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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.

11 Responses

  1. I looooooooooooooove this movie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    One of my favorite Brando performances of all time. You kick ass M. Carter!!!!!!!!!!

    Sorry for all the exclamation points, I’ve had entirely too much java this a.m. and I haven’t figured out how to display my enthusiasm verbally just yet.



    • When I was younger, my thoughts of Brando were unfairly colored by “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Then I started watching his younger films, and in “On the Waterfront” I suddenly *got* why critics over the years have raved over him. He’s got that rare “it factor” that very few actors have (OK, yes, I’m not immune; it helps that he was smokin’ hot). And from what I’ve seen of his work, this deserves to be called the magnum opus of his long career.

      Also: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • He is incredibly handsome and charming.

        I fell in love when he was in Streetcar, and then later in Guys and Dolls. He’s incredible.

  2. I have been waiting to see what you said about this one. I think I said some of my favourites were coming up on you list, this is one of them!

    I was waiting for one word “redemption” ant there it was at the end of the review. One of Hollywood’s favourite subjects and it is really on display here. Its not just Terry on the screen searching for it but also the director Elia Kazan. The film is just packed with subtext, some subtle some quite overt. But at the centre we Brando giving the performance of a lifetime and winning a much deserved Oscar. I’m always amazed by the best supporting actor category, not that the film had three nominations but because it didn’t win any of them.

    Great review of a great film.

    • Many reviewers have said — as has Kazan — that “On the Waterfront” is Kazan’s letter of justification for his decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I think the fact that the film is personal makes it that much richer; had it been a total fabrication, I don’t think the work would have had this much depth of feeling. And of the eight Oscars “On the Waterfront” won, I’m sad one of them wasn’t Lee J. Cobb or Karl Malden for Best Supporting Actor. Brando’s good, no doubt about it, but Cobb and Malden are the like respective devil/angel that spur him to action.

  3. Hey Carter – just thought you should know I gave you a mention in a little blog-award thingy on my blog today.

    Take a look…


  4. Hey, first I want to say great blog. I don’t always agree with your blogposts but it’s always a great read.
    Keep up the great work.

  5. As much as I loved this movie, I’m stopped from proclaiming it an all-time great for only one reason, the editing. I know it’s a nitpicky thing, but I felt there were too many times when I was taken out of the moment because of shoddy editing, noticeably in the scene where Brando and Saint go for a walk. Otherwise, a terrific film.

  6. […] Posts No. 21: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)My thought on todayNo. 18: "On the Waterfront" (1954)Netflix Pick: "Twentynine Palms" […]

  7. Nice post. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

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