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Collector's Corner

August 2004

On the Waterfront

  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Eva Marie Saint
  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Theatrical release: 1954
  • DVD release: 2001
  • Video: Fullscreen
  • Sound: Dolby Digital mono
  • Released by: Columbia TriStar Home Video

Marlon Brando spent countless hours on the psychoanalyst’s couch, trying to reconcile his success with his insecurity -- a classic symptom of having been raised by alcoholic parents. But the internal turmoil served Brando well on the stage and screen. His neuroses translated into film as searing power wedded to an emotional tenderness that drove audiences of the 1950s into paroxysms of adulation.

Brando couldn’t understand this, and didn’t particularly like it. He always felt conflicted about his fame and money. "Acting is the expression of a neurotic impulse," he once said. "It’s a bum’s life. Quitting acting is a sign of maturity." He told a reporter, "The only reason I’m here in Hollywood is because I don’t have the moral courage to refuse the money."

There’s a good case to be made that Brando quit acting, in any traditional understanding of the craft, quite early in his career. He frequently refused to memorize his lines, preferring to rely on off-camera cue cards or improvisation. This came as a reaction to his work at the Actors’ Studio (a school founded by the director of On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan), where they taught Stanislavsky’s "Method," a system by which actors seek motivation by trying to find aspects of their characters within themselves rather than by "pretending" to be someone else entirely. Early in his career, Brando’s use of the Method could be electrifying; later in his career, he could just look lazy.

Brando’s death last month started me thinking about which of his 41 films would qualify as a "must have" for collectors. Most agree that his work in On the Waterfront is the most gripping of his career. He plays Terry Malloy, a has-been ex-prizefighter who now works for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a corrupt union boss in the shipyards of Hoboken, New Jersey. Friendly operates his longshoremen’s union by stealing from his brothers and his bosses, demanding kickbacks for work, and then offering usurious loans to the people to whom he denies work. Friendly also gambles on prizefights, and once used Terry’s brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), to put pressure on Terry to throw his biggest fight, the one that could have led to his being a contender for the championship. Terry’s reward was a cushy job on the docks doing odd jobs for Friendly, though he spends most days just sitting on his butt. One day, Terry helps set up one of Friendly’s deadbeats, but suffers a bout of conscience when Friendly has the man killed. When Terry meets the dead man’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), he is infatuated, but he can’t get over the fact that he helped cause her brother’s death. With the pestering of the parish priest (Karl Malden), Terry begins to feel he should tell the police -- but Charley, under Friendly’s orders, tries desperately to make Terry see the dangers in ratting. Terry is stuck: Should he clear his conscience, alienating his new love and getting himself in potentially fatal trouble? Or should he keep mum and keep working for Friendly?

On the Waterfront was ripped from the headlines of the day: It was based on "Crime on the Waterfront," Malcolm Johnson’s 1949 newspaper story about dockside racketeers. A few months after Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for the story, screenwriter Budd Schulberg began hanging out on the Hoboken docks, researching the characters for a screenplay. His first contact was Father Corridan, a notorious, chain-smoking, cussing priest, whom Schulberg used as his model for Karl Malden’s character. Schulberg talked Corridan into showing him around and getting in with the longshoremen. He then began writing articles about what he found, and by 1951, the uproar caused the Senate to form the Kefauver Committee to study the Mafia’s infiltration of labor unions. When Kefauver decided to make the hearings public by televising them, millions of people tuned in to see the gangsters and longshoremen testify.

Another government committee, which had been formed in the late 1940s, was attacking Hollywood's ties to the Communist Party -- the House Un-American Activities Committee. Led by J. Parnell Thomas, the committee was purposely destroying the careers of anyone who had been a communist or anyone who refused to name names in front of the committee. The then president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, gladly turned over the names of all Guild members who were also members of the Communist Party. Most of them refused to testify, which put them on the producers’ "black list"; the rest of Hollywood vilified the few who did testify. Amongst the few who did agree to testify included writer Budd Schulberg, actor Lee J. Cobb, and director Elia Kazan. 

Kazan always claimed that there was nothing autobiographical about his decision to make a movie about the pressures put on Terry Malloy to testify. He had directed a chain of successful films -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata -- and felt that Hollywood would produce anything he wanted. But even with all the concurrent press and gripping story, Kazan couldn’t get Hollywood to buy the script of On the Waterfront -- most producers thought it was just too dark. Finally, a maverick named Sam Spiegel (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) offered to do it. Production was set with a small budget and the lead role was offered to Frank Sinatra, but Spiegel had different ideas. He figured he could raise more money by hiring Marlon Brando, then a much bigger box-office draw than Sinatra. Kazan was happy with Brando, and production commenced.

Though Brando is remembered chiefly for his "I coulda been a contender" speech, he does a lot more for this film. Watch chapter 9, when Edie drops her glove. Brando leans over, cleans it off, starts playing with it, and eventually puts it on his own hand. The scene was completely, if accidentally, improvised, but it adds a dimension of poignant kindness to Terry Malloy. In chapter 12, 41:45 into the film, Terry tries to make peace with Edie. He leans in close to her and starts nervously pulling on his chin, trying to come up with the words that will make her stay. Again, Brando’s masterful portrayal shows Terry’s softer side.

If all you’ve ever seen of On the Waterfront is the short "contender" clip, you’ll be stunned by the whole scene in chapter 20. Rod Steiger, as Charley, Terry’s big brother, gives a performance fully equal to Brando’s. Charley has been sent by Johnny Friendly to make sure Terry doesn’t talk to the government. Friendly has instructed Charley to kill Terry if he has to. The two brothers sit in the back of a cab as Charley tries to tell his baby brother why he shouldn’t squeal. Their conversation has the real-life feel of two brothers, until Charley makes a mistake and gives away the plot. He then pulls a gun on Terry. But in the most tender, oddly loving way, Terry just looks in his brother’s eyes, softly says, "Oh, Charley," and gently pushes the gun aside. When Charley realizes he can’t go through with it, he tries to talk Terry into joining Friendly’s mob. Terry, more disappointed than angry, asks why Charley didn’t try to look out for him more when he was younger. You can see the wheels turning in Charley’s head, as he realizes that failing with Terry is a death sentence for both of them. This scene is among the most powerful in all of film, and so much more than the small snippet we usually see.

The rest of the cast is superb. In fact, five of On the Waterfront’s actors were nominated for Oscars. Brando and Saint won for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Cobb, Malden, and Steiger were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but they canceled each other out. Steiger was robbed. He finally won an Oscar 13 years later, for In the Heat of the Night, but On the Waterfront is his masterpiece. Also nominated was Leonard Bernstein, whose fabulous score -- his only music for film (West Side Story and On the Town were written for the stage) -- underpins nearly every scene.

Columbia TriStar’s DVD honors the film. It’s a dark black-and-white movie, but its shadowy backgrounds come across with very good detail -- not quite in the league of Citizen Kane, but much better than most. The mono sound is clear, but Bernstein’s score has been mixed so high that it occasionally obscures the dialogue. The extras are mostly instructive and interesting. Richard Schickel, author of Brando: A Life in Our Times, and Jeff Young, author of Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films, provide fascinating if occasionally inaccurate commentary. I especially appreciated the 25-minute treatise (imaginatively titled "Exclusive Featurette") on what makes On the Waterfront a great film, and the 12-minute interview with Kazan. I only wish that Columbia TriStar had offered the music on a separate track; collectors of film-score recordings have begged for a recording of this music for the last 50 years. The rest of the extras are the usual suspects.

On the Waterfront is eighth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films of all time. In all, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won eight: Best Film, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Script, Editing, and Art Direction.

Brando would make 34 more films, but only his work in The Godfather comes close to what he did in On the Waterfront. Unfortunately for Brando, he spent the last 35 years of his life as the punch line of too many jokes. Elia Kazan went on to make a number of wonderful films, including East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, and America America. In 1999, at age 89, he received an honorary Oscar inscribed, "In appreciation of a long, distinguished and unparalleled career during which he has influenced the very nature of filmmaking through his creation of cinematic masterpieces." Forty-seven years after Kazan testified before the McCarthy committee, most of the audience refused to applaud.

...Wes Marshall


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