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On the Waterfront
2 reviews

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Movie Details

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Directed By
Elia Kazan

Written By:
Budd Schulberg, Budd Schulberg

Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Leif Erickson, Tony Galento, John Hamilton, Nehemiah Persoff, Pat Henning

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On the Waterfront (1954)
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Movie Review by Jarrod
May 15th, 2008

It is amazing how many people have probably never seen 'On the Waterfront' and yet believe they have because they recognize its most famous bit of dialogue, Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech, delivered by his character Terry Malloy, to his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger). This is a layered monologue in which Terry reminds Charlie of how he squandered his chance at a boxing championship because Charlie told him to throw the fight, which he did, out of respect for Charlie, and because he believes Charlie genuinely knows what is best for him, and will always make the right decisions. However, Terry is also asserting his own autonomy, showing Charlie that he will decide his own fate, and deal with any consequences that arise as a result. This is a crucial moment, as Terry will eventually confront the snarling crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) he and Charlie both work for. Charlie has Terry in the back of that car to escort him to a meeting where he will undoubtedly be whacked, in true mob style; Charlie lets him go, and pays for it with his life; Terry later discovers his body, and desires revenge, but he also wants to shut Johnny down for good, which he will do in the courtroom as a witness, a stoolie as they call it, with the support of Father Barry (Karl Malden), the committed priest who wants to expose and cripple Johnny's crooked business at the docks. This is a moody masterpiece of a film, one of the true classics of American cinema; it still packs a wallop after 50 years, and that speech has not lost any of its impact, either. It is a thrilling and compelling drama, from director Elia Kazan, who worked with Brando previously on his seminal adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. It is arguably Brando's best performance, for which he won his first Oscar; only his role in The Godfather is more iconic. Terry is introduced to us luring a friend of his onto the roof of his apartment building, telling him he is returning a pigeon; the man is thrown to his death by Johnny's goons. Pigeons are important here; Terry cares for them, finds refuge in their company, assisted by a kid who admires Terry for his toughness and crude principles. Terry is not a particularly bright man; formerly a boxer, now left to do odd jobs for Johnny as a part-time enforcer. He can get preferential treatment at the docks, always selected, along with a few others, from the long line of men standing outside every morning, waiting for the doors to open, hoping that they get work that day. They toil on ships and in warehouses; Johnny and his cronies run the place, reaping the profits, and killing anyone who threatens their operation. Charlie is one of Johnny's top guys, an adviser of sorts, trusted and valued because of his intelligence; Terry is useful as hired muscle and little else.

Johnny is not too different from Terry; he relies on smarter men to handle his money and do all the managerial stuff; he is good at bullying and intimidating people, and he inspires loyalty primarily through fear, like Al Capone; whoever crosses him will end up dead. Eva Marie Saint is Edie Doyle; her brother is the unfortunate soul who dies in the beginning; she doesn't know Terry was involved, and he falls for her. Saint got an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Greek by birth, Elia Kazan had a lot of commercial and critical success and was highly respected in Hollywood, until he testified at a HUAC hearing and "named names", an act for which he was eternally vilified by his former friend Arthur Miller; shunned by many of his other colleagues in Hollywood, even though he remained committed to socialist and leftist principles for the rest of his life. His decision to testify and thus participate in HUAC's anti-Communist investigations had to do a great deal with his disillusionment with the Soviet Union, particularly the violence and repression of the Stalin era, Soviet crimes of World War II (especially at Katyn in Poland), and the appalling excesses of the Communist regimes littered across Eastern Europe.

'On the Waterfront' attempts to paint a positive picture of the "stoolie", the informant, the person who turns against the majority and speaks up for what is right and just, even if it makes him unpopular. Terry could thus be seen as a representation of Kazan himself, or of screenwriter Budd Schulberg, once a member of the CPUSA, who, when that little fact was exposed, agreed to join Kazan in "naming names" as a friendly witness, maybe to avoid getting blacklisted, like Dalton Trumbo and numerous other writers. Schulberg's Oscar-winning dialogue is gritty and explosive, simplistic yet philosophic, crudely elegant, tailored perfectly to fit the personality of each character. Adding to the intensity and realism is the dynamic and forceful score by Leonard Bernstein (an Oscar nominee), and the spectacularly crisp and fluid editing by Gene Milford (Oscar winner). Boris Kaufman (another Oscar winner) contributes some of the most distinctive and influential cinematography of the era, unmistakably evocative, adding a rich and rugged texture to the New York setting, rendering it dark and uninviting, depressing and ominous, a place devoid of joy or hope.

Poor Lee J Cobb rarely got a chance to play the nice guy that often, as this film and 12 Angry Men ably illustrate. One of his last roles, as a detective in The Exorcist, afforded him that opportunity, though there was still a gruffness and hardness to him. Karl Malden embodies compassion and kindness as Father Barry; Brando never strikes a false note, and neither does Rod Steiger, whose Charlie is torn between different and opposing loyalties. It is interesting to note that Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman specifically with Cobb in mind as Willy Loman; Cobb was also implicated as a Communist during the HUAC hearings, and was forced to confront these allegations, eventually choosing to cooperate rather than risk professional ruination. So, in this sense, he was sort of like Schulberg, though Miller insisted that Cobb had always been relatively apolitical, except for a brief flirtation with anti-Nazi causes in the 1930s. And Miller remained friends with Cobb while distancing himself from Kazan, strangely enough.

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May 15, 2008 4:41 PM
Excellent stuff. Your first point, about folk thinking that they have seen it on the basis of brando's career 'montage highlight' works the polar opposite for me. I first witnessed this film a long time ago when I was very young (sometimes my parents had good taste). I really did not appreciate it at the time. In the following years and all the movies I watched in that time I always felt that there were aspects and situations that felt so familiar. It was not until I came back to ON THE WATERFRONT (sadly, for me, only a coulpe of years ago) that I realised its importance.

Cheers, ta and all that.

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