On the Waterfront (United States, 1954)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The recipient of eight Oscars (including Best Picture), On the Waterfront represented a defining moment in the careers to two key participants: actor Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan. A gritty, uncompromising look at union corruption on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, the film is loosely based on real-life events, and, even though the specific politics of the era no longer possess the immediacy they once had, they still carry weight within the context of the movie, which was one of the best acted efforts to come out of Hollywood during the 1950s.

In many ways, the United States was formed on the backs of manual laborers (whether on assembly lines, in steel mills, in coal mines, or elsewhere), and few would deny the importance of the early unions to the welfare of the American worker. Today, many unions seem more like political machines than organizations dedicated to advancing the circumstances of their members, but, in the 1950s, unions were a vital force that permeated nearly every aspect of American industry, and, as with every repository of influence, the potential for graft was great. On the Waterfront takes a long, hard look at one such situation - and the impact it has upon the lives of those who don't play by the rules.

The central figure in the film is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), an ex-boxer who does odd-jobs and runs errands for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the crooked boss of the dockers' union. Terry's brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is a member of Johnny's inner circle, and, in large part because of his influence, Terry is trusted. When a longshoreman threatens Johnny's position, the boss has him killed - with Terry's unwitting assistance. Once Terry realizes that he was inadvertently involved in the murder, he begins to reassess his life and his position in Johnny's organization. Meanwhile, the local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to organize the longshoreman to speak out against the corruption around them by going before the Waterfront Crime Commission. Terry is torn between loyalty to Johnny and his brother and the unease of his conscience and his growing infatuation for the murdered man's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). In the end, he is pushed into a position from which escape demands that he betray someone.

Over the years, many critics have praised On the Waterfront for having what has been called a nearly perfect screenplay. Written by Budd Schulberg (based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles by Malcolm Johnson that originally appeared in The New York Sun), the script has the unmistakable ring of truth (despite the altered, upbeat ending). For the most part, it neither proselytizes nor preaches, and deals with its central subject with a candor that many movies of the era lacked. Watching the film today, some fifty years after its initial release, it requires little effort to span the half-century between now and then; Schulberg's screenplay makes it easy to understand the situation, even though the entire political climate has undergone a major upheaval since then.

For director Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront represented an opportunity to exorcise, at least by proxy, some personal demons. In 1952, while at the height of his career (he had already made A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata!), Kazan agreed to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. By naming the names of colleagues associated with the Communist Party, Kazan gave himself a free pass, and was able to proceed unmolested with his own career. He also became one of the most high-profile witnesses to speak and avoid blacklisting. On the Waterfront, which came shortly after this period in Kazan's life, contains scenes in which a man stands before a government body and betrays his former friends and colleagues - because his conscience insists that he must do this thing, no matter how it makes him look to others. One would have to be naïve to ignore the obvious connection between the film's storyline and Kazan's personal life. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Kazan was making a statement in defense of his actions: conscience, not self-interest, motivated him to speak before the Committee. I leave it to each reader to determine whether to accept that argument.

Marlon Brando had previously worked twice with Kazan, on Streetcar and Viva Zapata! During those collaborations, Kazan indoctrinated Brando in the theory and approach of method acting, which Brando used to great effect in On the Waterfront. During the course of his career (especially the early portion of it), Brando gave some amazing performances, but nothing he did before or after rivals his depiction of Terry Malloy. Two scenes in particular stand out as examples of the actor at his finest: the scene where Terry and Edie walk through a park and he toys with the glove she drops (eventually slipping it onto his own hand), and the powerful one-on-one between Terry and Charley where Brando gives his famous "I coulda been a contender" speech. That scene probably represents the best work ever done by either of its participants (Steiger and Brando). It's interesting to note that Brando originally turned down the role; while he was being wooed, Frank Sinatra agreed to appear if Brando couldn't be won over.

While, from an acting standpoint, On the Waterfront is unquestionably Brando's film, he received solid support from all corners. While Brando took home an Oscar for Best Actor, Eva Marie Saint captured one for Best Supporting Actress. Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and Karl Malden were all recognized in the Best Supporting Actor category, although none of them won (the award went to Edmund O'Brien for The Barefoot Contessa, after these three split the vote). Nevertheless, even with the sterling screenplay, this movie would not have had the same impact without such a capable cast. Steiger in particular deserves more credit than he is often given. He and Brando feed off one another in the film's most memorable scene. Would the delivery of the "contender" line have been as poignant with another actor in Steiger's place?

I suspect that, had On the Waterfront been made two decades later, the ending would have been darker and more cynical than the one we are presented with. (Indeed, the real-life situation upon which Schulberg based the screenplay did not end in such an upbeat fashion.) Here, right prevails over wrong as the bloody-yet-unbowed Terry struggles to his feet and completes the quest for redemption that he began when he realized he had been used to lure a man to his death. Strictly speaking, this isn't a "happy" ending, but it is a triumphant one. The final act is more meaningful in the context of completing Terry's character arc than it is in closing the story of union corruption. Johnny Friendly is out, but who's to say that his replacement won't be as bad (or worse)?

Today, parts of On the Waterfront don't work quite as well as they once did. Some scenes seem contrived or overly familiar. But the anger and passion come through. And the romance - gentle, tenuous, and fragile - works as well now as it always did, perhaps because love (unlike politics) never changes. But the real reason to see On the Waterfront is for Brando. It's only possible to understand his impact on American cinema by observing what he does in On the Waterfront (and, to a lesser extent, in Streetcar). The power of the "contender" scene isn't so much in the words as it is in the way they're delivered - the simple pain in Brando's voice is echoed in his eyes and mannerisms. Schulberg may have written the scene, but Brando makes it his own. On the Waterfront may have baggage, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the great American productions of the mid-20th century.

On the Waterfront (United States, 1954)

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, Eva Marie Saint
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Leonard Bernstein
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Ranked #99 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1