxi is a textbook exercise in responsive acting.
ON THE WATERFRONT is a film whose
light has not dimmed in any capacity. It’s
a film with passion and heart, and it bravely tackles pertinent issues of its
day with an unheard of and unseen zeal. It’s
just so easy to overlook and understate the sheer impact and importance of the
film. If you look hard you will see
a film that breathes to life from its author (Kazan) and its narrative voice (Brando).
It remains a strong parallel to the life of its troubled director while
also introducing audiences to a new and freer form of film acting that would
have repercussions that are still felt today.
ON THE WATERFRONT is as ageless as it is metaphorical, and it’s no
surprise why it is widely regarded as one of the great defining and iconic
American films. Genuine,
pioneering, endearing, powerful and revealing…what else could you want out
of a film?