Reviews of On the Waterfront
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On The Waterfront stands as a seminal socio-political noir and contains many of the finest elements of classic Hollywood craftsmanship. Curiously Elia Kazan has more or less disowned the politics of this film and focused more on the love story aspect, but this is too disingenuous by half, as it’s the political aspect that elevates it beyond melodrama and gives the work it’s lasting resonance. The idea of the small corruptions that infect a community, that enable the blind eye to be turned and the lips to stay shut, this is at the heart of the piece, and all are embodied in Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and the dilemma he faces when he’s suddenly stirred from his moral slumber in confronting the consequences of his complicity in the murder of a fellow Jersey longshoreman.
The genesis of the project was two pronged. Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan were collaborating on a waterfront project called Red Hook, that was dropped by Harry Cohn at Columbia concerned that Miller was a communist and would be outed by the witchhunts. Later Miller and Kazan fell out over Kazan’s ‘friendly’ appearance before HUAC. Fellow friendly witness Budd Shulberg was working seperately on a dockside piece, based on some key newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson about corruption on the New Jersey waterfront and Kazan and he pooled their resources to create what was widely seen as an apologia for their testimony. Shulberg completed his first draft prior to giving his testimony so there may be a little chicken and egg in his case, but Kazan’s contributions reflected his HUAC experience, as admitted to in his compelling autobiography A Life’. Kazan cast Frank Sinatra, a Hoboken native, in the Terry Malloy role, even picking out his costumes but producer Sam Speigel knew that bigger star Marlon Brando would ensure more money from the film’s financiers and eased Sinatra out of the frame. Kazan was happy to get Brando, and a little surprised given Brando’s disappointment at Kazan’s ‘naming names’.
The opening sombre solo horn soundtrack, courtesy of Leonard Bernstein no less, coupled with Boris Kaufman’s evocative black and white tones indicates this is no lightweight love story. The leaders of the longshoremen exit their unpretentious little dockside hut to the more urgent rhythms of drums, the up-to-the-minute jazz sounds telling us this is a film of and for it’s time. Terry cradles a pigeon and calls out to Joey in a tenament window to go to the roof and collect it, thinking the Union heavies waiting there will only rough him up, they throw him to his death. Terry meekly protests to his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) a key man in the Union, of his unease but gets told to be D&D, deaf and dumb, as Joey was a canary ‘who could sing but couldn’t fly’. The code of silence is sacred amongst this clique, you never rat, and as the Government are conducting hearings into the Union waterfront practices that code was more important than ever. Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) is an over-bearing brute who runs the Union as a personal fiefdom, rewarding blind loyalty and enforcing the kick-backs and numbers rackets with cruelty and terror. Friendly is fond of Terry, who is not prone to over thinking situations, reminding him of his past as a boxer and keeps him around as a favour to Charlie, the Union lawyer. Schulberg introduces the idea that brains, like Charlie’s trumps brawn like Terry’s.
Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is the catalyst for change, she’s intent on seeing her brother’s killer’s brought to justice. She shames the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) into helping, and after Terry becomes smitten by him she drags him into the process unaware of his complicity in Joey’s death. The clash of opposites in the convent girl Edie and the dockside boxer Terry provide the background for contrasting philosophies, his being ‘do unto others before they do unto you’, hers a simple notion of love and loyalty, but of an honest not blind kind. She sees in Terry a sensitivity that no-one else does, and she awakens in him an awareness of how corrupt things are. Brando’s unlocking of this tender side is the key to making the film work, and Marie Saint is heartbreaking, her ability to hit the right emotional pitch transforms the melodrama and gives it real weight. The love scenes are delicately handled, the vignette at the wedding, the scene in the park with the glove, all have a naturalism that keeps the core of the piece solid and heartfelt. Terry makes his stand, Charlie memorably trying to save his brother, but admitting in the process he has been part of the machine that’s ultimately sold him out. Charlie and Terry take the immortal cab ride to 437 River Street, the destination revealing Friendly’s deadly intent. Charlie, in an act of love, lets Terry out knowing that it means his own death, but finding redemption for himself in the process of sacrifice.Father Barry convinces Terry that a gun is not the answer. Terry goes to the committee and testifies, but the redemption he feels is empty. Edie finds out about his culpability, but accepts his love and returns it, enabling him to see what real and honest love entails. Restless and still conflicted Terry goes back to the only work he knows. The racket of worker selection leaves Terry the only man not employed for the morning’s work and he storms down to the bosses hut to confront Friendly, watched by his co-workers. Terry is almost killed by the Union thugs but is able to drag himself into the warehouse after the men refuse to work without him. This ending was more hopeful than Shulberg’s original which had Terry die, and it’s obviously Kazan who is saying a defiant ‘I testified and I was right’ to his detractors in doing so.
The New York intellectual left spawned many great artists in the 30’s who came to prominence, some like Kazan and Clifford Odets were indeed former CPA members and it says something that less than 20 years later the lurch to the right had left them isolated and exposed in a country confused, threatened and easily exploited by the politics of fear. The studios shamelessly went along with the resulting blacklist, a not-so-small corruption of it’s own. The stand Terry made was to recognise that the fertile ground upon which evil flourishes does not appear in a vacuum, it comes from good men doing nothing. Edie is the conscience and heart of the film, her love of family the catalyst for Terry to put things right, ironically with the only tools at his disposal, his fists. In the end he can only ever personally redeem himself, the corrupt politics and mob rackets go on it seems, even if the spotlight is occasionally turned on. The priest is left spouting sermon’s that point up the similarity in the words of Jesus and Marx, an irony lost at the time I’m sure (still is for that matter) but it’s only the unifying of community against the fascist Friendly that enables Terry to succeed at all. Post WW2 America’s liberals struggled with the semantic distinction between left leaning democracy and communism, and religion was as much a tool of state as means of enlightenment. Marx, it should be remembered, thought the great hope for a communist state was the USA, he would have been stunned that it emerged in Russia as it has a 90% peasant population, their lack of education usually meaning they were ripe for exploitation by the powers of the day.
Kazan originally had a deal to do the picture at Fox, home of the occasional ‘progressive’ picture thanks to Daryl Zanuck wanting to do ‘worthy’ type productions to impress the Academy, but Zanuck had a change of heart, coldly throwing Kazan and Shulberg out of his office, Kazan never returned.
Ironically Spiegel inked a deal with Columbia and Cohn, who had rejected Red Hook, and Columbia duly collected the Best Picture oscar. Kazan’s rationalisations for his testimony over the years have been a battleground of opinion for and against, the most primary of sources being his own book. What is not often argued is the kind of fascist execution of state instruments he was set against. HUAC was a despicable use of an arm of government to villify people who had belonged to legal organisations and were participating in freedom of speech and thought, the hysteria that the Red scare whipped up left liberal thinking, intellectual types scrambling for cover, wondering if they’d ever work again in their chosen career, or even if they would avoid gaol by standing up for their principles and not co-operating and ‘naming names’. Kazan’s choice may be morally compromised, but what of the behaviour of the right wing thugs, who’s actions set the ground for the rise of Richard Nixon and his ilk? The Kennedy years seem like an aberration when viewed in that light. Kazan survived, he was good hater, and went on to make great pictures, but none greater than this, the look and feel of a timeless noir and with the deft inter-woven brilliance of socio-political context for gravitas. Superior storytelling.
The emotional impact of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), scarcely diminished a generation after its release, must be attributed to the sum of its collaborative talents. Kazan’s emphatic framing of actors and the extraordinary range of performances he elicits; Budd Shulberg’s tight, if somewhat didactic script; Leonard Bernstein’s score, alternately scaling heights of romantic lyricism and depths of percussive violence; and the stark chiaroscuro of Boris Kaufman’s photography combine to secure Waterfront its rank on any consideration of quintessential Fifties’ films. The film’s dramatic genesis, however, is understood best both in terms of its sociohistorical context and its position on the personal timeline of its director. On the Waterfront presents the informer in the role of social hero and by so doing becomes the filmic apologia for the political testimony of Elia Kazan.
Kazan is a self-described “child of the Thirties.” At that time, the New Deal was instilling a sense of optimism in many sectors of an economically battered society, the artistic community included. During this period, Kazan was involved as an actor, writer, and director in New York’s Group Theatre. Technically, the tenets of Stanislavski and Freud were applied toward the realization of a consciously motivated, analytic approach to acting. Politically, Group members—including actor John Garfield and playwright Clifford Odets—veered toward the Left, occasionally leaning beyond the confines of the two-party mainstream. Kazan himself belonged to the Communist Party for a brief spell in the early Thirties.
As the Forties commenced, Kazan’s short stint as a Hollywood secondary actor yielded to a concentration on directing both in the film colony and on the New York stage. The work at Twentieth Century-Fox that followed his debut feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), mostly followed the fashionable Forties’ social themes, e.g., anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), racial prejudice in Pinky (1949). In the meantime, the experiments of the Group Theatre had evolved into the Method school of acting as taught at the Actors Studio, co-founded by Kazan and Lee Strasberg in 1947. Its alumni—Marlon Brando springs immediately to mind—began to appear in key works by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller under Kazan’s direction.
Miller and Kazan were interested in filming a story of waterfront labor problems, based primarily on the playwright’s own experience as a longshoreman during the war. This arrangement collapsed just before Kazan named some former Communist Party affiliates in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Miller ultimately wrote A View from the Bridge (1955), a play in which the act of informing is symptomatic of its longshoreman-hero’s tragic flaw.
Following Miller’s withdrawal, Kazan began working with Shulberg and by early 1954, location-shooting began in Hoboken, a factor adding to the visual realism of Waterfront. Narrative realism was drawn from Malcolm Johnson’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series, “Crime on the Waterfront.” The hero, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) was based on a Hoboken longshoreman Anthony (Tony Mike) de Vincenzo. Karl Malden’s Father Barry had his real-life counterpart in Father John M. Corridan, who fought the racket domination of the piers and whose sermon, “Christ Goes to the Shape-Up,” is echoed in a key scene in the film.
This factual material would become meaningless were it not for the skill with which Kazan weaves incident and ideology within a personal framework. Kazan’s belief that “we grow only through conflict” is the dominant motif in On the Waterfront, the element that accounts for the film’s dramatic power. The conflict centers on streetwise Terry Malloy, whose mistrust for others and overriding concern for himself (“Do it to him before he does it to you”) succumbs to the gradual realization that he must betray his corrupt associates—even his brother Charley—for the collective good of the oppressed longshoremen and society at large. Terry’s burst of self-awareness (“I was ratting on myself all them years and I didn’t even know it”) grows out of Father Barry’s spiritual manipulation and Terry’s romantic commitment to Edie (Eva Marie Saint), influencing his conscientious decision to accept his responsibility in what the film posits as a democratic society. On the Waterfront’s view of labor relations may be naïve, and its tone imperially moralistic, but it works, nevertheless, because the interior concerns of its hero dominate the entire film.
And it is Brando’s superlative characterization, arguably the finest of his film career, that makes the socialization of Terry Malloy so compelling. The awkward gestures, the inarticulate longings, the visible workings of conscience are impeccably conveyed by Brando and find sensitive complements in the scenes with Edie and his brother (Rod Steiger). Steiger and Lee J. Cobb, as crooked union leader Johnny Friendly, are outstanding members of a fine cast.
Brando won both the New York Film Critics Award and the Oscar for Best Actor of 1954, as did the film in the Best Picture category, among many honors. On the Waterfront won immediate box-office and critical acclaim, with the latter undergoing some interesting revisions in the years that have intervened. Critics initially found the ending too simplistic—it is—and overly optimistic, especially in relation to the graphic violence throughout the film. Lindsay Anderson, in a 1955 anti-Waterfront attack in Sight and Sound, labeled the emergence of hero as leader “fascistic.” Setting politics aside, perhaps Kazan was conscious in this film of his Thirties’ “childhood,” which nurtured his faith in progress through conflict. That the conflict is resolved in one individual to the point of his redemption is the unifying and emotionally satisfying core of On the Waterfront.
Note: This article about On the Waterfront was written by me (as Renée D. Pennington) for The Thousand Eyes Magazine, Number 6 (January 1976), and is reproduced as it first appeared. The Thousand Eyes Magazine is long defunct, but this article was later cited in Kenneth R. Hey’s essay “Ambivalence as a Theme in On the Waterfront (1954),” a chapter in Hollywood As Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context (1983), edited by Peter C. Rollins.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
On the Waterfront was founded by Elia Kazan on reactionary principles but was salvaged by applicability to a broader message: stand up for what you believe in. Sound advice for any ideology.
The plain artistry of the production is something to behold. Shot on that somber piece of Americana, the Jersey docks, the footage has stark morbidity that only black & white photography can create. This undercurrent of sadism and depression is used to great effect throughout.
The mood is reflected in Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a sad man with a sad life, who had to give up a boxing career to become a longshoreman. It’s almost needless to say that Marlon Brando is superb in the role and does amazing things with the role of the wounded beast. But although Brando is the standout, On the Waterfront is a glorious group effort.
The longshoremen inhabit a tight seedy world full of murder, underground corruption, and broken dreams. It’s a colorful, almost cartoonish, gang of roughnecks with exaggerated accents and huskiness. From the outset Terry is singled out as the saint if the bunch. He witnesses the shady doings of foreman Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his disapproval is clear. He knows better than to speak out, but he stands out like a pillar of sensitivity.
Tension is building on the docks. Cops are beginning to investigate but, as one worker puts it, “In this business you don’t ask questions, you don’t answer questions,” or else you end up dead, as soon happens to one talker.
The best moments for Brando are when Terry is away from the docks, especially at his pigeon coop atop a building. When he is with the young boys he befriends or, later, with Edie (Eva Marie Saint) he discloses his inner sorrow. This is quintessential Marlon Brando. A lot of what he does here, including method acting, he started under the direction of Elia Kazan in A Streetcar Named Desire and took with him after they parted ways and joined other directors, especially Francis Ford Coppola. Remember his explosive “be a man” scene in The Godfather? That brief outburst was proof (as if proof was needed) that beneath Don Vito’s congenial exterior lurked a monster ready to explode. Likewise, Terry Malloy has inner demons struggling to get out. Their worlds are not dissimilar. The murder of a snitch (he’s flung off a rooftop) has a mob-like signature.
If there is a performance we can do without, it’s Karl Malden’s Father Barry.
Although the character is harmless and there is nothing wrong with Malden’s performance, he’s too much the stock priest. Not only had Angels with Dirty Faces and Boys Town exhausted the trope of kindly clergymen counseling young hoods, but here it highlights the struggle between the holy good (Malloy, Edie, the priest) and evil (Johnny Friendly and his minions) with too obvious a stroke. Still, Malden manages to do something interesting with the performance when the mobsters throw fruit at him as he stands over the corpse of a would-be testifier, taking on the persona of a martyr in the Joan of Arc sense.
On the whole, On the Waterfront is in a different world than the Hollywood product. The faces of the men are real in the non-Hollywood, Cassavetes manner. Their world looks so real that their lines feel natural.
Now as for Lee J. Cobb as the ruthless mob boss running the docks. How could one of the best actors ever be so widely forgotten? This may be Cobb’s most chilling performance. In 12 Angry Men he was just a hurting lion, here he represents pure evil. His cold eyes give him away as the one responsible for the deaths of those who speak out.
Elia Kazan justified his testifying at the House Un-American Activities with this film and On the Waterfront clarifies its stance at a scene in Father Barry’s church. The men know that someone was murdered for trying to do the right thing, and yet no one has the courage to point fingers. Kazan’s actions may have been the inspiration for this film, but Kazan treats the story broadly enough here that the film can be interpreted as a message about inner-city violence and corruption and about courage.
Knowing about the atrocities of the witch hunts in retrospect, the allegory behind On the Waterfront may make the film hard to accept. But rarely has a hard-sell movie been done with such skill. Terry’s love for Edie, sister of the murdered man, may be one of the most poignant romances ever seen in the movies. It’s neither forced nor phony. Instead, due in large part to the efforts of Brando and Marie Saint, their affair is a natural progression of their characters. Edie is a humanitarian, reaching out to blue-collar workers and the downtrodden. She can see through Terry into his true nature and so their mutual attraction rings true.
Terry even takes her to his cherished pigeon coop. There’s something magical in Terry’s love for his pigeons. He attributes to them traits that he wishes the humans around him had (they stick together, they mate for life, etc.) and they become his adopted family who can never leave him as did his brother Charley (Rod Steiger). Indeed, along with good vs. evil, family is the major theme of On the Waterfront. Even in death, the talker has a sister determined to bring his killers to justice. Edie has a father who worked to the bone to ensure her a good future. On the other hand, Charley abandoned Terry and became a racketeer, leading to Terry’s famous “I should have been a contender” speech.
Charley, however, does eventually make the ultimate sacrifice for Terry and his death is not so much a loss for Terry (he left him to fend for himself in this cruel world, after all) but, rather, it brings him a sense of regret, realizing that he will never have the family he wishes he had. All Terry ever had was his pigeons and he is being obviously symbolic when he talks about hawks preying on pigeons. He has to protect them the way he was never protected and seems to envy the birds for their habit of mating for life. Conversely, Terry’s career as a prizefighter may have stemmed from a combination of resentment and a need to protect himself.
Charley is something of a force that is mentioned and felt throughout the film, creating anticipation for Rod Steiger’s appearance. When the brothers do unite, we are in for the most heart-wrenching scene in the film. Terry clearly admires Charley. From the start he wanted to be like him and he blames Charley for the reason he became a bum. Steiger’s performance is well nuanced. He works for Johnny’s mob, but there is sincere regret in his eyes.
Expressions and actions say more than words do in On the Waterfront. When Terry confesses to Edie about knowing more than he led on about her brother’s murder, their words are muffled by a blowing ship whistle, leading us to think that she missed his crucial words. But their looks of anguish and horror soon tell us that the words hit their mark.
When all of the political debate is over, the most important themes of On the Waterfront emerge. Ultimately, it’s a film about loyalty to family, both biological and foster. Despite his animosity, Terry looks up to Charley. Charley eventually helps Terry even though it spells death for himself. Terry has feigned a family with his pigeons. Edie is a crusader for justice on her brother’s behalf. By the end, Terry has two families to take care of. He has to avenge Charley’s murder and he also has an obligation to Edie.
After the courtroom scene, when all of Terry’s former friends turn against him, the parallel to Kazan real-life decisions becomes hard to ignore. The way people look at Terry is an indication of how Kazan must have himself felt after testifying and the reason why he felt he needed to make this film. On the Waterfront was his justification as well as his self-examination. Movies are such a powerful force in our society, after all, that it becomes near impossible to intercept real-life into them. It’s harder still for the filmmaker. But like most great art, On the Waterfront makes a statement. We need not always like the statement, but part of the artistic spirit is the sincerity of the statement. For all of Kazan’s wrong-doings that led to its creation, On the Waterfront is a genuine expression of an artist.
There are many people out there who want to villify Kazan as he named names during the HUAC hearings, although I usually find that those people are ignorant of the actual events surrounding his testimony, and his great torment before, during and after his decision to cooperate. No matter what you may personally think of him, On the Waterfront is a stunningly personal and deeply relevatory film about guilt and moral responsibility. Anchored by Brando’s greatest and least mannered performance, the film draws you into his character’s agony at the choices he’s faced with. It shows you the cost of making a moral choice, right or wrong, and holds you riveted until the final, triumphant moment.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.