On the Waterfront (1954)

Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Budd Schulberg

On the Waterfront is one of those movies that, despite hearing about it seemingly all the time, I actually had no specific idea what it was about. It is a film defined today by a single scene, and arguably a single line. Even people who have not seen the film know the famous line delivered by Marlon Brando, “I coulda been a contender,” but how many of those people know the significance of the line? I didn’t, but after having seen the film for the first time I can say proudly that I know its impact, I recognize its significance, and that I will not soon forget that. The film won 8 Oscars in 1955, netting Brando the only Oscar he actually accepted (he famously refused the only other time he won, for The Godfather in 1973).

Terry Malloy (Brando) is a longshoreman in New York, mixed up with some bad people. When Terry helps in the killing of Joey Doyle, who was ready to talk about the crooked union bosses, he begins to realize his true place in life. Not realizing murder was the goal of the operation, Terry is disturbed and strikes up relationships with the parish priest (Karl Malden), who teaches him about his conscience, and Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). As Terry starts to fight for the little guys against the evil union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger), Friendly’s right hand man, is faced with a difficult task. But will Terry be able to stand up for what is right?

Elia Kazan, I just learned before watching this film, was actually kind of a split figure in Hollywood. When he received an honorary Oscar in 1999 for his great career contribution to film, there were protesters outside and the crowd inside was split between those who remained silent in their seats and those who stood and applauded. The controversy came apparently from his willingness to testify and name names in front of Sen. McCarthy’s evil House Committee on Un-American Activities. I can’t say I agree with Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt, which is a blight on American history of the last century, nor can I make an argument for or against Kazan’s involvement in it, but I can say that from the film of his I have seen he is one of the great directors of his era. He made masterful works and On the Waterfront is no different. He isn’t a giant of cinema and that is probably because he doesn’t have a distinct flair, that is other than making great films.

But enough of that, on to the actual film. I think the first thing everyone looks at is Marlon Brando, and who can blame them when his performance is so brilliant. He owns the famous scene and it deserves its place as one of the most iconic in film history and so does this performance which is so broken and human. Right along side him however are some other spectacular performances, highlighted by Eva Marie Saint as Edie and Karl Malden as Father Barry. These two help to counteract the evil exuded by Lee J. Cobb, who personifies it so well. One of the things I’ve noticed from Kazan films is that they are definitely performance driven and it is a testament to the actors and Kazan’s ability to get that greatness out of them.

I really must say that apart from the signature scene, there are no great moments, but at the same time there are no bad moments or times where the film is ever dull. I can’t say this film is one that anything particular stands out, but rather one that is simply so well paced, so well filmed that it still stands as one that held my attention and awe throughout. I loved the score by Leonard Bernstein too, as it added some great effect to what Kazan was doing with the camera, though I did feel he went too big a few times. The mood of the film says it all and it culminates in a spectacular ending. On the Waterfront is a great film and one that will stand as such for a long time.

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