The winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1954, On the Waterfront is a crime drama about urban violence and corruption amongst longshoremen in the New York docks. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a former prize fighter turned longshoreman with links to mob connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). After the death of a dock worker in suspicious circumstances, his sister (Eva Marie Saint) begins sniffing around and becomes involved with Terry which causes him to be torn between two worlds and right and wrong.
The film was nominated for an impressive twelve Academy Awards, winning eight including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Supporting Actress (Saint). With eight wins it joined Gone with the Wind and From here to Eternity as the most highly decorated films in history at that time. The film itself was a fairly low budget expose of the corrupt underworld of the New York docks and bought to light the now common themes of mob racketeering and deaf and dumb police cooperation.
A further subtext to this film is that both Writer Bud Schulbrg and Director Elia Kazan had themselves ‘turned state witness’ by identifying friends with Communist sensibilities during the McCarthy era Witch Hunts. Having been vocally criticized for turning their friends in to be black listed; the two justified their actions with a film that shows the other side of cooperating with officials. It’s interesting to note that Lee J. Cobb who plays Johnny Friendly also talked with the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC). Cobb’s actions saved his career and allowed him to go on to star in this film for which he was Oscar nominated as well as star in one of the greatest movies of all time, 12 Angry Men.
On the Waterfront features a powerful story with a conflicted central character which is still one of Brando’s most famous. Brando is sublime in the film, playing a character who is the epitome of cool. You can’t help but fall in love with him as he woos Eve Marie Saint’s Edie. His overbearing presence and magnetism draws the audience towards him and at times Edie is drawn like a moth to a flame even though she knows he isn’t the right man for her. I have to be honest and say that I haven’t seen all that many of Brando’s films but it is clear to see his influence in the actors who followed him. Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets for instance feels like a carbon copy of Brando’s Terry Malloy in certain scenes. Lee J. Cobb makes a great villain and has the sort of face which exudes anger and malice. Eva Marie Saint is also well cast as a sort of rose amongst thorns, her classic beauty and blonde hair standing out amongst the dirt and grime of the docks. Saint who is perhaps more famous for her role in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest won an Oscar for her performance in what was amazingly her first screen role.
Kazan’s direction is something which really stands out for me in this film. It is incredibly bold and assured and for a story which is almost claustrophobic in it’s depiction of life around the docks, it encompasses a lot of locations and styles. There is a great scene towards the end in which Brando is being chased by mobsters which has a Noire feel and great use of shadows. Scenes on rooftops further reminded me of early Scorsese and themes of urban violence and Catholic Guilt help to extend that comparison but my absolute favourite scene features an awe inspiring combination of sound and image as Brando comes clean to Saint that he was involved in her brother’s death. Much of the scene is shot from a distance with the Manhattan skyline in the background and the docks all around them, putting them at the centre of a larger picture. When the camera moves closer to their faces we see Saint’s distraught reaction but Brando’s explanation to her is muffled by the sounds of the docks. It’s a scene worth checking out on YouTube even if you have no interest in the film itself.There is also an incredibly powerful speech about corruption and murder by a Priest played by Karl Maldon which is strong enough to make you tingle and is worth checking out.
Talking of sound, it is my one criticism of the film. I’ve seen the film twice now, on DVD both times but have struggled to hear the cast’s lines on both viewing. I don’t know if it’s due to a poor quality DVD or poor sound mixing but it makes it very difficult to pick out some of the great lines. This isn’t just during Brando’s trademark mumbling either, it is right the way throughout the film. Overall though On the Waterfront is a terrific expose of mob rule on the docks and contains some incredible performances and direction and is well deserving of its awards success.