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On the Waterfront (1954)
The first two-thirds of On the Waterfront are so good that even though the last third is a little weak it's still one of the greatest movies ever made.
(based on a series of 1940s articles by Malcolm Johnson)
Eva Marie Saint
Lee J. Cobb
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor (Cobb)
Best Supporting Actor (Malden)
Best Supporting Actor (Steiger)
Best Music (Leonard Bernstein)
Best Actor (Brando)
Best Supporting Actress (Saint)
Best Art-Set Direction
"You was my brother, Charley, you should've looked out for me a little bit. You should've taken care of me just a little bit..."
On the Waterfront was the first time that three supporting actor nominations came from the same film. In which movie did it next occur?
The movie begins with heavy drumbeats and former boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) yelling up to his friend Joey Doyle. Their planned meeting on the tenement rooftop is a set-up, and Joey, who was about to squeal to the Waterfront Crime Commission about Johnny Friendly's mob, is tossed over. Of course Terry didn't know they were going to kill Joey, and the pain and confusion on Brando's face as he tries to piece this together is amazing. "He wasn't a bad kid, that Joey," he says. The mobsters dismiss his sentimentality. "A canary," one says. Another adds, to laughter, "He could sing but he couldn't fly."
In Brando's hands, Terry Malloy may be the most complex simple man ever filmed. Hanging with mobsters, including his brother, Charley the Gent (Rod Steiger), Terry seems uncomfortable and weak. To the rest of the world he turns a tough face. When he spies for Johnny on some longshoremen meeting with Father Barry (Karl Malden) in a church, he practically sneers at them from the back pew. When members of the Waterfront Crime Commission try to talk to him, he threatens them. One of my favorite small moments occurs when he's talking to the "good cop" from the Commission, and the "bad cop," Gillette (an impossibly young Martin Balsam), speaks up behind him. Gillette is off Terry's left shoulder, but Terry addresses him by turning to his right, so he can confront him and dismiss him at the same time. A small but exquisite gesture.
The brunt of the film is how Terry gets religion: How he moves from one set of values (don't rat) to another, vaguer set (do the right thing). As usual, a woman is behind this change, and, as usual, she's virginal: Edie Doyle (Eve Marie Saint in her film debut), Joey's sister, visiting from St. Anne's convent. She's involved in her own investigation of her brother's death. When mobsters descend on longshoremen and locals meeting in the church, Terry whisks her away. There's an obvious attraction between the two, despite their differences. When they meet in a bar he tells her his philosophy of life: a fist. "Do it to him before he does it to you," he says. She obviously doesn't agree:
Edie: Shouldn't everyone care about everyone else?
Terry: Boy, what a fruitcake you are.
Edie: I mean, isn't everyone a part of everyone else?
Terry: And you really believe that drool.
Edie: Yes, I do.
His comments are somewhere between admiring and contempuous, while hers are gently forthright. Sans the fruitcake and drool, it reminds me of several conversations I've had with women in my life. Probably men and women have been talking this way for centuries.
Charley: How much you weigh, Slick? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.
Terry: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? This ain't your night. My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville. You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short end money.
Charley: I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry: 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. It was you, Charley.
Terry's other conversion is vaguely Biblical. He comes to realize that Charley, his older, smarter brother, ruined his life or helped ruin what little potential he had in his life. He vocalizes this in the famous taxicab scene. Up to this moment, Charley has always browbeaten Terry into line; but now the mob is worried about a subpoena Terry received from the Commission, and Charley's been given orders (in another great scene where we see Charley pleading with Johnny Friendly's shoes) to make Terry shut up or else. It's the "or else" that does it. When Terry tells Charley he hasn't made up his mind what to say to the Commission, Charley responds, "Well make up your mind before we get to 437 River Street!" A slow realization dawns on Terry's face. His brother is taking him for a ride. And though the threat clearly demonstrates Charley's power (do what I say or die), its finality actually allows the power dynamic to flow back to Terry. Because it's the ultimate betrayal in a life full of smaller betrayals, and Terry makes Charley see this. "You was my brother, Charley," he says, famously, heartbreakingly, "you should have looked out for me a little bit." Terry's moral power trumps Charley's firepower. The code of brothers beats the code of the streets. Charley, unable to mimic the world's first murder, lets Terry off and pays with his own life.
The film, unfortunately, gets weak in the end. Much has been made of the supposed comparison between director Elia Kazan (who named names before HUAC), and Terry Malloy (who named names before the Waterfront Crime Commission). Even Kazan, in his 1988 autobiography, thought the film justified his actions. He was wrong. In the early 1950s, HUAC was such a powerful entity it took courage not to name names at the cost of one's livelihood. On the waterfront, Johnny Friendly's mob was such a powerful entity it took courage to name names - at the cost of one's livelihood (and life).
Yet in the film, after Terry talks, he becomes a pariah in the neighborhood as Kazan eventually became in Hollywood when there's no indication that something similar happened to fellow squealers Joey Doyle or Kayo Dugan. It's the director's life intruding upon Terry's life. Worse, after shunning Terry, the longshoremen demand that, though physically-beaten and half-dead, he lead them into work. "Terry walks in, we walk in with him," they say, and the film has its unnecessarily melodramatic ending.
Still. The stark black-and-white photography shot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey. The sharp script from Budd Schulberg. ("When I'm dead and gone you'll know what a friend I was," one of the mobsters tells Kayo Dugan, to which Dugan replies, "Why don't you drop dead now so we can test your theory.")
Then there are the acting lessons from Marlon Brando. One could watch the film dozens of times just to discover the subtle shadings of his character. In his online review, Roger Ebert writes, "Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh, alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kind of heightened riff on reality." Elia Kazan went further. "If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don't know what it is."
November 13, 2001
© 2001 Erik Lundegaard