ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)

On_the_Waterfront_posterIn 1999, I’d gotten around to seeing some of the movies nominated, so for once I actually watched the Academy Awards. That was the year, Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for his life’s work, presented by Martin Scorcese and Robert Deniro. But when the cameras cut to the audience during the ovation, they caught a few members not applauding, sitting with their arms folded.

The seeds for this reaction from the Hollywood community- a reaction not so much mixed, but downright polarized- were sown six decades prior, before most of that night’s attendees were even born. The nation was living through the Great Depression. A quarter of the workforce was out of a job and desperate poverty was becoming a new norm. Naturally, quite a few Americans searched for a solution, and many looked to the Soviet Union. With its emphasis on workers’ rights and an economy that was centrally planned rather than subject to the vagaries of the business cycle, it must have looked like an appealing alternative to the capitalist system that had failed so many. By the 1950’s, when the USSR and United States were direct antagonists and the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Soviet system were more well known, all but the most loyal comrades had long since moved on from the Communist Party. But then came the second red scare, when opportunistic politicians conducted investigations into supposed subversives. When they targeted the film industry, people were compelled to cooperate, including informing on others who had been involved in the Communist Party all those years ago. Some refused and had their careers destroyed. Kazan, on the other hand, was one of those who saved his career by “naming names”, an act some of his colleagues couldn’t forgive. And it was this rancor that ran so deeply that when Kazan stood onstage as an old man accepting his award, his esteemed body of work notwithstanding, some  of the people in the room sat silent rather than acknowledge him.

On The Waterfront is the second Best Picture we’ve seen directed by Kazan. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, it’s a socially conscious film, this time focussing on the lives of working class dockworkers. Terry Malloy is a longshoreman and washed up pro boxer whose  older brother is in the inner circle Johnny Friendly,  a union boss as ruthless as he is corrupt. The movie begins with Terry luring a fellow dockworker to be killed by Friendly’s goons, to prevent him from testifying to authorities. Terry, though, believed the man was merely going to be strongarmed into silence, not murdered in cold blood. His unease grows into guilt when he meets the dead man’s sister and takes an interest in her. Meanwhile, a sympathetic Catholic priest rallies the rank and file of the union, encouraging them to break the unwritten rule of silence that permeates their culture and allows their leadership to exploit them.

It’s shameful that this was the first Marlon Brando movie I have ever seen, especially because I consider myself a fan. A fan of what, then? The myth, the legend. Mouse and I had a conversation after watching this film about method acting, and I have to wonder where the line between Terry and Marlon should be drawn. Brando plays a character in this film that strikes me as his person. The connection between Terry and Edie (actress Eva Maria Saint in her film debut, as the sister of murdered dockworker Joey Doyle) felt kinetic, natural, palpable. At one point while viewing the film, Mouse and I had a discussion about why Edie might be a character in the film at all. In part, I think she was placed in the story for romantic intrigue, but she plays a strong female lead in her own right, standing up vocally to the union thugs to demand justice for her brother. She also helps Terry appeal to the better man he is inside, a man of empathy and justice. It is through his love of her that he is able to begin to care about the corrupt world around him and his role in it. As far as female characters of the era go, I think she’s pretty decent. She even makes her own decision to go on a date with Terry, despite her father’s warnings not to accept his advances. She laments the idea of going back to her university, maintaining that she wants to be a part of the real world – replete with all of its shortcomings and injustices. She thinks on her feet and for herself.

First time watching a Marlon Brando movie? Katy, I’m going to blow your mind. Remember when we watched The Godfather? The guy who play Don Corleone? That’s the same guy.

I’m certain there are people far better qualified to explain method acting than I, but the way I understand it, it was a way to move toward a more naturalistic style using physiological understanding, as opposed to a canon of stylized gestures and mannerisms. I heard an interview once with Eli Wallach where he described The Method as an attempt to reach “the truth” in acting. As an example, he talked about how when a character was supposed to be remembering something, they would always look up, as if what they were trying to remember was on the ceiling, his implication being that there is something artificial about this sort of gesture. To discuss Brando’s performance in the best terms this non-actor can come up with, he comes across like a guy who is deeply conflicted about his tough situation, rather than a person putting on an act like a guy who is deeply conflicted. Of course he doesn’t talk and act exactly like people do in real life. But it seems like he does.

Doing a before/after comparison, I can see this as a transitional period, and perhaps even this film as a turning point. The acting in earlier, Golden Age films had a different feel. Heightened emotional states were conveyed by talking louder and faster, with an exaggerated staccato rhythm. I suspect these performances can even come across as hokey to some modern viewers. I don’t mean to suggest they’re inferior, any more than, say, the music of Louis Armstrong is inferior to Miles Davis. But in retrospect you can see the evolution of style and technique that has its roots in stage acting and silent cinema, through classical Hollywood and eventually to a more modern place where the director can allow the actor to exploit more nuanced aspects of performance.

I have no quarrel with Eva Marie Saint herself, here. But there is something about the way her character is written that doesn’t sit right, especially given the social realist tone of the movie. I get that her character serves the purpose of continually accelerating Terry’s moral unease over complicity in the mob’s crimes. But the extent to which she seems to find him irresistible is a bit odd. She certainly wouldn’t be the first “good girl” to fall for a “bad boy”, but not only was her brother murdered a day or two ago, this is a guy who obviously has some connection to the men who killed him. Even a character in the film refers to it as an “unhealthy relationship”. The scene where the characters’ relationship reaches climax and resolution- with a “romantic home invasion and borderline sexual assault”- left me wondering if the screenwriter had ever actually known a woman in real life or was just aware of them from soap operas? It was the weakest element in an otherwise righteous movie.

Gah!!! What a gaff. I feel pretty silly not realizing Don was Marlon Brando. The Don! The Brando! But yes, the camera was very, very good to him in his younger years. Getting back to the film’s storyline, I found the role of the Catholic priest in the movie interesting. Why did Kazan choose to put him in the film? Was Kazan himself a Catholic? Did he view religious leaders in general as such strong forces for justice and mouthpieces for righteousness? The scene in which the Catholic priest is performing last rites after a dissident is “accidentally” killed was visceral – union thugs and cronies are throwing items at him, but he holds his ground. It leads the viewer to wonder how spiritual leaders fit into the filmmaker’s life. It also lead me to hunger for a time in which radical nuns and Catholic Workers were afforded greater visibility and leadership within the organized church. I’d like to have more community leaders stand up so bravely and boldly for human rights and dignity.

The first time I heard the term “method acting” was in reference to Heath Ledger in his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight. I agree that it is a really powerful approach towards embodying a character when done well, but I wonder if Marlon Brando was actually just BEING Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Now that I realize he played Don Corleone, I wonder which of the two roles would be considered more “method acting.”  Might one of these roles constitute more typecasting? On another note, I felt really happy for Keanu Reeves when he got that role in The Matrix. That poor guy was the king of being typecast!

I don’t think Brando’s career was hurt by any kind of typecasting, I think what hurt his career was being an egomaniac who was difficult to work with.

I think he peaked later, then, though – I found his acting in The Godfather FAR more compelling and arresting. That was a good scene, but – Don Corleone?! The man was magic. Also, I often enjoy the creative output of egomaniacs. I like creating without them in tow, though!

I’ve read that Karl Malden’s character Father Barry was inspired by a real life Jesuit priest who was a friend to the men working on the docks. And if we’re discussing Brando the actor, it would be an oversight not to mention the movie’s pivotal scene, the one that’s become a career-defining moment. Terry’s brother tries to threaten him into silence, but Terry turns the tables, blaming his unhappy life on his big brother, who had convinced him to throw a crucial fight that would have put him in line for the championship.

After Terry cooperates with the authorities and testifies, not only does he invite the wrath of the crooks running his union, he finds himself shunned by his community, having violated the “deaf and dumb” code of the waterfront. It’s impossible not to see Terry as a proxy for the director at this point, Kazan experiencing his own ostracism at having testified to HUAC a year or two before. So many questions came up for me here. Was this Kazan’s attempt to vindicate himself on film? Would I, in Kazan’s shoes, have been a braver man? I like to think so, but based on what? Anyway, he was a director with style and vision and I doubt his most bitter detractors would deny he created a lasting piece of art here.

No doubt. I really enjoyed this film, and found myself getting really fired up watching it. In closing about this film, I want to acknowledge my final thought at the end. I’ve never seen the movie Norma Rae, but I have a general sense of what it is about. And even though I have never seen it, the end of this film struck me as being very Norma Rae-esque. I liked that, and appreciate the film in general. I think it’s stood the test of time.

Also nominated in 1954:
The Caine Mutiny
The Country Girl
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
Three Coins In The Fountain

Next film: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

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2 Responses to “ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)”

  1. I can’t believe I missed this post! I really like this movie. I really like the scene toward the beginning where Edie and Terry are walking through a park. There’s a nice subtle and improvised moment when Edie drops her glove and Terry picks it up, sort of fiddles around with it while sitting on the swingset, talking, and puts it on his hand. I just thought that was sort of a strangely sweet little moment. I also like that he recalls her hair from when she was younger and refers to it as “a hunk of rope.” Another little thing I appreciate about the movie are the actors they got to play John Friendly’s crew. So many Dick Tracy mugs. Also, Fred Gwynne’s (Herman Munster) first movie!

  2. cdascher Says:

    Yeah, the union HQ kinda reminded me of Mos Eisley Spaceport.

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