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Have I Seen This Movie 100 Times or Is It 200?
by Jon Schuller

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In early 2010, when I was asked to write a short article about movies, in order to become a columnist on Matchflick.com, the first film I thought of was one of my all-time favorites. It was a part of my life and has remained high on my list after many, many years. It's a picture that was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning 8 of them. It is high on the American Film Institute's rating of greatest American films. The Library of Congress declared it a cultural and historical treasure, preserved on the National Film Registry for all time. The movie's score was written by a world famous music composer. It was based on a true story and helped many people tell their own, personal stories of a tough existence and the corrupt practices they endured on their jobs and in their lives. I first saw it as a young child and its effects on me, then and now, are still powerful, reminding me of why movies are so important and how they can influence our lives. Many famous actors auditioned for the main roles but, as I've said in the past about casting, those actors in retrospect may not have created the characters that have become so long ingrained on the public consciousness. Over 60 years later, this movie is still discussed, debated and used as an example of movie-making at its best in America, and the world. On The Waterfront premiered in July, 1954, starring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, Karl Malden as Father Barry, Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly, Rod Steiger as Charley "The Gent" Malloy and Eva Marie Saint, in her debut role, as Edie Doyle. The screenplay was written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. The score was written by Leonard Bernstein.

Terry Malloy, whose big brother Charley works as the accountant for waterfront mob boss, Johnny Friendly, is an ex-fighter who gets easy, no-brainer jobs on the docks. He has no aspirations to better
himself and pretty much is happy with his circumstances. The boss is feeling tremendous pressures because the new Waterfront Crime Commission is holding hearings about crime on the docks; specifically, the mob's strangle-hold on the union and its workers. For many years before the film premiered, it was a well-known fact (from World War II and the government's secret dealings with Lucky Luciano) that the five New York families controlled the dock workers' unions in New York and New Jersey. A man named Malcolm Johnson had written a series of articles, published in 1949 in the New York Sun, that had exposed many corrupt practices. Terry's brother Charley is supposed to be finding ways to keep the Commission investigators from getting any information that could be used against Johnny Friendly and his organization. They find out that a union member, Joey Doyle, is about to testify before the Commission. Terry is ordered to persuade Joey not to do it as the two are supposed to meet on the roof of an apartment building. Instead of talking, the mob enforcers throw Joey off the roof to his death. Terry is upset that they would resort to violence and not give him a chance to talk Joey out of his decision to "rat."

Terry meets Joey's sister, Edie, who comes to Hoboken for Joey's funeral. He is immediately drawn to her as she complains loudly to the parish priest, Father Barry, that everyone knows why and how Joey died but no one breaks the docks' rule of "D and D": Deaf and Dumb. Father Barry is the only person who tries to console her and get the other men to see what the corrupt union and its boss have done to them; how their very lives are at the mercy of Johnny Friendly. One of them, Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan (Pat Henning) does approach Father Barry and says he'll testify about Joey's death and intimate details of the mob as long as the Father backs him up. He
too is found out and crushed to death under a load of Irish whiskey as the men are unloading the cargo hold of a ship. Father Barry makes a passionate speech, invoking Jesus, to everyone about what they should be doing instead of "D and D."

Terry has become emotionally involved with Edie, who has not returned to the convent in upstate New York, because she knows what's going on and, she too, is drawn to Terry. She chides him, as she comforts him, that he must step forward and do what's right. Terry agrees to meet his brother, Charley, in a taxicab on the way to Madison Square Garden in the city. Charley has been ordered to convince Terry not to testify. If he can't talk Terry out of it, he's been told to kill his brother. In one of the most famous and iconic scenes in the history of the movies, in the backseat of the cab, Terry and Charley discuss the situation. Brando makes the immortal, impassioned speech to Steiger: "You was my brother, Charley," he says. "You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me, just a little bit, so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money...I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." Charley sticks a small revolver into Terry's side as Terry gently pushes it aside, not believing that his own brother is there to kill him. Charley says "I'll tell him I couldn't find you." Terry leaves the cab and we see the driver (Nehemiah Persoff in an uncredited role) suddenly taking the cab down a ramp into a darkened building.

Terry goes to see Edie in her small apartment. We hear someone yelling for Terry in the street that his brother wants to see him. Terry goes out and Edie, scared to death, runs after him into an alley. A large truck tries to run them
down but they escape. As the headlights go by Terry sees his brother, dead, hanging from a longshoreman's hook on a wall. Terry has a gun and tells Edie to get Father Barry as he is determined to get revenge.

In the local bar, Terry sits drinking a beer in one bloody hand and holding the gun in the other. Father Barry convinces him not to kill anyone. Instead, testify to get revenge for Charley's murder. Terry testifies at the Commission hearings, pretty much telling the world that Johnny Friendly is a murderer and owns the union.

The next day Terry goes to the docks to work and is not chosen as he has become persona non grata among his friends and co-workers. He gets into a brawl with Johnny Friendly, nearly beaten to death, but gets up and walks to the warehouse's door to begin work. All of the men follow Terry as the film ends.

It's well-known that the film's famous director, Elia Kazan, was reported to have made the film to show the world (and his friends and colleagues) that he, too, wasn't a "rat" as he had testified before Joseph McCarthy's infamous House Un-American Actvities Committee as to whom he knew to be Communists. Many talented peoples' lives had been ruined due to testimonies by others over the years.

This movie is immortal. The actors' portrayals are simply amazing. Brando's abilities to transition before our eyes from an unthinking guy to a sensitive, almost-childlike adult, caught in a web of love and lies, are a never-ending source of amazement for me. The film's messages of loyalty, understanding, knowledge, conscience and love are universal. It's as relevant today as it was in 1954. We must stand up for what's right, what's true, despite dangers, threats and lies. America's enduring battles for human rights, both at home and overseas, continues today, unabated, on social media and television. We all need to keep up the fight.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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