THE MAN LIVED BY THE JUNGLE LAW OF THE DOCKS!
In 1949, investigative journalist Malcolm Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles he had written for the New York Sun. Titled “Crime on the Waterfront”, the series portrayed corruption and influence of organized crime in the ports of New York City. Four years later, the problem had grown to the size where a new agency called the Waterfront Commission had to be created, specifically targeting the Gambino and Genovese crime families. One year later, Elia Kazan directed this universally hailed masterpiece. When they hear about it, most people think of Marlon Brando’s superb performance, but we shouldn’t forget what a riveting story it is or its factual background.
About to testify against a union boss
On a late night, dockworker Terry Malloy (Brando) coaxes a colleague, Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), out of his apartment, expecting his union friends to talk some sense into him. Doyle was about to testify against the union boss, Michael “Johnny Friendly” Skelly (Lee J. Cobb), but the night ends with Joey being thrown off a building. Terry had no idea that this is what he’d get involved in, but he’s proud to be a loyal dockworker and his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is one of Friendly’s closest associates. When Terry meets Joey Doyle’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and falls for her, his guilty conscience grows stronger.
It doesn’t help that Father Barry (Karl Malden), a local priest who bravely stands up against the corrupt union and tries to talk some sense into the dockworkers, is gaining influence over Terry. Soon, Friendly starts to wonder where Charley’s brother’s loyalties lie…
Tribute to ordinary workers
After Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg’s friendly testimonies before Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communism hearings in the early 1950s, it was easy for some people to view On the Waterfront as their attempt to make excuses for the moral failure to oppose McCarthy. After all, the story is primarily about having the courage to stand up against what is wrong and tell the truth, even when your life is in jeopardy. It is possible to accept that view, but the film is more complex; this is also a tribute to ordinary workers finding the guts to purge their union of its criminal elements.
Other people have drawn comparisons between Brando’s character and Jesus Christ, leading Lindsay Anderson to label the film “Fascist”. Nonsense, of course, but it goes to show that On the Waterfront does stir a lot of emotion. It is an immensely rich story, offering a touching romance between Brando and Saint, one that ultimately has to be shaken by the former’s confession of his part in her brother’s murder, as well as an emotional portrait of Terry Malloy, the former boxer “who coulda been a contender”, but now faces a bigger fight. That backseat scene between him and his brother where Terry refuses to accept Friendly’s bribe has gone down in history.
Even more powerful is the sequence where Father Barry stands over the body of yet another murdered dockworker and accuses Friendly and his thugs of turning their backs on Christ; hat brilliantly written sermon won’t be silenced even though the union boss’s men keep pelting him with rotten fruit. What a terrific performance by Malden, one of his best, and the same can be said of Cobb as the fiercely arrogant Friendly and Saint in her first screen role as the woman who’s trying to understand the warped logic of the waterfront.
The film was shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the stark coldness of Boris Kaufman’s cinematography adds to the sense of realism. So does, obviously, Brando’s unforgettable turn as Terry, cocky yet vulnerable throughout the story.
On the Waterfront 1954-U.S. 108 min. B/W. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Directed by Elia Kazan. Screenplay: Budd Schulberg. Cinematography: Boris Kaufman. Editing: Gene Milford. Music: Leonard Bernstein. Art Direction: Richard Day. Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Michael “Johnny Friendly” Skelly), Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Eva Marie Saint… Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, Pat Hingle.
Trivia: Arthur Miller wrote an original screenplay that was ultimately rejected. Anthony DiVincenzo, a former longshoreman who believed that Terry Malloy was based on him, sued Columbia; the studio chose to settle. Later a Broadway play.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actress (Saint), Story and Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Brando), Cinematography. BAFTA: Best Foreign Actor (Brando). Venice: Silver Lion.
Quote: “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, let’s face it.” (Brando to Steiger)
Last word: “We were having a hard time interesting a major studio. No one wanted to do this picture. We hit a wall. There was fear of the mob. Darryl Zanuck turned us down at Twentieth Century-Fox. He told us no one is going to care about a lot of sweaty longshoremen.” (Schulberg, American Legends)