Friday, November 22, 2019

On the Waterfront (1954)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: Budd Schulberg, Malcolm Johnson, Robert Siodmak
Photography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Editor: Gene Milford
Cast: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Pat Henning, John F. Hamilton, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne

On the Waterfront attacks with a jazzy midcentury Leonard Bernstein score, folks working on raising pigeons on tenement roofs, and black and white Method acting draped all over it like sheets over furniture. In many ways it's a perfect picture of American postwar '50s, ripened out of innocence into the knowledge of corruption, with great power. The dockside labor unions of New York are so rife with organized crime it's merely a given. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a boxer who once showed promise, but now he's pushing 30 and on the way to becoming a bum, living the easy life as a mascot for the dockside Mob run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and Malloy's older brother Charley "the Gent" (Rod Steiger). Edie ("introducing Eva Marie Saint") is the sister of Joey, a friend of Malloy's (fellow pigeon keeper) who Malloy inadvertently set up to be murdered. Father Barry (Karl Malden) counsels love and righteous wrath, smokes cigarettes, drinks beer, and tries to talk sense to these people. He's a sincere man of God but it goes about the way you'd expect.

Something feels so churningly ancient in this story, or biblical—it's so bare-faced and focused on raising the dramatic stakes to the sky. In summary, it's something like the redemption of the love for a good woman in the context of divided loyalties between brothers, seasoned to taste with good and evil. On the Waterfront sees director Elia Kazan at the peak of his powers—the very next year he would amplify these themes of Cain and Abel, mixing them in with tones of Babylon and Oedipus and Freud, in East of Eden. But as good as that is, On the Waterfront is the better picture. It's less about the self-pity of its main player, and more about a universal plight in a world that is not merely uncaring but actively hostile. Terry Malloy thinks he can stand to the side of a social world breaking down around him but he finds out that he can't.

Brando is the star of this movie, of course, his name appearing alone before the title. And he deserves to be—his performance seems to swing wild and loose but actually it is impeccable, sketching a portrait of Malloy as sensitive, weak, troubled, confused, still trying to find himself even beyond his sell-by date. Even what appears in some scenes to be botched makeup jobs on Brando eventually serve to underline the point. On the Waterfront is also one of Brando's greatest performances, establishing a certain ideal of what would become more hackneyed as the "anti-hero," aggrieved and full of modern self-knowledge and guilt (compare, for example, Paul Newman's version of Billy the Kid in 1958's Left-Handed Gun). Twenty years later, Brando reprised Malloy brilliantly as a middle-aged man at loose ends in Last Tango in Paris.

As for monsters, that prize goes to Lee J. Cobb as the wonderfully named Johnny Friendly, a walking cauldron of rage who chews up cigars and boils through every encounter. In open public hearings he gets so mad at a witness who testifies against him that he tries to tear him apart right there in the courtroom. For her part, Edie is as blonde, chaste, and eva marie saintly as she needs to be, nonetheless with an undertow of unmistakable sexual pull. One scene here may read now unfortunately as rapey—the resistant woman overpowered and turned by a passionate kiss—but the scene remains most felt at the point where the door is being broken down. Malloy is a mad bull but we persist in seeing him as an exuberant Great Dane. There may be generational implications to these perceptions.

I've seen On the Waterfront several times and puzzled over it nearly as often. It's something of a mood piece I have to be in the right mood for. It doesn't always produce its most powerful effects for me. But when it does, as happened the last time I looked the other day, I think it's good enough to belong way high on any list of GOATs it qualifies for. It's so brash, with its Leonard Bernstein score and cigarette-smoking priest and the grotesque Johnny Friendly, that it's charming even when it's silly. It's full of creative touches like when Terry tells Edie what his role was in her brother's death, and all we can hear is a screaming boat horn even as we see Terry's lips moving. It's too much. This news can't be taken in. It's a perfect sense of Edie's shock and horror. The brother angle is great too—the real engine of the story, where all its sudden power resides. Rod Steiger as Charley plays it perfectly—a little nerdy (he's basically Johnny Friendly's brains), a little '50s organization man, and a little sociopathic. I will also say that, though it may sound corny, I do appreciate the attitude On the Waterfront takes toward labor unions and organized crime—valorizing the former and reviling the latter, as opposed to the other way around, the way we do it now. Make sure you see this one at least once.


  1. Very interesting post. Brando is my favorite actor, and he is iconic here. I was once in a restaurant built inside a warehouse, with movies showing on a big screen. In this case, the movie was On the Waterfront, and even without sound I couldn't keep my eyes off of the screen. Having said that, and without making a case for the rightness of the claims against Kazan, I don't think I've seen a review of Waterfront that doesn't at least mention HUAC and naming names.

  2. That's a fair point about HUAC but honestly it never occurred to me. I know Kazan was dogged all his career by his HUAC decisions, and I used to have some biases related to that myself. But having looked at more of his work now I think it speaks for itself.

  3. I only bring it up re: On the Waterfront since that's the movie where the hero rats on his boys.