Monday, July 11, 2011


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The Academy's pick for best picture of 1954, the tough drama, ON THE WATERFRONT, was the second best picture winner for director Elia Kazan, seven years after GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT. More importantly, it is one of the best remembered best picture winners ever, with Marlon Brando giving a legendary performance that is still being studied in film and acting schools.
It's Genesis began in 1949 when reporter Malcolm Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles entitled "Crime on the Waterfront", about mob influenced corruption on the New York City docks.  The articles caught the interest of playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote a script entitled HOOK for Kazan to direct,  but when Miller refused to make the villains communists,  Kazan replaced him with screenwriter Budd Schulberg instead.  Schulberg spent two years on the dockyards researching the film for his eventually Oscar winning script, which was initially turned down by more than one studio until producer Sam Spiegel set up a deal with Columbia.  It would go on to gross about four times its million dollar budget.
For the lead role of Terry Malloy, Frank Sinatra was considered, but Brando was eventually convinced to do it, as he was a bigger box office draw at the time than Sinatra.  Brando began his brilliant (but wildly uneven) acting career on the stage, breaking through into the big time in 1947 with his role as Stanley Kowalski in Tennesee Williams's,  Broadway hit, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, which was directed by Kazan.  Brando was the first actor to popularize what came to be known as "method" acting, in which the performer attempted to immerse his or her self into the character being portrayed, and it is a style still used today by actors like Sean Penn.  He made his cinematic debut as a handicapped world war two veteran in 1950's THE MEN, followed a year later by the inevitable movie version of STREETCAR, with Kazan directing the film version also.  By 1954 Brando was a big star (and sex symbol) who had given several memorable performances,  but his Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT would prove to be his most famous role (perhaps tied with THE GODFATHER) , and it would garner him his first Oscar for best actor.
The film tells the story of Terry Malloy, a dim witted former boxer and dock worker, who's brother Charlie(Rod Stieger) is the right hand man for Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb), a gangster who runs the docks with an iron hand.  When Terry inadvertently sets up a friend to be killed by the mob, he at first shrugs it off, but then later, when he finds himself falling for Edie(Eva Marie Saint), the dead man's sister, he finds himself drawn towards going to the police.  This leads to tragic consequences, but it eventually ends the mob's control over the shipyards.

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando

Kazan shot most of the film on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, and used real dockworkers as extras, and that along with the gritty black and white cinematography(by Boris Kaufman, who also won an Oscar) gives the film a documentary, you-are-there style,  that works perfectly for the story and complements the naturalistic performances. And Leonard Bernstein's booming, powerful score is excellent, especially in the heavy drumming that accompanies the film's opening, when Johnny Friendly, strutting like Mussolini, leads his gang down the dock.
Brando's performance dominates the film, and it is a wonder; although he plays another dense, physical character like his Stanley Kowalski in STREETCAR, Terry has a much more sensitive side, as we see in his love of raising pigeons and the fact that he is a kind of father figure to local street kids.  And his romantic chemistry with Edie (Saint also won an Oscar for best supporting actress) is fine and moving, even if they seem mismatched at first.  More importantly, he believably changes from a cynical, lazy man who gets easy jobs on the shipyards because his brother is a high ranking gangster, to someone willing to stand up for the right thing, even when his own life is at stake.
The film's most famous scene, of course, is when Terry and Charlie sit in the back of a cab and Charlie pleads with Terry not to go to the police; it truly is a classic moment, with Steiger's stern but almost gentle pleading matching Brando's conflicted sadness wonderfully.  The viewer truly senses the closeness between the two brothers, even when Charlie pulls a gun on Terry, he does it reluctantly, and Terry pushes it away in an almost tender gesture. 

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando

As much as I love Brando's acting, I think Kazan makes a mistake at the film's ending, when he switches to a heavy handed, almost poetic style and turns Terry into a Christ figure; I also find the film's ending a little too neat, with the mob too easily defeated by Terry's bravery.  But the film's most glaring error lies in Karl Malden's crusading priest, Father Barry, an unnecessary character who's hammy speeches quickly become tiresome.  Although he clearly is there to help push Terry to the side of righteousness, I think Terry's love for Edie shows that clearly enough.
Finally, I can't write about this film without discussing the importance of its context in Kazan's life; in 1952 Kazan, an admitted former Communist, was called to testify in front of the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee.  To save his own career, he named names, (including playwright Clifford Odets) essentially ruining their ability to find work; he would later claim that the people he named had already been blacklisted, but the damage was done, and the stain of what many people in Hollywood saw as a betrayal would hang onto him for the rest of his life.  Indeed, in 1999 when he was given an honorary Academy Award, some people in the audience refused to applaud.  In regards to ON THE WATERFRONT, Kazan freely admitted that he was drawn to the material because he identified with Terry Malloy (screenwriter Budd Schulberg also named names at HUAC); "Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood" he would later say.  Personally, I find this analogy difficult to swallow; does Kazan really expect us to believe that a man turning murderous gangsters who killed his brother in to the police is the same as his naming the names of people who joined the Communist party at a time when it was perfectly legal to do so?  Terry Malloy risks his life to go after the mob; by being a friendly witness, Elia Kazan risked nothing but his reputation.  So, for me,  the easiest way to enjoy this film is to dwell entirely in its own world and ignore Kazan's sub textural message, which has become easier to do as the years have passed by and Kazan's own passing has taken place.


1954 turned out to an impressive year for Hollywood: along with this film REAR WINDOW, A STAR IS BORN and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS have all been remembered and revered.  But my personal favorite film of that year is Herbert Biberman's little seen SALT OF THE EARTH, a powerful film about racism and sexism; although it is rough around the edges, it was decades ahead of its time.