On the Waterfront Movie Review
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Henning, John F. Hamilton, Ben Wagner, James Westerfield, Fred Gwynne, Tony Galento, Leif Erickson, Rudy Bond
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White) , Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Story and Screenplay, Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb), Best Supporting Actor (Karl Malden), Best Supporting Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Musical Score
If there’s one thing I learned from binging The Sopranos, it’s that you don’t mess with the Mob. One wrong move and those mo-fos will take you down to Chinatown and turn you into fish food…or, in the case of Joey Doyle, rat food.
In the opening scene of On the Waterfront, washed up boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly helps set the trap for the murder of longshoreman Joey Doyle, who refused to abide by the dock’s “deaf and dumb” code. Joey (Ben Wagner) only has a few words of dialogue before he’s thrown over the roof of his building by his Mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
Always a man out to save his own skin, Malloy agrees to stay silent about what he saw. However, all that begins to change when he starts to fall for Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who has been working tirelessly with local pastor, Father Barry (Karl Malden) to expose the crimes taking place on the docks. Through Edie and Father Barry, Malloy comes to learn that the reason Joey was killed was because he was planning to testify against Friendly before the crime commission.
Clearly On the Waterfront is a story about conscience, and so is the story behind the story. Made in 1954 after director Elia Kazan agreed to “name names” and testify against fellow Communist Party members before the House Un-American Activities committee, this film is thought to be an answer to his critics for why he decided to rat out his friends. It seems he was looking for a way to show people that informers were good, noble and brave souls who were facing up to oppression (rather than squealers looking to save their own asses).
Despite its controversial creation story, the tale of Terry Malloy and his quest to stand up for justice was actually based on the true story of a longshoreman named Anthony De Vincenzo, who tried to overthrow a corrupt union. Though Vincenzo failed his mission in real life, Malloy succeeds in his, but not before getting an ass-whooping by the scum of the New Jersey docks. In fact, Malloy’s bloody and bruised walk to freedom at the end of the film (where he’s followed by a man of God and a flock of supporters, no less) is almost Christological, which says a lot about what Kazan thought of himself.
Easily the most enduring part of On the Waterfront is Marlon Brando himself, whose casual acting style helped usher in a new era of more naturalistic acting – today known as method acting. Words are slurred so as to not sound scripted, improvised moments are caught on camera and simple gestures provided by Brando help give the illusion that this man is indeed from the New Jersey waterfront. The fact that Brando appears as an inarticulate hero, yet has one of the best-known and most-quoted bits of dialogue in movie history (“I Coulda Been a Contender” speech), is even more of a tribute to the emotional power of his performance.
And, as luck would have it, Brando almost lost this role to a local New Jersey-born actor by the name of Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was even getting fitted for costumes when Kazan decided to bring Brando in instead, thinking his star power would help double the available budget for the film. Sinatra supposedly “let him off easy”, but this did cause a bit of a riff between Sinatra and Brando, who would both go on to star in Guys and Dolls the following year.
While Sinatra would have been well cast in this role, Brando would actually go on to win his first Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy. The film would win 7 additional Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Director and Best Cinematography.
In today’s day and age, On the Waterfront may not be as fresh as it once was. The union battles and Christian symbolism are conventions from an older time, but it still holds up as a powerful story about a man standing up for what he thinks is right. Filled with inspiring quotes and amazing performances, this film cemented Brando as a Hollywood star and brought to light a story filled with power and heart.