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.