On the Waterfront-1954
Starring-Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint
Scott’s Review #876
Reviewed March 9, 2019
Led by one of the best acting performances of all time, On the Waterfront (1954) was an important and relevant film when made and is still powerful in the modern era. Director Elia Kazan and newly minted Hollywood star Marlon Brando join forces for a film spectacle that is as much a character study as a tale of morality and social injustice. The musical soundtrack score composed by Leonard Bernstein only enhances an already astounding picture that is deservedly referenced as a masterpiece.
Terry Malloy (Brando) is a washed-up former local boxer who now spends his days slaving away as a dockworker on the dingy waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) works for a vicious mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who has complete control over the area. The police are aware of the ongoing corruption but are limited by the lack of evidence and witnesses to regular crimes. When a fellow dockworker is killed, Terry falls for the victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), leading him to rethink his priorities.
The positive aspects of On the Waterfront are enumerable. Enshrined in the rich story and flawless acting are marvelous cinematography and location sequences. The film was shot almost entirely on location in New York and New Jersey using real docks and outdoor sequences that give the film authenticity. The dingy and water-soaked locales are riddled with secrets and dark violence that reach new levels by using realism and grittiness.
Never looking more masculine or more handsome, though his portrayal of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a close second, Marlon Brando achieves riches in the world of stellar acting. He is rugged and compassionate, macho yet tender, and pours his heart into the role of Terry, and one cannot help wondering if the self- professed method actor became Terry during filming. With both vulnerability and strength Brando embodies the character so well that he becomes my favorite of all the film roles he has undertaken.
The supporting players dutifully flesh out the resounding cast with gusto. Special mentions go to both Karl Malden as Father Barry and to Steiger as Charley. As Barry, Malden brings a warm character who is patient and benevolent in a world of crime and deceit. He attempts to console and mentor the folks in his world and is eventually beaten for his honesty and earnestness. Charley is a different story, selling his soul to the devil and accepting the cards he has been handed, making a choice to join with Friendly. At a crucial moment he makes another devastating choice that changes his life forever.
Few films can proudly boast a scene or dialogue that remains timeless and imprinted on cinematic history, but On the Waterfront contains a scene of this caliber. During a tremendously important moment in the film Terry has a conversation with Charley and makes an impassioned statement-“I coulda’ been somebody. I coulda’ been a contender”, laments Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.” This line is a historic piece of writing and true to the heart of the character.
The film reaches further in its power and truth because it is representative of Elia Kazan’s real-life plight. During the early 1950’s the director famously informed on suspected Communists before a government committee while many of his colleagues chose to go to prison rather than name names. Many Hollywood actors, directors, and screenwriters were blacklisted for decades to come. On the Waterfront is frequently deemed as an allegory to the director’s plight and therefore is a very personal story.
On the Waterfront (1954) is sometimes violent and all-times realistic, painting a portrait of one man’s struggle to overcome the lousy life that has been given to him to do the right thing. Thanks to gorgeous direction, an explosive lead performance by Brando, and all the pieces fitting perfectly in unison together, the film is one of the greats and hopefully will remain one that generations will come to discover.