On the Waterfront (1954) 4.72/5 (4)


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Rating: The Good – 95.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

Easily one of the most inspired pieces of film-making to grace the silver screen, Elia Kazan’s film about a young longshoreman who gets mixed up with his local mob-run union is a searing triumph of writing, direction, and acting. Marlon Brando is the ex-fighter Terry Malloy, whose path towards the world championship abruptly ended when his educated yet corrupt big brother began using him to do some of the mob’s nickel-and-dime dirty work. Rod Steiger is the brother, a sophisticated hoodlum who runs the numbers for his hard-as-nails self-made mob boss Lee J. Cobb. Together they have perfected a despicable racket on the docks whereby only those dockworkers who take out extortionate loans from their outfit get work. Eva Marie Saint stars as the sister of a dock worker recently murdered by the mob for speaking out against this enterprise while Karl Malden rounds off this solid gold cast with a firecracker turn as the local priest whose exasperation with the climate of fear his flock live under, leads him to take an open stand against the union.

Given how well history has remembered the directing and particularly the acting in this film, it’s no small thing to say that Budd Schulberg’s script is just as good. It tells an essential story which reaches into soul of humanity. The unnatural corruption of people lies at the centre of this allegory – from the perversion of a man’s right to work by making him pay for it (corrupting its direct function of acquiring money in the first place) and fight others like him for it (corrupting its wider function of contributing to society) to the manner in which the victims are cultured (programmed) to see this as the natural law and to call any man who stands up for them “a rat”. In fact, by the time Marie Saint’s character poses the question “Isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”, the more perceptive audience members will find themselves sickened at the all too real way in which normal people can be twisted away from normal healthy behaviour by bullies who shout louder and harder.

On a more technical level, the screenplay is just as impressive. The character dynamics are inspired as the link and connection between everyone from dock-worker, to cop, to priest, to mob-boss profoundly reverberates with the broader tropes of the tale while simultaneously setting up some powerful confrontations both dramatic and subtle and within practically every scene. The dialogue is deeply affecting and always feels real even (especially!) when Lee J. Cobb is “LeeJCobb-ing” it to the max – “They’re dustin off the hot seat for me”. As with all great dialogue, the cast are mutually inspired by such writing with Cobb, Steiger, Malden, and Marie Saint all giving uniquely memorable performances. But of course what Brando does with it is even more special.

For those of us who didn’t grow up watching the old greats of the acting profession, it can take years of watching to appreciate the depth and importance of what they were doing on screen. Not so with Brando and definitely not here. From the first moment we see him, there’s an unmissable magnetism that utterly captivates. The improvisation, the intensity, the innate understanding of how to move in relation to the camera. At times, it feels like the performance could become too big for the film even with a story this powerful. That is until we realise that his acting is, in its own unique way, directing the film as sure as the man behind the camera is. It’s an astonishing thing to behold and in the moment when Kazan’s direction, Schulberg’s writing, and Leonard Bernstein’s score catch up with him in the back seat of that car as he delivers that line, it’s as perfect a cinematic moment as we could ever hope for. Seriously!

A final word should be saved for Kazan because On the Waterfront is directed with gargantuan vision. Every shot is masterfully composed with the lighting, staging, and camera movement at times eclipsing even what Brando was doing with his words (the alleyway scene towards the end being a prime example). Whether or not Kazan’s passionate take on a story about everybody being part of everybody else can be interpreted meaningfully with regard to his role in the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1940’s and 50’s is beyond the scope of a straight review of the film’s virtues as a film but a more sensitive depiction of the downtrodden worker yet scathing indictment of the perils of free enterprise you couldn’t find. What is clear, however, is that On the Waterfront is as close to cinematic perfection as few films have got.

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