Terry Malloy dreams about being a prize fighter, while tending his pigeons and running errands at the docks for Johnny Friendly, the corrupt boss of the dockers union. Terry witnesses a murder by two of Johnny's thugs, and later meets the dead man's sister and feels responsible for his death. She introduces him to Father Barry, who tries to force him to provide information for the courts that will smash the dock racketeers.
Winner of 8 OSCARS: Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing
Nominated for another 4 OSCARS: Best Music, 3 Best Supporting Actor (Malden, Stieger, Cobb)
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In 1999, the Academy Awards rewarded director Elia Kazan with a lifetime achievement Oscar. Looking solely at his filmmaking credentials, the decision seems hardly controversial. Kazan’s skills as a director are unquestioned including such classic films as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman’s Agreement, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Rather his actions outside of movies engendered heated debate. For Elia Kazan played a role in a chapter of Hollywood’s history that remains scaring – blacklisting. Kazan “named names” of friends and colleagues who had been associated with the Communist Party before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) causing those individuals to be blacklisted from working on movies. Ever the filmmaker, Kazan defended his decision to expose his former friends through his art. That movie is On the Waterfront.
On the Waterfront transfers the story of Communists in Hollyood to the docks of New York. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a washed-up prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in a union controlled by local mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Favored because his brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), is a Friendly lieutenant, Malloy receives easier duties than the other men. He begins to question his comfortable lifestyle when he is an unwitting accomplice to the murder of a fellow longshoreman who is cooperating with the police by informing on Friendly. The dead man’s sister, Edie (a debuting Eva Marie Saint) and a local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), campaign to bring down the corrupt union. And Malloy must decide whether to follow his conscience or remain loyal not just to the mob but also his brother.
Any discussion of On the Waterfront must begin with Brando’s performance. He projects an inner vulnerability to Malloy masked by a veneer of machismo. With any other actor, Malloy’s love of pigeons would seem like a sentimental gimmick. With Brando, it is the perfect metaphor for a gentle spirit yearning to escape from a battered, beaten husk. As a relationship between Terry and Edie blossoms, Brando evokes not only Malloy’s guilt for being partially responsible for the death of Edie’s brother but also his belief that he is not worthy of love because of his weaknesses. Many actors have attempted to replicate this performance, most notably Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, but no one has matched its dramatic force.
Brando’s performance would be lost though if it weren’t for the supporting roles. For instance, one of cinema’s most famous scenes is the conversation between Terry and his brother. Brando’s famous speech: “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contenda” have often been parodied, and it would be overwrought melodrama but for Steiger’s Charlie. Just before their conversation, we have seen Charlie desperately defend his brother before Friendly. Friendly is unmoved and orders Charlie either to convince Terry not to talk or to kill him. Charlie, however, is too ashamed to kill his own brother. Brando’s speech only works because Steiger has just elicited the same combination of pity and disgust from the audience.
The other supporting performances deserve praise. Malden has a difficult speech after a second longshoreman dies that could be fall into melodrama, but he instills enough anger and contempt to avoid being preachy. In an astonishing screen debut, Eva Marie Saint perfectly complements Brando’s performance. She does not allow Edie to shrink beside Brando. Cobb also provides depth to his union boss. Friendly is a man who is just as trapped in this world as those whose lives he controls.
Kazan’s directing is as important to the film’s success as the acting. Kazan uses camera angles to place the audience within the action. During the Father Barry’s impassioned sermon, the camera is at a high angle to match the view of the longshoremen who are looking down at the body of their deceased colleague. Father Barry’s sermon about the dangers of silence is aimed as much to us as the dockworkers. After Terry’s showdown with Friendly, Kazan shoots from a badly beaten Terry’s point of view as he attempts to lead the longshoremen to work. Once again, Kazan is using the camera to remind the audience that we are responsible for speaking and acting in the face of injustice.
All of this discussion of acting and directing techniques evades the fundamental question of whether On the Waterfront is a moral work. While strictly formalist critics may argue that content is irrelevant to artistic evaluation, I believe that if great art has the ability to enrich our lives, then we must struggle with its moral implications as much as its techniques, but that decision must be each viewer’s alone. To quote Terry Malloy, “Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”