Sunday, February 22, 2015

Blind Spot #2: On The Waterfront

When you think about the stature of Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, it's kind of amazing that I have made it this far in life, and in cinephilia, without having the ending spoiled. Basically all I knew of Kazan's Oscar-winning masterpiece was its two most famous scenes: Brando's "I coulda been a contendah" speech and the scene with Eva Marie Saint's dropped glove. That's it.
Watching the film for the first time was an interesting experience. At first, I was disoriented, not really able to tell what exactly was going on or who exactly anyone was. But then the film slowly started answering those questions as it went along, both on a factual level and on an emotional one. Before I understood what role Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly played in the film's dockside community (is he a mafioso? Or just the guy with the most power?), I understood on an emotional level more or less what he did and why, and how Brando's Terry Malloy got involved in it. And then later, as Terry revealed more and more of his history, everything really clicked into place.

Unfortunately, the reveal of Terry's history reveals the film's one flaw, and to my eyes, it's a pretty big one: Given the role his brother Charlie (the great Rod Steiger) played in putting Terry in this situation, and the role he winds up playing by the film's end, he's pretty much a non-entity in the film until that scene in the taxicab more than halfway through. I had no real conception of who Charlie was, and his connection to Charlie went over my head until that scene (it had been said that Charlie and Terry were brothers, but for some reason it never clicked in any previous scene that THAT person was Charlie). Given his status in Charlie's story, it's a bit odd that he isn't a larger presence in the first half of the film.
But really, that's nitpicking.

On The Waterfront announces itself as a larger story than it appears to be - via a majestic shot of a large ship in a harbor, and Leonard Bernstein's booming score. From this widescreen opening, it becomes much more small-scale, focusing in on its characters the way only the theater-trained Kazan could do. But Kazan was smart in his filming, too. Eva Marie Saint's Edie is the only blonde in the film, so she looks from the very first like she has a permanent halo - an angel too pure for the likes of this den of mugs and rats. Constant shots through fencing emphasizes that these characters are all trapped in prisons of their own making. They may get a happy ending, but it certainly isn't going to be perfect. This life won't allow for that.
It should come as no surprise that Terry is so good with the pigeons kept in rooftop coops. Although our introduction to him is other characters commenting about his lack of smarts, his line about pigeons and hawks shows that he might be smarter, or at least more perceptive, than even he knows. He may have to be pushed, but when under the gun, Terry does what's right. He's always known the difference between right and wrong, he just needed the push. And Karl Malden, as the town's priest, knows how to push.
As always with Kazan, the cast here is top-notch. That's to be expected when you see the names on this cast list, but even still, the way they all work together here is really special. I especially love the antagonistic relationship between Brando and Malden, such a turn-around from their previous work together in Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. The unsung hero of this one, though, was that score. The main theme is totally swoon-worthy, and the punchier moments really carry scenes that might otherwise feel a bit flat, and elevate already powerful moments, like Brando's climactic walk to work.

That scene, by the way, is so much the film's high point that again I'm kind of stunned that I managed to see it unspoiled. The editing, alternating shots of Terry's feet, bloody face, and what he sees through blurred vision, puts us in his position so effectively that you can feel Terry's struggle to walk and, eventually, stand up straight. And then the boss, saying directly into the camera, "Let's go to work!" It's a victory, simultaneously joyous and deadening. After all that, he now has to go through a day's worth of intense physical labor?!? Terry Malloy is a true hero. The kind of hero America needs so desperately, even today: One who can speak truth to power, and despite the beating he may get from that, stands up and does what he has to for the good of not just himself, but his community. It's inspiring.

On The Waterfront
Year: 1954
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Screenplay by: Budd Schulberg
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger
Oscar: 8 WINS - Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Saint), Best Director, Best Writing-Story and Screenplay, Best B&W Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Best B&W Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Film Editing. Nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Cobb, Malden, and Steiger lost to Edmond O'Brien in The Barefoot Contessa), and Best Score (lost to The High and the Mighty)

Rating: ****


  1. This film is one of those brilliant cinematic moments that has survived so strongly because it truly is and remains as amazing as it was when it was released. Stunning film, great review!

    1. Thanks, man! Totally agree. I don't think the film has lost any of its power in the decades since its release.

  2. Know how so many people complain that Oscar chooses the wrong movie as Best Picture? Every once in a while, they nail it - and this was one of their best picks of all.

    Now, for further reading, look into how this film and its story relates to events in Kazan's own life.

    1. AMEN. You can tell that this is deeply personal filmmaking, which I think is a large part of why it still feels so urgent and meaningful.