On the Waterfront: Kazan’s Best

The interesting fact about this blog is that there are some decades I’ve explored more than others. The 1970s are a decade that I’ve explored and commented on extensively. However, on the decades that I’ve covered the lest is the 1950s. This week is only the third movie that I’ve watched from that decade as part of this project.


The third ever movie that I reviewed was Around the World in 80 Days. The film was beautiful, but it had as many ups and downs as a heartbeat monitor hooked up to a boulder.


And, while it was commercially successful in 1952, my other movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, was a film that I loved as much as shoving my own foot in a wood chipper. So, I think it’s fair to say that I have low expectations for the films from the 1950s.


I’ve talked before about the influence of the Red Scare, the Cold War, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on Hollywood and American media at large during the decade and a half since the close of World War II. Hollywood was a hotbed of suspected communist activity for this committee as they tried to root out subversive views from the American cultural landscape. I have to keep a film’s historical context in mind when I write these blogs, regardless of the fact that HUAC was a hysteric witch hunt that had no trouble burning free speech in favor keeping the white capitalist status quo. I feel it is unfair to judge a film based upon the environment within which it is produced, but that doesn’t excuse the making and recognition of bad films. The first two films were just simply bad movies. It’s reasonable to have low expectations.


But, as what is normally the case, my expectations were dashed with this week’s review of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront in 1954. I didn’t know what to expect out of Kazan’s masterpiece, but I certainly didn’t think that I’d be as engrossed with it as I was. I also didn’t think I could fall in love with Marlon Brando any more after The Godfather, but that happened too.


On the Waterfront not only trumps Kazan’s other Best Picture winner Gentlemen’s Agreement in every way, it radically reshaped not only his dramatic style and what was possible by an actor on the screen.


Now, for the rest of the movie.



On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy, an apathetic longshoreman and the brother Charley (Rod Steiger), the right-hand man of the corrupt longshoreman union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry is Friendly’s “gopher” helping will all kinds of nefarious acts in order for Friendly to keep his power and bankroll his own greed at the hands of the union.


When the Waterfront Crime Commission starts poking around the corrupt practices of union, the rank-and-file longshoremen play “D and D” or deaf and dumb. They won’t speak to the investigators for fear of losing their livelihood and the scant work that already exists. An unseen man named Joey Doyle, however, is planning to testify against Friendly and his cronies. In the process, and thanks to Terry’s direct help, Doyle is pushed off a roof and to his death.


Following Joey’s death, Father Barry (Karl Malden), the local priest, takes up the cause to find Joey’s killer and, at the behest of Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) get to the bottom of the corruption in the union.


Slowly, the priest talks men into testifying only to be undone, indirectly this time, by Terry. Terry, meanwhile, starts a charming romance with Edie. This leads Terry to have second thoughts about his loyalty to Friendly’s operation, particularly after his is called to testify by the Commission.


Terry, feeling guilty for his role in Joey’s death, tells Edie the truth and decides to testify against Johnny Friendly, helping to free the longshoremen under his thumb to have steady work.


The narrative for On the Waterfront is masterfully paced. Kazan sucks you in from the opening shot and, thanks to some great writing, helps to keep you there, right on the edge of your seat up until the very end. This one, much like Slumdog Millionaire, is a narrative tour-de-force, erupting off the screen and burning into the back of my brain.


When I first figured out that there was going to be a romance, I hoped that it wouldn’t detract from the story, like other films from the decade, most notably The Greatest Show on Earth. Again, I was mistaken. This is one of those rare thought-provoking movies in which the romance adds to the movie and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if it were not there. 1.



Inspired by a series of Malcolm Johnson articles exposing corruption in longshoremen’s unions, the script loosely follows this path. Written by Budd Schulberg, the script is heavy with hard-nosed, blue collar dialogue, it is also intelligently written. Elia Kazan, in fact, wouldn’t take the script if it were perfect in his eyes. The hard work paid off, winning Schulberg the Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay.


The script does dish out Kazan’s ideas about Hollywood, too, though, but he uses his actors to speak his opinions. In April 1952, Kazan relented to governmental pressure and provided names of current and former members of various communist groups that he interacted with when he was younger. He used this film as justification for that testimony two years earlier. In one single speech by Father Barry after a staged accident that killed a longshoreman who planned to testify, Kazan literally preaches to us in the curse of the almighty dollar, and the idea of standing up for yourself in the face of oppression and corruption. The speech is gripping, invoking a passion from the priest who, as a man and human being, cares about the well being of those in his parish. It also hits home the idea that what these men face in Johnny Friendly are real stakes: literal life and death, but also the lives of their families and the men’s pride in providing for their families. 1.


The great Leonard Bernstein scored On the Waterfront, and it is a startling contrast to Gentlemen’s Agreement, which features almost no music. Bernstein, on the other hand, takes his dramatic score to the extreme, matching the tension within the film perfectly.

But, perhaps one of my favorite uses of the score was when Terry is telling Edie his role in her beloved brother’s death. You hear none of their conversation, but Edie’s reactions (which may be just a touch overdone) tell the whole story with Bernstein chiming away in the background. 1.


Set Design

Moving from the boxy soundstages of the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood tried to expand outside of Hollywood itself to give the films are more authentic note. On the Waterfront is certainly no exception to this.


Taking place around Hoboken, New Jersey, the film was also shot and composed there. This lends more authenticity to the movie, and its blue collar cast. The set is lived in and perfectly reflects the working class nature of the lives of longshoremen. Richard Day won Best Art Direction, Black and White for his work on this film. 1.



Boris Kaufman won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White for On the Waterfront.


Again, this film was radically different from Gentlemen’s Agreement. In that film, the cinematography was primarily medium shots on boxy stages. In this film, however, the shots are much closer and much more emotional. The film has a lot of close-ups that show off the emotion for everyone. On the Waterfront is a gritty movie about people who struggle every single day and the shots reflect that. This is particularly true in the clip above, but shots like that are littered all over the film.


Also, I love black and white photography, maybe more than color photography. Light and shadow create such brilliant contrasts and the filmmakers in the heyday of the black and white style were truly masters of their craft. On the Waterfront is no stranger to this. Harsh lighting contrasted with dark shadows help this movie pop off the screen. It’s easily the most stylish movie I’ve reviewed since Casablanca. 1.



The performances in On the Waterfront are easily the most outstanding part of this film. In fact, Brando, Cobb, Malden, Steiger, and Saint were all nominated for acting Oscars. Brando leads the way with what was his best performances for 18 years until The Godfather in 1972.


Brando won Best Actor for his portrayal of Terry Malloy and the performance capped off a record of four straight nominations for Best Actor from Brando. This role helped to establish Brando as a titan of Hollywood in the last half of the 20th century.


The often nervous and difficult to work with Brando wins over the audience with his dark hair, stonewall forehead, caterpillar eyebrows, and a smile that could shoot down airplanes. But Brando as Terry Malloy is much more than that.


Malloy is, at heart, a fighter in not just a figurative sense, but a literal one, too. Malloy is a former prize fighter who, before a title fight, was told to throw the fight by Friendly to help Johnny’s pocketbook. Terry obliged, albeit begrudgingly, but the lost fight, the stolen dignity transformed his budding career from a spotlight to just a simple lightning strike. Before he knew it, he was over. Like he says in his famous line, he could have been a contender, could have been somebody. But now, he’s just a bum, a nobody, taking orders from the man that ruined his career.

His dreams crushed, Malloy responds with apathy and an aggressive indifference towards life in general. He chooses to go through life just following orders, not worrying about others in his life. When the tough guy facade is pierced by Edie, he softens and shows that he’s a man that will stand up for what’s right. He becomes an idealistic fighter when taking on the corrupt union bosses.


Terry goes from a man with no convictions to that with convictions as hard as the hulls on the ships in the harbor. Galvanized by Edie’s suffering and, later, his brother’s death, Terry takes down the corruption, standing up for what he believes, just like what Father Barry told him to do. Brando was the king of the 1950s and he delivered a win for method acting and himself with this role.


Another performance of note was that of Eva Marie Saint, who made her film debut in this film. She also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her first role. Not a bad start to the career. 1.



On the Waterfront is our last look at Elia Kazan. This film gave him his second Best Director Oscar, and it was certainly his most contentious.


I normally don’t do any research on films before I see them, so I knew very little about this one when I pulled it up for the first time. As I’ve stated before, this movie was terrific in a number of ways and I was gung-ho with Kazan for making it.


Imagine my shock and disappointment when I learned that Kazan made it to justify his “naming names” to HUAC, and to throw a giant middle finger to communist Hollywood. I was disappointed because, for a time, I believed that we had a film from that decade that an overly aggressive HUAC didn’t get their fingers into. Nope.


So, I was torn. I didn’t want to give the film a bad review because it is good. Yes, On the Waterfront is a narrative tour-de-force, yes, Marlon Brando is brilliant, and yes, this movie is Elia Kazan’s masterpiece. But there is also a backstory here. I decided that I cannot, in good faith, punish a good movie because of my distaste for the HUAC, even is the movie is justification for Kazan’s complicity with them.


Just like each of the longshoremen faced real stakes and real consequences, so, too did Kazan when he named names in 1952. It cost him friends, but it also kept him off a blacklist and ensured he could still flex his creative bone in Hollywood.


So what about On the Waterfront? If we can take the rest of that other junk I just mentioned out, this is, frankly, one of my favorite movies that I’ve done to this point. It showed me that yes, good quality films can pass the Academy test during the 1950s. The film’s unrelenting drama and brutal inspection of a hard American life under fire captured my attention, and forced words to pour out of my brain for several days after I watched it. Not all of the films do that and Gentlemen’s Agreement certainly didn’t do that to me. That’s the mark of a good film, in my mind, when instead of all the other crap I could be thinking about, I choose to think about the 108 minutes of my life I spent watching this masterpiece. I love this movie, I love Marlon Brando, and I love Elia Kazan. His willingness to take on and conquer some very difficult issues goes a long way in my book.


Kazan torched friendships with this movie, and made himself a pariah in many Hollywood circles, but he still made the film and made it a great one. Here is a man who stood up for what he believed in and set himself on one side of an oft-shifting sand dune of public opinion. Without deference of his many detractors, Kazan unabashedly scolds his opponents while producing an utter classic of a film in the process. In short, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is one of the best films since 1950. 1.


Bonus Points

I’m giving this one a 10.


Final score: 10/10


Oscar Facts

On the Waterfront won the 27th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 30, 1955 at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. The film beat out The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Three Coins in the Fountain for Best Picture. Buddy Adler presented the award and it was accepted by Sam Spiegel, producer. This film is the first of three straight Spiegel films I’ll review. In total, On the Waterfront received 12 Oscar nominations, winning eight. Marlon Brando won his first Best Actor award (which was an upset over the heavily favored Bing Crosby) after being nominated for the previous three awards. His four straight nominations in that category is a record that still stands today.


Grace Kelly won Best Actress for The Country Girl and Edmond O’Brien won Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope and Thelma Ritter.


Final Thoughts

Christmas time already? Goodness. I’m taking a break from the normal review next week as I’ve got some family coming to stay. I’ll return to the blog with The Bridge on the River Kwai. After that, it’s Lawrence of Arabia, The Great Ziegfeld, Rain Man, Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Shakespeare in Love.



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