On The Waterfront
US (1954) Dir. Elia Kazan
With eight Oscars to its credit and boasting an incendiary central performance from Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront stands as one of the more daunting classics I am viewing for the first time.
Based on a real life situation, this tale centres around Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a young dockworker, once a promising prizefighter until his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) had Terry take a dive in a big match for a big pay off. Charley is the right hand man for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a corrupt union boss with mob connections who runs the waterfront with an iron fist. The Waterfront Crime Commission are unable to pin Friendly for his crimes due to the “D&D” (deaf and dumb) policy the locals adhere to in order to stay alive.
One person willing to speak out was Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) but, with Terry’s help, Joey is killed. Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) wants to find the killer and bring him to justice, but Terry becomes smitten by her and tries to protect her. With the urging of “Waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Edie’s influence, Terry ponders testifying against Friendly.
The overall tone of the film is unashamedly gritty, similar in feel to the working class dramas made here in the UK; the titular waterfront setting could easily be transposed to the docks in Southampton or Liverpool. But this film has a deeper political issue at its heart for director Elia Kazan, who two years earlier had given the names of eight people in the film industry during HUAC investigation into communism. Many felt Kazan was wrong to do this and this film is said to be his rebuttal to these accusations.
Indeed it is a complex moral tale; perhaps not so complex from the audience’s point of view but for Terry who thus far has lived his life under the aegis of his brother and by association, Johnny Friendly. Terry is not an idiot but is clearly easily lead and sticks earnestly and honestly by his family. We see however, from the get go that he is uncomfortable with the shady dealings of Friendly, quick to question and show his disgust at the killing of Joey.
An inevitable Romeo and Juliet relationship blossoms between Terry and Edie, opening Terry’s eyes to his moral obligation of reporting Friendly but doesn’t want the stigma of being a snitch or to complicate matters for Charley. Father Barry begins a crusade to unite the dockworkers against Friendly but they remain afraid. When one, Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning), finally agrees to testify, he is killed in front of everyone at work in an “accident”, forcing Barry to make an impassioned sermon at the scene to galvanise the workers, but Friendly remains in control.
The trump card is played during the now legendary “I coulda been a contender” speech by Terry to brother Charley, to remind him of the career he could have had if Terry didn’t throw the fight. It serves as a rather late but pivotal plot point to drive home the conflicting effects of corruption and how one man’s gain was another man’s downfall – the biggest blow being the two men are in the same camp. With Charley questioning Terry’s loyalty to Friendly, where was his loyalty to Terry?
This seems an extreme manner by Kazan to defend his actions at the HUAC investigation since there was probably little chance he would be killed for speaking out; yet he went on to win the Best Director and Best Film Oscars in 1955 although in later years opinion turned against Kazan and the acceptance of his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999 was marred by the reception of a divided audience. The parallels get a little muddy as Kazan was saving his own skin while Terry was standing up for an entire community, whilst playing D&D to the WCC.
One could probably write an entire thesis on the moral implications of this tale but this is a film review. Regardless of Kazan’s motives it is a gripping and well-crafted story that engages from the start, suffused with some noir-esque elements in the third act to compliment the unflinching realism of the fearful working class small town setting. Kazan was noted for this approach to his films while the rest of Hollywood were making lavish musicals and big budget westerns, as well encouraging the “method acting” style and the use of new faces in lead roles.
Brando had already made his name in Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire three years earlier, presumably making this reunion a no brainer. At 30 years-old Brando is able to physically and mentally regress himself to that of the younger Terry; he is utterly captivating and convincing delivering a nuanced essaying of the emotional turmoil Terry suffers, climaxing in a heroic final stand full of raw emotion, earning him a Best Actor Oscar.
I don’t recall being impressed with Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest but here, in her debut role, she is a revelation. Free from the usual Hollywood artifice Saint is called upon to act and not just be a pretty blonde as Edie, the true conscience of the story, also winning an Oscar for her performance. Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb both hold up their ends as the gruff bullying gang bosses, no doubt influencing the various mob characters in Scorsese’s films while Karl Malden is solid as the fiery priest Father Barry.
When a film of such high regard and classic status has already had millions of words written about it, a Johnny come lately like me has little else to add. Watching On The Waterfront now having seen the many imitators that came in its wake, it is a delight to finally see the source of inspiration and how it still stands up do well sixty years later, still powerful, still relevant and above all, still superb!