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.