On The Waterfront

To honor the great Elia Kazan, who would have celebrated his 114th birthday last Saturday (September 7th), we will be taking a look at his 1954 Best Picture winner On The Waterfront. Directed by Kazan, the film stars Marlon Brando and Eve Marie Saint. It is rated PG-13 for Violence and Smoking.

On The Waterfront tells the tale of former boxing champion Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) as he struggles to stand up to mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), and to himself.

Terry, now condemned to working on the docks, had been a promising boxer until his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) instructs him to lose a fight so that Friendly could win money betting against Terry. Under the orders of the mob, Terry hoaxes fellow longshoreman, Joey Doyle, straight into an ambush so that he won’t testify against Friendly. After Doyle’s death, Father Barry (Karl Marden) calls for action and urges people to testify against the mob, even though it is seemingly a death sentence.

Meanwhile, Terry falls in love with Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eve Marie Saint), who, along with Father Barry, influences him to take a stand against the mob. Terry, struggling with his conscience, faces moral death by keeping quiet, or actual death by speaking out.

9.5 out of 10

I don’t feel like it needs to be said, but Marlon Brando is commonly regarded as one of the best actors of all time, delivering fantastic performances in films such as The Godfather and A Streetcar Named Desire. His portrayal of Terry Malloy, a former boxing champion entangled in the mob, is definitely up there as well. This film is extremely powerful, largely in thanks to how convincing Brando is. His struggles are genuine. His love for Edie is true. He is electrifying, to say the least. But his actual performance is only part of the reason his masterful showing as Malloy is regarded so highly; it’s also because of the effect he had on film history. He revolutionized acting with this single display, providing it with more of an emotional connection than it ever had before.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando

The ensemble does a fantastic job as well. Rod Steiger, Lee J Cobb, and Karl Malden all earned best supporting actor nominations, and Eve Marie Saint was excellent in the lead female role, albeit in her screen debut. This was a huge part in making this film the success it was.

I could discuss the Oscar winning cinematography, which assists in invoking emotions and dilemma using perspective. I could also discuss the fantastically written script, which also won an Academy Award. Hell, even the music is great. But honestly, the reason this film is such a success is because of how powerful and motivational it is.

Using themes of corruption, class, extortion, and fear, the viewer is always left with a feeling of awe after seeing Terry Malloy stand up to mob, despite the dangers it presents. This film, specifically Kazan and Brando, does a phenomenal job of conveying this message and assuring that a viewer empathizes with Malloy.

Batman Begins reminds me of this film. Of course Terry Malloy is not running around in a cape and mask, but the basic idea of attempting to find justice within the corruption and chaos is the same. And like Batman, On The Waterfront heavily displays themes based around morality. Though it’s technically a crime-mob film, it doesn’t have the same feel; Maybe that’s just because I’ve seen too many Scorsese films. But actually, it’s because the battle between doing what’s right and saving your own skin is the real story. As Terry says, “Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts”.

Brando is great, the writing is great, the camerawork is great. But Elia Kazan did something no one else was daring to do; expose real corruption and violence. Kazan, with one film, impacted both American politics and cinema history. Now, named one other person who could do that.

The problems with this film are virtually non-existent; but if I had to pick one out, it would be the somewhat quick ending. It seemed to rush itself once Brando committed to going after Friendly. Regardless, it was still phenomenal; an ending that wrapped up the film really well, with justice being accomplished in a simple but fitting way.

If you ever get the chance to watch this film, please do. It is an important piece of cinema history, and a moving, powerful piece of art. Even if you’re not interested in the crime mob genre, you will appreciate this film.

9.0 out of 10

It’s September, so let’s talk about the revolutionary Elia Kazan.

In the 1950’s, the cinematic landscape kept it pretty darn light. Movies were seen as a form of some sort of escapism (Which they still are, regardless) and, while the occasional challenging piece was released, stayed out of the problems of the era.

But every once and a while a director would come along ready to provoke the viewer and expose the inside of American institutions that were more corrupt than previously viewed. Kazan was one of those challengers; fiercely ready to douse the happy images of a relaxed age with the underlying conflicts that wouldn’t bubble up to the surface until the next few decades.

On the Waterfront chronicles the exploits of the mob-connected Johnny Friendly and the dockworker Terry Malloy (Played by a pre-Vito Marlon Brando). Johnny holds the docks hostage under his reputation for violence and unyielding desire to wipe put his enemies. Eventually, Malloy comes to be the sole challenger of Friendly’s mob-laden reign and, of course, criminal hijinks ensue.
Politically, this may not seem all that important. It’s just a hunch of Teamsters taking down a primordial Marlon Brando right? But you have to give it some sort of background. On the Waterfront is based off a series off muck-raking articles that ranked on the corruption of unions that was published in the New York Sun. The article was acclaimed at a time when many stood oppose to those groups in light of opposition to Communism. Kazan participated in the House Committee on Un-American Activities (Yes, that once existed and, no, I’m not making an NSA joke) and sold out many left-wing filmmakers. While many playwrights and directors sought a sort of vengeance for this persecution, Kazan stood by his decision and portrayed unions in an unholy light.

Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan

Whether that’s right towards his community or not, I’ll leave you to debate at some dinner table or comment section somewhere but you have to admire that he did it in a completely kick-ass and revolutionary way. It’s almost impossible not to be on Terry’s side in his face off with the intimidating “friends” of Johnny Friendly throughout the movie. Pulling off sympathy for a character you know the audience may very well not side with is very risky business. Yet, against most odds, Kazan was able to wow the audiences of 1954 and wow me today.

The shots seem dark and urban; they mix well with the sobering look at mob-violence. Brando is Brando so if you think I’m going to say much else you’re wrong (One day he might get a paragraph or two devoted to him on this site). I particularly love a good, 1950’s-esque portrait of New York and this film hits a bullseye with that preference.

Kazan, you have to half some sort of genius inside of you to throw your fists up with the Hollywood definitions of right and wrong, style and execution and, above all, entertainment.
Happy belated, buddy.

Bonus Video: The most iconic scene in this film, featuring one of the most famous movie quotes of all time.
IMDB: 8.3
Metacritic: 88
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

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