It took only 3 minutes before I was amazed by this film.
With a powerhouse cast of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger “and introducing Eva Marie Saint” On the Waterfront is a true American classic that not only holds up well against the sands of time, but also serves as a mile marker on the film evolution highway (dang that’s a lot of metaphors!)
The film follows Terry Malloy (Brando) a young ex-prizefighter, now working as a longshoreman. “Working” is used loosely here as Terry is given the cushiest jobs on the waterfront because his brother Charley (Steiger) is the right-hand man of the corrupt union boss known as “Johnny Friendly” (Cobb).
The story open as Terry unwittingly becomes the setup man for the death of Joey Doyle, a fellow dock worker who was about to testify to the crime commission. This sends Terry on a soul-searching path, wrestling with his conscience.
“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.” – Terry Malloy
He struggles with his loyalty to Charley and Johnny who ordered him to take a dive in his big fight in Madison Square Garden, effectively ending his boxing career.
The writing is incredibly sharp. Pitch perfect dialogue. Brilliantly well-developed characters. And the story unfolds beautifully. I had seen On the Waterfront before, probably about 20 years ago. I don’t remotely remember it being so riveting. It’s really spellbinding.
Now, everyone knows Marlon Brando from this film. Man, oh, man does he shine.
“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum which is what I am.” – Terry Malloy
It was his first Oscar win for best actor but he’s not the only one who gives a superb performance in this film.
Lee J. Cobb is electrifying as Johnny Friendly.
Karl Malden is captivating as Father Barry giving a speech after a dock worker is murdered that would have been the climax of a lesser film.
“If you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming.” – Father Barry
Rod Steiger has the smallest of the supporting roles but his work opposite Brando in the back of the cab (the “contender” scene) delivers the torment of a man finding himself at odds with his brother.
But Eva Marie Saint is the real gem. I love her in North by Northwest but I had no idea was such a gifted actress. You can instantly see how her performance as Joey Doyle’s sister Edie earned her a best supporting actress Oscar (for her very first film, mind you).
The performances in this film served as a turning point that changed movie acting forever.
Although there have been some standout naturalistic performances among best picture winners—Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola) and Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity) in particular—On the Waterfront is a showcase. Every principal actor has shed the kind of stylized ACTING! ubiquitous in films up until now for something more sinuous and deeply layered.
And director Elia Kazan brings it all together with a gritty elegance.
On the Waterfront was Kazan’s 3rd film nominated for best picture and 2nd to win in the last 7 years. And honestly it should have been his third. A Streetcar Named Desire should have won three years earlier over An American in Paris. For more on why it lost see my article HERE.
The script and the direction are so innovative. The scene where Terry tells Edie about the night her brother died is spectacular. They stand on the docks and as Terry begins to speak the sounds of the dock drown him out. What he starts to say is drowned out by an immense, prolonged blast of the whistle from the departing ocean liner. Terry shouts his story out to Edie compulsively but we cannot hear it over the rasping sound of the whistle. Edie is horrified as she catches enough words to realize what Terry is trying to say.
It’s a powerful visual and a symbol of “blowing the whistle” an important theme in this film.
On the Waterfront was made at the height of the Hollywood Blacklisting. A few years before this film Kazan came under a lot of heat when he testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities regarding communists. He had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York for about 18 months in the mid-30s. He was asked to name names and he did.
But he wasn’t the only one to testify. Lee Cobb and On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg also named names. Their collaboration on this film was in many ways an allegory defending their testifying before HUAC. By the end of the film you feel how personal this was for them.
Regardless of how people may feel about that decision you feel for the plight of those blacklisted. It’s unfortunate that part of his history has somewhat diminished his legacy as one of Hollywood’s finest directors.
But this film stands as one of the all-time greats. It received a total of 12 Oscar nominations, winning 8. In fact, three of the four it didn’t win were all in the same category, best supporting actor where Cobb, Malden and Steiger most likely split the vote making way for Edmond O’Brien to take home the award. O’Brien was a prolific character actor. He once appeared on The Red Skelton Hour as a grizzled old prospector named Grizzled Old Prospector in the episode “Grizzled Old Prospector.”