A film review by Craig J. Koban






RANK: # 4



50th Anniversary Retrospective Review  

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 thriller.

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 important.  WATERFRONT 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 pre-WATERFRONT.  This all changed with Brando.  His performance, which is so charged with energy, vitality, spontaneity, and raw animalistic charisma, proved that 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?

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