“On the Waterfront” is both one of the most acclaimed Best Picture-winners and one of the most (understandably) controversial. It is crafted and acted with conviction and power, but its message of truth-telling against the wishes of friends is loaded with the uncomfortable parallel of director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg testifying at the House of Un-American Activities Committee, strengthening the Hollywood blacklist and keeping a number of leftist actors, writers and directors from getting work. Far from turning “On the Waterfront” into a simpleminded wish fulfillment, it only adds to the roiling tension in the film, one of Kazan’s greatest expressions of alienation and guilt.
Marlon Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a Hoboken dock worker and former boxer who’s an accessory to the murder of a fellow worker who was to testify against corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry is wracked with guilt, made more powerful when he falls in love with the dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), but he’s also reluctant to testify against A. a man who’s been a mentor to him his whole life, B. in a neighborhood that believes in dummying up when questioned, and C. against his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), Johnny’s right-hand man.
“On the Waterfront” features one of the greatest casts ever assembled for a Hollywood film: Karl Malden as Father Barry, the simultaneously righteous and self-righteous priest whose crusade for justice often ignores or downplays the difficulty and danger of telling the truth; Cobb as a brutish thug hiding beneath a friendly blue-collar exterior; Saint as Edie, whose combination of warmth and virtuousness elevates what could have been a stock love interest; and Steiger as Terry’s smarter brother, whose own loyalty to his boss is tested as Terry becomes more of a threat. All four players were nominated for Oscars; Saint won, along with Brando, who gives one of the most influential performances in the history of the medium. Loads of moments stand as a testament to Brando’s commitment to finding truth, from his reaction of sad disappointment (rather than rage) in his brother in the “I coulda been a contender” speech to a love scene with Saint where he playfully picks up her dropped glove and fits it on his own hand. Brando finds the perfect mixture of animalism and sensitivity in Terry, an unsophisticated and often coarse man who’s nonetheless charming and, ultimately, redeemable.
Kazan no doubt saw much of himself in Terry, whose testimony isolates him and makes him a figure of betrayal. There’s a sense of self-justification along with the real justice in the film, but it’s tempered with a real sense of guilt, pain and anger even with the belief that good has been done. Those conflicting emotions are matched by the film’s own formalism: Kazan uses real Hoboken locations, naturalistic performances and working-class settings and characters, but Boris Kaufman’s gorgeous, noirish photography and psychologically suggestive framing (claustrophobic shots of alleys and small apartments, a wide shot on a solo Terry, implying his isolation) and Leonard Bernstein’s alternatively mournful, pounding and swooning score keep the film from falling into pure realism territory. The film’s realism and formalism, guilt and self-righteousness, victory and grief all clash against each other, making for a film that can’t be reduced to apology or apologia. Even the film’s triumphant ending is less about Terry’s breast-beating than about a beaten-down man’s ability to stand up for himself and others. If he can, they all can.
More thoughts from the web:
Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine
The performances deepen the film’s union of the realist and the poetic, especially Brando’s. For all the talk of his devotion to grounding his characters in detailed psychological realism, the actor never gave what could be conventionally described as a realistic performance. It’s not hyperbolic to call Brando one of cinema’s crowning gods: He was simply too physically commanding and deeply weird, too much of an indisputable star, to play an ordinary individual, even one said to be blessed with some talent. With the exception of Terry’s walk, which is convincing because the self-consciousness suits the authenticity of a character attempting to affect stature to impress a beautiful woman, nothing Brando does in this film is as ordinary as Terry’s meant to be. Even the justly celebrated moment when Terry tries on Edie’s glove is rooted more in the symbolic than the authentic. How many men, other than perhaps artists, would respond to Edie’s dropped glove with this graceful physical soliloquy of loneliness and sexual hunger? Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, The Dissolve
Maybe there’s somebody out there who can find fault with Marlon Brando’s legendary performance in “On The Waterfront,” but I don’t have the wherewithal…there’s no denying that Brando’s commitment to the truth, even when that involved performing actions or expressing emotions not called for in the script, changed the craft and the audience’s expectations. The film’s most famous dialogue scene is its climactic “Coulda been a contender” confrontation between Brando’s Terry and his brother, but its most enduring revelation occurs when Eva Marie Saint’s Edie drops her glove during an otherwise standard walk-and-talk. There was a time when that mistake would have led to the cry of “Cut!” and another take; Brando’s genius was the instantaneous decision to accept that it happened and incorporate it into the scene, paying more attention to the glove than to Edie herself. He’s also uniquely vulnerable as Terry, unafraid to appear weak or confused even when those qualities aren’t necessarily intended as setup for future bravery or cleverness. Giving the Oscar to anyone else would have seemed insane. Not even AMPAS could screw up this one. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
In that statement you can feel the passion that was ignited by the HUAC hearings and the defiance of those who named names, or refused to. For some viewers, the buried agenda of “On the Waterfront” tarnishes the picture; the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum told me he could “never forgive” Kazan for using the film to justify himself. But directors make films for all sorts of hidden motives, some noble, some shameful, and at least Kazan was open about his own. And he made a powerful and influential movie, one that continued Brando’s immeasurable influence on the general change of tone in American movie acting in the 1950s. Read more.
J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
At the same time, however, “On the Waterfront” is deeply evocative of Kazan’s aesthetic heritage—which is to say the left-wing theater of the 1930s. The look is less faux neo-realism than the bittersweet naturalism of the Workers’ Film and Photo League. It takes no great familiarity with Pop Front rhetoric to grok Malden’s waterfront priest as a crypto-Communist labor organizer or at least a two-fisted improvement on the anti-fascist priest in Rossellini’s “Open City”—or to imagine Depression-era slum-goddess Sylvia Sidney in the role played by Eva Marie Saint. Read more.
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
But the key scene in “On The Waterfront” remains Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech to Steiger, which was shot on a cheap, makeshift “taxicab” set with zero visual panache, and yet is unforgettable because of the way Steiger and Brando inhabit their characters. Steiger’s the petrified company man, urging his brother to just go along with what the bosses ask, lest more people get hurt. Brando’s the disappointed loved one who understands that people are going to get hurt regardless, so he might as well do what he believes to be right. That’s just five amazing minutes of “On The Waterfront.” What’s remarkable about the movie is that just about any other five-minute stretch of it can bear just as much scrutiny. Read more.
Bill Ryan, The Kind of Face You Hate
The amazing thing I realized today as I watched is, well, first: you know how one of the qualities of great acting, or the results on the audience of great acting, is that you forget about the actor and believe you’re simply watching the character? Certain qualifiers have to be put in place in order for this to work…With that understanding, the amazing thing I realized while watching “On the Waterfront” today is that at certain times Marlon Brando, the most famous American actor in his most famous film role in one of the most famous films ever made is making me think more about Terry Malloy than about him. Take that scene where he takes Edie out for a drink, and he’s telling her his story, and says “my dad got bumped off, never mind how.” That “never mind how” is absolutely brilliant, because there’s a pause just before it, and among the many things you can intuit Terry is thinking about in that pause are the why his father died, how he doesn’t like thinking about it, how he doesn’t want to tell Edie about it and so he should cut off her natural question before she can ask it, how, “bumped off” implying homicide as it does, Terry’s moral compass has just gone crazy again, because who “bumped off” his dad “on the waterfront” if not some version of the men he now (kinda) works for? And so on. Brando’s performance here is positively overflowing with that kind of thing. He’s Terry Malloy, and that’s it. Read more.
Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times
Brando’s portrait of alternately cocky and agonized sensitivity seems closer to who the actor was than the strutting Stanley Kowalski of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Brando completely inhabits the role of a man trapped by his own life, the play of emotions on his face as memorable as the iconic red and black plaid wool jacket he wears. Read more.