On the Waterfront (1954)
Release Date: August 6th, 1954 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Elia Kazan Actors: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Leif Erickson, James Westerfield
erry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is uneducated muscle for the mob, roped into orchestrating interrogations that result in murder. An ex-prizefighter with no talent for words and a glaring lack of sentiment and emotion, he still possesses a calm demeanor and amusingly leaden reasoning. His role as an occasional stool pigeon has him on edge for being disloyal, while he’s continually pressured into the part of a mindless brute minder, battling subpoenas from the authorities and contending with his own, gradual recognition of the injustices taking place around him.
When young longshoreman Joey, loved by nearly everyone in the neighborhood, musters enough guts to chatter to investigators, he’s thrown from an apartment roof. His outraged sister Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) wants answers. But no one else will talk to the police or stir up trouble with corrupt, tough-as-nails dock union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who regularly applies force to the harbor occupants and employers to take a cut of their income. The Waterfront Crime Commission begins an inquisition into underworld infiltration of the longshoreman union, where the extortionate mob governs the hiring – leaving most laborers to succumb to the crooked ticketing system for collecting daily workers. Conditions are poor, causing the denizens to live in abject poverty – but those who speak out against the system are beaten or killed.
When Father Barry (Karl Malden) organizes a meeting in the basement of the church, Friendly’s men get wind and ransack the conference. As Terry starts absorbing the violence and criminal dominance, he falls for Edie, with his guilt over her brother’s death contradicting his motives for romancing and protecting her. Terry’s brother Charley “The Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), Johnny’s right-hand thug and ruthless moneyman, is perturbed by Terry’s conflicted loyalty, and tasked with determining his potential intentions in the courtroom – and curbing his attitude permanently if need be (resulting in a monumental taxi ride scene in which brotherly love and sacrifice is revealed and tested).
It’s a sinister, severe premise, brimming with tension and drama, and all but devoid of lighter moments to ease the mood. Leonard Bernstein’s dynamic score (for which he would receive an Oscar nomination), full of percussion-heavy jazz, inquisitive trumpets, panicky violins, and somber melodies, perfectly sets the tone. That music smartly aids in capturing a black-and-white, noirish world, where smiles never grace the faces of its residents. The devastating script (written by Budd Schulberg, borrowing from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Sun articles by Malcolm Johnson) allows patient character development to shape unforgettable roles – with a forbidden, unlikely love story blossoming from a desire to momentarily escape crushing depression and dearth – and an impactful landscape where fateful allegiances birth bloody vengeance.
“On the Waterfront” boasts relevant, timeless subject matter as it examines the roots of impoverishment, the struggle to right wrongs at all costs, and the discovering of the courage necessary to stand up not only for principles and oneself, but also for others of lesser means and capabilities. It’s a chronicling of troubled individuals in dark times, interacting in dire scenarios with a historical, sociopolitical bent. While its bleak authenticity and sensational acting (winning Academy Awards for Best Actor and Supporting Actress and receiving nominations for three additional supporting roles) garnered critical acclaim, the events are dramatically portrayed for the sake of recreating an important time and place and conveying the related, contemporary consciousness and concern. It’s here that the entertainment value suffers, save for the love story, as the focus is shifted too heavily on historical significances and admonitory tragedies. The routinely dismal tale of oppression overrides the impact of the characters; the poignancy of relationships and convenient devotion is overpowered by systematic vindication and judicial rectification. The conclusion, however, is undeniably triumphant, and has become one of the most recognized of all movie endings.
– Mike Massie