No. 18: “On the Waterfront” (1954)

“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.” ~~Terry Malloy

More people live in the world of What Could Have Been — that place where the past looms so large it’s more like the present — than would care to admit the fact. In “On the Waterfront,” aimless dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is one of those people. Once a promising boxer, he threw a fight to let his brother’s boss (Lee J. Cobb) cash in on the weaker opponent — a choice that changed the course of Terry’s life, landing him what he bitterly calls “a one-way ticket to Palookaville” and a dim future as a bum. What’s worse, he can’t forget his old life for everyone reminding him of the past glory, all the promise he had that withered away. So he’s stuck in the worst kind of limbo.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles by New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson, Elia Kazan’s resolute, powerful drama examines the price of bad choices in the past and the way they inform the present. But the film, which nabbed eight Oscars, also grapples with the nature of conscience and civic duty. Every character, on some level, faces a dilemma that pits morality against loyalty and fear of retaliation. For Terry, it’s a question of whether it’s better to work for a murderous crook than be in his path. Others, like Father Barry (Karl Malden) or Terry’s fellow dockworkers (most notably Kayo Dugan, played by Pat Henning), must decide whether exposing corruption in the longshoreman workers’ union is worth their lives. The setting — scenes were shot on the rundown docks of Hoboken, N.J. — offers a silent reminder that their choices will have harsh and inescapable consequences.

No one knows this more than Terry, an errand boy for criminal Johnny Friendly (Cobb, menacing as he is explosive), who exploits New York’s dockworkers at every turn, pockets the profits and kills anyone who questions his authority. At the opening of “On the Waterfront,” Terry finds himself in a difficult position when his boss makes him an unsuspecting accomplice in the murder of Joey Doyle, a fed-up dockworker ready to expose Johnny Friendly’s corrupt enterprise. The event spurs his sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) to press Terry for answers about her brother’s murder and push Father Barry to rally the dockworkers against Friendly. Suddenly Terry, who’s never wasted two seconds thinking hard about much of anything, much less right and wrong, can’t play deaf and dumb (the dockworkers call it “D&D”) anymore. And as his life splits down the middle, Brando demands our attention, making Terry’s confusion and agony plain on his face. Forced to pick a side, he ends up at the docks in a violent showdown with Friendly and his henchmen, all out for blood.

Though this crisis of conscience forms the center of “On the Waterfront,” there are other elements at play that make the film compelling. Budd Schulberg’s airtight screenplay includes a thread about the tentative affection Terry forms for Edie. Given that he is, as she calls him, a man without “a spark of sentiment or romance or human kindness” in his body, their unlikely relationship softens his edges and allows us to see gentler aspects of his character. (Their barroom scene and early walk capture the essence of the rough-yet-sensitive charisma that made Brando’s name.) The script also brims with unforgettable lines like Brando’s iconic “I coulda been a contender” speech, Father Barry’s comparison of Joey Doyle’s murder to a crucifixion or Brando’s offhand “everybody’s got a racket.” When coupled with Boris Kaufman’s bleakly effective cinematography, lines like these give “On the Waterfront” an almost epic power.

The acting, naturally, finishes that job. Eva Marie Saint is affecting as Edie, whose kindness Terry hopes will fill the gaps in his life. Cobb,  so towering in his rage, suggests the unchecked menace he did in “12 Angry Men.” Nobody plays a villain with quite his mix of entitlement and menace. Malden provides an effective foil for Terry in his choice, early on, to take action. Ultimately, though, it is Brando who commands the screen with his raw and dynamic performance. He sees Terry as much more than a has-been; Brando finds in him the need for redemption. His performance is the greatest revelation in a movie already filled with them.

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