Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger
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On the Waterfront is both a faultless drama and a poorly-conceived metaphor. Director Elia Kazan, one of America’s finest dramatists of film and theatre, handles the social realism of the plot expertly. Terry Malloy (Brando) is a dockworker and a prize-fighter mixed up with a group of evil mobsters who have a stranglehold on the workers’ union. When he falls in love with the sister (Saint) of a fellow worker, killed by the mob for speaking out, things spiral out of control.
With films like Boomerang! (1947) and Panic in the Streets (1950) already behind him, Kazan’s mastery of noir-ish elements combined with a focus on performance and realist location shooting should’ve surprised no one. Every shot is rooted in its time and place, thanks to the director’s attention to minor details and deep focus shooting. Conversations between Malloy and Father Barry (Malden), the priest who leads the charge against the mob, always take place with the waterfront in the background. It’s presence – and, by implication, the presence of the mob – is felt in every scene. On top of that, every character is stricken by poverty and desperation, the nuances of which are captured down to the slightest detail; when men in need of work are turned away each morning, they’re left to mill around on the waterfront and resolve to return the next day to try again.
To focus on the film’s grit and realism, however, is to sell the film short. There is a transcendental aspect to On the Waterfront, an element that raises it above the ordinary confines of social realism. The religious symbolism helps generate this; Terry is, after all, a man searching for absolution. He also needs the love he feels to be returned. This yearning could only be captured so flawlessly by Marlon Brando. He expresses those aspects of the human experience that are innate and urgent in a way no other actor will ever be able to. “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.” Those lines are so iconic that it’s easy to forget just how powerful and precise they are, until they’re watched again within the context of the film.
On the Waterfront’s production was chequered and murky. An original screenplay was written by Arthur Miller, who had collaborated with Kazan before. Miller dropped out, though, when studio bosses insisted that the mobsters be turned into communists to make the film more “pro-American”. The story of Malloy eventually standing up to the mobsters and speaking the truth also tends to be read as Kazan’s apologia for his decision to name names in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. If Kazan thought the heroic actions of Malloy were in any way comparable to his conduct, it’s a sad indictment of his character. Miller, an avowed communist, never spoke to him again, and Kazan’s reputation never fully recovered. But On the Waterfront remains a masterpiece from one of America’s greatest directors of the post-war period.