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.
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.
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
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)