Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden
Directed by Elia Kazan
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) was a boxer. That was a long time ago. Today he works at the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, doing odd jobs for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the boss of the Longshoreman's Union local; in his spare time, he keeps birds in a coop on the roof of his apartment building. Terry owes his job to his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a member of Friendly's inner circle, and when Friendly's henchmen trick him into helping them murder a troublemaker, his first instinct is to keep quiet, out of loyalty to his beloved brother and to the powerful man who employs him. A crusading priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), knows Johnny Friendly is behind the crime, however, and is determined to break the union's code of silence and obtain justice for the dead man. Watching Father Barry and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the victim's sister, pursue their hopeless quest, the slow-witted Terry begins to come to terms with the violence and corruption that rule Johnny's organization, even including Terry's own brother. The illiterate, broken young man is faced with the biggest decision of his life: Should he tell what he knows and forever separate himself from his family and friends, even assuming Friendly doesn't have him killed? Or should he remain loyal, like everyone else, and help the corrupt boss evade the clutches of the law yet again?
Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg took a nonfiction newspaper series about organized crime on the New York waterfront and created a film that is remembered today for the power of its screenplay and for the surpassing performance of its lead actor, Marlon Brando. On the Waterfront is in some ways a traditional morality play of the kind that Hollywood produced for decades before social strictures loosened—the good guys are easy to tell from the bad guys, there's never any real doubt that the hero will do the right thing, there's a clergyman at the center of everything to provide moral guidance—but it stands apart from the crowd by virtue of Kazan's realism and attention to detail and some of the finest acting performances ever captured on film.
It is impossible to knowledgeably discuss On the Waterfront without understanding how the film came into being. Elia Kazan, an ethnic Greek who was born in Istanbul and emigrated to the US with his family when he was four years old, joined the Communist Party in 1934, at a time when the Great Depression was at its nadir and Communism had become fashionable among leftish members of the New York theater community. Kazan broke with the party soon after and became a top Hollywood director who often infused his films with a liberal political sensibility, in much the same way directors like Stanley Kramer and Sidney Lumet would in later years. His brief membership in the Communist Party would become an issue nearly 20 years later, during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, the time of the Hollywood blacklist.
Though it is Sen. Joe McCarthy's name that is most associated with the Red-baiting movement of that era, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was most responsible for the creation of the blacklist, which had no force of law but which served as the kiss of death for the writers, directors, producers, and actors who had the extreme misfortune to find their names on it. Being named as a Communist or a sympathizer—in some cases, publicly holding liberal political views was all it took—essentially ensured that you would never work in Hollywood again under your own name, and once named, the only way you could avoid the blacklist was to name others. A handful of witnesses refused to testify in front of the committee, and lost their careers as a result. Others capitulated and named names to save themselves, in a moment of weakness for which many of them would later express profound regret.
And then there was Elia Kazan. When Kazan appeared before HUAC in 1952, he supplied the committees with the names of eight of his fellow members of New York's Group Theatre in the 1930s who, he said, were members of the Communist Party. If Kazan's colleagues harbored beliefs that he regretted his decision to inform on his friends, they were dashed two days later when he took out an ad in the New York Times explicitly defending it and suggesting that no other moral choice existed. Excerpts from the ad:
A STATEMENT, by Elia Kazan
... I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem. That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.
I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about Communism. All the facts. Now, I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency....
The facts I have are sixteen years out of date, but they supply a small piece of background to the graver picture of Communism today. I have placed these facts before the House Committee on Un-American Activities without reserve and I now place them before the public and before my coworkers in motion pictures and in the theatre.
Two years later, Kazan directed On the Waterfront. Its story of a young dockworker who puts himself at great personal risk to cooperate with the authorities to bring down his corrupt union bosses was, and is, a clear allegory for Kazan's view of his own role in the HUAC investigations. Kazan, like Terry Malloy, isolated himself from his friends and made himself a pariah in the place where he worked, in service of what he saw as a greater good. To remain silent in the face of malice, he believed, is to be complicit in it. Kazan's former friends, who had committed no crimes and had a First Amendment right to freedom of speech and of association, saw it differently: it was not enough that they or their colleagues had lost everything they had worked for due to Kazan's decision to inform, but here he was comparing them to violent, murderous mobsters, and piously casting himself in the role of the only man on the docks with a conscience.
On the Waterfront won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and in 1998 the American Film Institute ranked it #8 on its list of the top 100 American films of the 20th century. Kazan continues to defend his role in the witch hunts to this day.
Some points to ponder:
- I loathe Elia Kazan, and I mourn the careers of those men who might have gone on to be remembered as giants of American cinema. I also consider On the Waterfront one of my favorite films. To what extent is it appropriate to take the political views of the artist—or, perhaps more to the point, the political content of the artist's works—into consideration when judging the work's artistic merit?
- People today generally know Marlon Brando for three things: playing the Godfather, playing Superman's dad, and being a whacked-out mass of adipose tissue the size of Rhode Island. When he was younger, though, Brando was one of the finest actors of his generation--the finest, some would say. Brando was one of the first Method actors to star in films, and he is famous for the intensity he brought to the role of Terry Malloy. Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" line is often parodied, but when you actually see it for the first time, pay attention to how anguished and heartbroken he is. Even when young, Brando was never a typical glamorous leading man; though hardly ugly, he certainly was not conventionally handsome, in the mold of his contemporary, James Dean. In pictures like On the Waterfront and 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire, though, he established an image of brooding masculinity that many women found very sexy, and still do. If you've never seen an early Brando picture before, be prepared to put aside your preconceptions.