A strong morality tale about corruption and redemption, On the Waterfront is a timeless classic that features two masters at the top of their craft.
On The Waterfront was inspired by true events, chronicled in a series of articles entitled "Crime on the Waterfront", which was written by Malcolm Johnson and published in the New York Sun. The articles revealed how the mob put the squeeze on dockworkers who worked at the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts.
Marlon Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who was roped in by his older brother Charlie (Rod Steiger), to play muscleman for ruthless crime boss and labour leader Johnny Friendly (Lee J.Cobb).
After a dock worker who was poised to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission is murdered by Friendly's crew, Terry experiences conflicting feelings of guilt. Terry’s remorse is enhanced by the dockworkers sister Edie (Eva Maire Saint), and parish priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), who urge Terry to stand up and fight for justice, which is not an easy feat in a world where silence is a virtue and those who break that silence are ostracized.
A big reason for On the Waterfront’s acclaim was Marlon Brando's heartbreakingly powerful performance, as his natural charm and sensitivity is bestowed upon an -at first glance - brutish, blue collar man conflicted by his loyalty to his brother, his love for his girl, and his duty to tell the truth.
It is a common conception that there was acting before Brando and acting after Brando, and after viewing his earlier work (also reviewed this week is A Streetcar Named Desire) it is an opinion which this critic totally agree with. For budding thespians, a study of Brando's earlier performances are essential.
Here is an actor who not only brought dedication to his character, but also had the instinct and knowledge to also leave himself open to whatever surprises a particular scene had in store for him. Cue an infamous sequence between Brando and Eva Marie Saint, where the latter mistakenly dropped her glove only for Brando to pick it up and implement it into the scene, never breaking his stride in the process. This is the stuff which inspired the likes of Pacino, De Niro, Nicholson, Hoffman, Streep, and a slew of others. But there can only be one Brando.
Surrounding Brando is an exceptional cast who deliver career defining performances: Karl Malden gives an impassioned turn as the resolute Father Barry; Lee J. Cobb's patented rage is brought forth at the right moments in his role as the intimidating Johnny Friendly; Rod Steiger drives home his characters conflicted dilemma in an extremely naturalistic performance; and the angelic Eva Marie Saint provides beauty, grace, and tenderness amidst the films grim and chaotic surroundings.
Along with the previously mentioned exchange between Brando and Saint, On the Waterfront features other memorable scenes: Saint asking a conflicted Brando to help her find who killed her brother; Malden's rousing speech where he challenges the dock workers to stand up to the mob; and the famous confrontation between Steiger and Brando which is followed by the "I could have been a contender" line delivered by Brando.
The film is elevated by Leonard Bernstein's percussion driven and at times mournful score.
There is no doubt that On the Waterfront was a retaliation to the scorn Kazan received for naming names at the House of Un-American Activities, which he still receives criticism for till this day. Regardless, what Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg did with On the Waterfront was exceptional, as faith, politics, corruption and justice blend to create an electrifying film.