I first saw On the Waterfront in a film class back in college. I remember it completely wowing me for a number of reasons; chief among them being how current and modern the film felt, due to the style of the acting and directing, as well as its core themes. It felt ahead of its time; a complete break away from all the other “classic” films on the syllabus screened that semester. Interestingly, in their musings about On the Waterfront, many contemporary critics detour from their praise of the film to highlight the somewhat dated nature of its subject matter concerning mob control coursing through labor unions in the early 1950s. While some truth may reside on this point, I say the fact that the modern-day landscape has shifted in appearance from the 1950s is irrelevant criticism. The issues of corruption, greed and the abuse of power are still rampant, and in some spheres have become almost customary problems that are often justified or excused altogether. Given that the film deals with these issues in a context that may seem somewhat antiquated does nothing to tarnish the relevancy of the dilemmas faced and lessons learned by its characters. Regardless of the context, it’s the retention of this apposite quality that has crafted an enduring strength, allowing On the Waterfront to still be a force 60 years after its release.
Directed by the legendary and controversial Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront inscribed another chapter in his frequent collaborations with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. Further widening the film’s marquee were memorable turns by Lee Cobb, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint, who made her film debut with the role. On the Waterfront hooked 12 nominations from the Academy, eventually loading up eight victories, including Best Picture for 1954. All five of the film’s leads were recognized with nominations for their work, with Brando and Saint taking home the honors for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (not a bad debut, indeed). Unfortunately, Cobb, Malden and Steiger over crowded the Best Supporting Actor category, apparently carving up the voting bloc between them, leaving them all empty-handed by the time the curtain was lowered on Oscar night. Another notable nominee whose name failed to make the winner’s list is Leonard Bernstein, whose ingenuous score charged On the Waterfront with suspense and force. So now the next time you’re listening to R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and it comes to the part of the song where Michael Stipe yells, “Leonard Bernstein,” you’ll know he scored one of the greatest films of all time.
Filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, where everyone is seemingly a wiseguy or chump, On the Waterfront follows Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), an inarticulate ex-pugilist-turned-dockworker without much to do except stroll around with an upturned collar, kicking at the occasional piece of trash in his way. However, thanks to the connections of his older brother Charley “The Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), Terry is able to curry favor with Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb), the mob-connected union boss who controls the docks. Friendly exploits Terry’s somewhat naïve and undiscerning nature for a variety of errands. But after unwittingly coaxing a popular dockworker into an ambush to render him unable to testify against Friendly, the drum of Terry’s conscience begins to echo in his ears, slowly turning out his squatting ignorance towards the events around him.
Further turning this tide of change are Terry’s encounters with Father Barry (Karl Malden) and the murdered dockworker’s sister, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), who both become embroiled in this waterfront war by their determination to bring justice to the docks. Terry’s ambivalence regarding whether or not to testify against Friendly is given an extra coating of complication as he begins to helplessly fall for Edie: If Terry decides to uncork the gritty truth, Edie will inevitably discover the role Terry played in her brother’s death, throwing any hope of a chance with her into serious jeopardy. But the even higher stakes for Terry are planted internally, as he is forced to decide whether or not he will remain a bum or have the courage to emerge a contender.
Much has been made about Marlon Brando’s seminal performance as Terry, and the truth of the matter is that all of the acclaim is merited. Even today, Brando’s turn as a disappointed man faced with a shot at emancipation from his regrets still carries a contemporary quality to it. His approach in realizing Terry takes on a more naturalistic and cool method that seems to be a departure from the typically more melodramatic and stylized hallmarks of so many performances up until this point in cinema. In his review of On the Waterfront, Roger Ebert gave a nice articulation of Brando’s trailblazing methods, writing that “Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh, alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kid of heightened riff on reality.”
In On the Waterfront, the best example of Brando mincing decades-old on-screen mannerisms is during the scene between Terry and his brother Charley. The latter is charged with knocking off the former before he can sing in court against Johnny Friendly. Unaware of Charley’s orders, Terry finds himself riding in a cab with his older brother to a secluded location where the hit can be carried out. Along the way, Terry and Charley engage in conversation about the past, which is where Brando delivers the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech. At the height of the scene, Charley pulls a gun on Terry out of desperate frustration, which elicits a subtle and gently powerful reaction: Brando softly strokes the barrel of the gun away, as his face registers a mixture of love and anguish, of heartache and remorse towards his brother in fully realizing the loss of their relationship. It’s a truly an unforgettable scene in a truly unforgettable film. And insofar as I’m concerned, On the Waterfront still wows me more than a decade after first watching it in college.
Favorite Line: Perhaps one of the most famous lines in cinematic history is the previously mentioned speech Terry delivers in the back of the cab to his brother Charley. It’s a great line because it’s filled with so much disappointment and regret. But apart from that, Brando delivers it with such authenticity that it creates a genuinely heartbreaking moment. “You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.”