On the Waterfront (1954)
More than a half-century has passed since the release of On the Waterfront, a landmark film that captured eight Oscars for its gritty look at corruption on the docks ofHoboken,N.J. But the movie is still recalled today for somuch brilliance—Marlon Brando’s amazing performance as an inarticulate pug battling his union leader and his own conscience; an unparalleled supporting cast; an uncompromising screenplay; the outstanding—albeit politically motivated—direction of Elia Kazan.
Each of those facets is worth remembering. But there’s somethingmore here than just nostalgia. All these years later, On the Waterfront continues to work as a magnificent bit of drama—and as a gangster movie. The story of a little man caught between principles and loyalties always resonates. And, last we checked, the problem of mob influence on America’s labor unions hasn’t gone away.
Watch it today—for the first time or for the 50th—and On the Waterfront stillmoves you. Some of the classics in this book—say, the original Scarface or Bonnie and Clyde—might seem dated, or at least products of their eras. But this script, this direction, even the musical score, could hit the box office today and still be fresher than anything out there. We just don’t know who could match thework of the original cast.
For a moment, however, let’s go back to 1954 to consider the film in the context of the times. Remember, On the Waterfront reached theaters around the tail end of the McCarthy era when the country—particularly Hollywood—was torn over the issue of people naming names to government committees. If the script is one about conscience, so is the story behind the script.
Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg became Hollywood pariahs a few years earlier for fingering former associates (some of whom ended up blacklisted) to the House Un-American Activities Committee. When On the Waterfront came out, many filmgoers watched the story of a man betraying old friends and colleagues and deemed it an attempt by its two creators to justify their actions.
Kazan didn’t disagree. “Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood,” he wrote in A Life, his 1988 autobiography. “And I was telling my critics to go and fuck themselves.”
Regardless of where anyone stands on that issue, it should not detract from the film’s brilliance—and its importance as a muckraking work of art. The screenplay is based on New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson’s 1949 Pulitzer Prizewinning exposé of that city’s waterfront and the influence ofmob boss Albert Anastasia. Schulberg’s adapted script is essentially true to real life.
The story opens with former boxer and current flunky TerryMalloy (Brando) unwittingly serving as bait in a murder trap set for a fellow longshoreman. The young man, named Joey Doyle, is pushed off a rooftop for speaking to a Waterfront Crime Commission panel investigating the methods of crooked union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
Friendly’s got a hell of a gig. In addition to collecting dues from his own members, he forces them to kick back a further bit of their salaries for every day’s work. Plus, he takes another illegal cut from any shipper running goods through “my dockyards.” If a worker protests, he is mangled by Johnny Friendly’s goons.
“You get up in a [union] meeting,” one downtrodden longshoreman explains. “You make a motion, the lights go out, and then you go out. That’s how it’s been since Johnny and his pals took over the local.”
In a great bit of casting, three of those “pals” are played by real ex-boxers who fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight title—Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and the gargantuan Abe Simon.
Anyway, Terry’s inadvertent role in the murder has him chased by the Furies of remorse—personified by crusading waterfront priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Edie Doyle (EvaMarie Saint, in her movie debut), the sister of the man Terry set up. Of course, he falls for the girl,making things all the more complicated.
Eventually, Terry is subpoenaed to speak to that Crime Commission. Initially he blows off the investigators (look for a youngMartin Balsam, also in his first movie), saying, “I’ve been on the docks and there’s one thing I’ve learned: You don’t answer no questions, you don’t ask no questions.”
The priest and the girlfriend keep talking into both of his ears, explaining things like compassion and a moral sense of right and wrong. “Conscience!” Terry screams out. “That stuff can drive you nuts.”
Those angels on one shoulder are counterbalanced by Terry’s loyalty to his own big brother, who works as a legal lieutenant to the corrupt union boss. “Charley the Gent” (Rod Steiger) apparently got all the family brains and fashion sense. He is accurately described by one lowly worker as “a butcher in a camelhair coat.”
“They’re askingme to put the finger on my own brother,” Terry protests to Father Barry. “And Johnny Friendly used to take me to ball games when I was a kid.”
“You’ve got a brother, eh?” the priest retorts. Pointing to the crowd of longshoremen, he adds, “Well you’ve got some other brothers. And they’re getting the short end while Johnny’s getting mustard on his face at the Polo Grounds.”
Ultimately, Terry is pushed into a position that demands he betray someone.We already told you how Kazan’s own McCarthy Era testimony impacted the story, so there’s no great surprise where he’s going.We can tell you that the real-life situation upon which the script was based did not have as triumphant an ending. In the movies, the good guys win. In life, well . . . not always.
In this story, the reluctant crusader topples corruption. There’s a wonderful scene—far from the grimy docks—showing the bigger bigwig, the unnamed mob higher-up behind the seat of power (and listed in the credits as “Mr. Upstairs”) viewing Terry’s televised testimony to the Crime Commission.He is seen only frombehind, sitting in a cushy chair, cigar in hand, as he angrily orders a butler to turn off the TV in his mansion.
“Anything else, sir?” the butler asks.
“Yes, Sidney. If Mr. John Friendly calls, I’m out.”
“Anytime today, sir?”
“If he calls ever, I’m out.”
That cuts to the final scene, in which Terry—ostracized after his testimony—heads back to the docks to demand his rights.He is brutally beaten by Friendly’s henchmen, but the workers who witness it rally behind him. He becomes a working-class hero, Friendly gets tossed off the pier and we fade to black as Terry leads them all back to work and, presumably, a corruption-free union.
Brando was 29 when On the Waterfront was shot, and his character ranges from cocky to tortured to brutishly sexual. “Brando completely inhabits the role of a man trapped by his own life,” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “The play of emotions on his face are as memorable as the iconic red and black plaid wool jacket he wears.” Similarly, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “During the course of his career (especially the early portion of it), Brando gave some amazing performances, but nothing he did before or after rivals his depiction of Terry Malloy.”
Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, giving a mumbling 16-second speech when Bette Davis handed him the Oscar. (On a side note, call up that moment on YouTube, and you’ll be treated to seeing Davis in an outfit that would make Lady Gaga envious.)
Overall, On the Waterfront was one of Hollywood’s most-honored movies ever, garnering awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint), as well as art direction, cinematography, editing and screenplay.
Steiger, Cobb and Malden were all nominated for the Best Supporting Actor. They split the vote, allowing the Oscar to go to Edmond O’Brien for The Barefoot Contessa. Given a ballot, we’d have gone with Malden.