On the Waterfront (1954) – Black & White
Running time: 108 minutes (1 hour, 48 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Elia Kazan
WRITER: Budd Schulberg; from a story by Budd Schulberg (suggest by the series of articles “Crime on the Waterfront” for the New York Sun newspaper by Malcolm Johnson)
PRODUCER: Sam Spiegel
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Boris Kaufman
EDITOR: Gene Milford
Academy Award winner
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, James Westerfield, John Hamilton, Marty Balsam, Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle
The 1954 “Best Picture” winner, On the Waterfront, remains one of the all-time greats of American cinema. A landmark “issue” film, its screenplay is based upon Malcolm Johnson’s series of articles for the New York Sun, “Crime on the Waterfront;” the Pulitzer Prize-winning series focused on organized crime’s control of the longshoreman’s union, specifically in New York City. However, On the Waterfront is more than just an important film or some kind of docu-drama, it is film art as truth, taking real life and wringing the drama out of it into a story that is compelling because it portrays true crime and also because it beautifully depicts the struggle of real lives.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando in an Oscar-winning role) was a prizefighter who threw fights for his corrupt boxing manager and for his brother Charley “the Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), who was in tight with organized crime. Now, Terry feeds his pigeons and runs errands for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the corrupt boss of the longshoreman’s (or dock workers’) union, but one of those errands leads to the death of an acquaintance, Joey Doyle, at the hands of Friendly’s thugs. Now, the Waterfront Crime Commission is about to hold hearings on the underworld’s infiltration of unions, specifically the longshoremen.
Terry feels pangs of guilt, especially after he meets and falls for Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for supporting actress for the role). Spurred on by Edie (who sees more in Terry than he sees in himself) and Father Barry (Karl Malden), a local priest who wants to stop the corrupt union from preying on desperate workers, the washed up boxer contemplates taking on the corrupt union boss, Friendly, much to the chagrin of Friendly and Friendly’s right hand man, Terry’s brother Charley.
Marlon Brando gives one of the great screen performances as Terry Malloy, and the cab ride with Terry and Charley having a man-to-man chat in the backseat is one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history. Brando embodies a man who is soured on life and made cynical by his bad decisions, the cruel injustices, and minor (and major) disappointments in life. We can watch Brando struggle to better himself against the part of him that really believes in nothing more than getting by each day, a man who believes that you live longer if you don’t have ambitions. This performance is a work of art that established Brando in many minds as the greatest screen actor of all time.
Don’t let Brando’s performance take away from the rest of the cast. There are some really great supporting performances here. Eva Marie Saint is fetching as a young woman who can be both relentless in her quest for justice and coy in her play at getting a man. Karl Malden’s Father Barry also has a great scene at the dock when he delivers a powerful “eulogy” about standing up like Christ to injustice and accepting that Christ is in each and every man, making each man your brother – powerful stuff.
On the Waterfront is superbly directed; it’s as if Elia Kazan couldn’t help but make the right choice every time. He was blessed with Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, which mastered the perfect balance of gritty realism and potent drama. Combine excellent cinematography with the real locations in NYC, and you have must-see cinema.
10 of 10
1955 Academy Awards: 8 wins: “Best Picture” (Sam Spiegel), “Best Director” (Elia Kazan), “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Marlon Brando), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Eva Marie Saint), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White” (Richard Day), “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” (Boris Kaufman), “Best Film Editing” (Gene Milford), and “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay” (Budd Schulberg); 4 nominations: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Lee J. Cobb), “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Karl Malden), “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Rod Steiger), and “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture” (Leonard Bernstein)
1955 BAFTA Awards: 1 win: “Best Foreign Actor” (Marlon Brando, USA); 2 nominations: “Best Film from any Source” (USA) and “Most Promising Newcomer to Film” (Eva Marie Saint)
1955 Golden Globes: 4 wins: “Best Motion Picture – Drama,” “Best Cinematography - Black and White” (Boris Kaufman), “Best Director” (Elia Kazan), and “Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama” (Marlon Brando)
1989 National Film Preservation Board: National Film Registry
Saturday, May 21, 2005