A galvanizing film that forever changed the art of film acting
A work of art is something that becomes timeless regardless of when or why it was created. It has its own beauty and originality, and on some level connects with an innate part of humanity. Such is the cinematic work of art, “On the Waterfront”. This gripping story of a man caught in the middle of mob waterfront corruption and struggling with his conscience contains all those elements displayed in filmic glory. Made on the heels of a trend of films with move gusty emotional realism (such as “Sunset Boulevard”, “Streetcar Named Desire”, and the films of the Italian Neorealism Movement, this film brought a new realism to American films and film acting. Its technical aspects are top in form, the performances are mesmerizing, and the film overflows with emotion - an artistic triumph through and through that still packs a punch today. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning eight - including Best Picture. “On the Waterfront” has made it to six of the American Film Institute’s “Greatest” lists, including being ranked as the 8th Greatest American Movie Of All Time”. This film never ceases to move me.
“On the Waterfront” focuses on former prizefighter turned dockworker “Terry Malloy”, whose brother “Charley” is the right hand man of mobster "Johnny Friendly", the longshoreman’s local union boss. The film begins as "Terry" unwittingly sets up the murder of “Joey Doyle”, a dockworker who was about to testify against “Friendly” to the Crime Commission. "Terry" then falls for “Joey’s” sister “Edie”, whose only goal is to find out who killed her brother with the help of “Father Barry”, a local priest who wants to curb the crime and violence towards the longshoremen. All the while there is a code amongst the dockworkers to remain “D & D” (deaf and dumb) - keep silent and you’ll live longer. This fascinating entanglement becomes the breeding ground for betrayals, loyalties, romance, truths, redemption, and questions about morality and conscience. Engrossing from start to finish, its predicaments and deep emotions completely captivate.
Independently produced with only touches of Hollywood gloss, “On the Waterfront” reads more like an indie feature than a Hollywood studio film. Filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, mostly non-actors were used as extras (including actual dockworkers), helping create a refreshingly unpretentious ambiance. Even the fact that the actor’s breath is visible when they are outside in the cold air gives this film a heightened realism. This is echoed in the performances which are grounded in emotional truths, and loaded with pauses, stammering, mumbling, and fidgeting while speaking. The dialogue seems more like lines said by people on the street than by actors in a film. Many times unspoken feelings are visible and more impactful than what’s said, creating a profound magic that separates this film from all others.
“On the Waterfront” came about because of the merging of two individuals - screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan. Schulberg had been asked to write a screenplay based on a series of Pulitzer Prized winning newspaper articles about current mob influenced crimes along the New Jersey and New York waterfronts. Wanting to keep his script grounded in fact, he spent much time by the docks observing and interviewing myriads of people involved and affected by the corruption. Many of the characters in “On the Waterfront” are more or less based on real people such as “Johnny Friendly” and “Father Barry”, and “Terry Malloy” was based on a mix of people. Schulberg’s script included dialogue taken directly from conversations he overheard. Separately, though at the same time, Kazan was working with writer Arthur Miller on a story about waterfront crime. After Miller was no longer involved, Schulberg approached Kazan with his script and together they made changes and enlisted independent producer Sam Spiegel (who I wrote about in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” post), who in turn set up a deal with Columbia Pictures. The three would each win Academy Awards for this film - Kazan for Best Director, Schulberg for Best Screenplay, and Spiegel for Best Picture. “On the Waterfront” is often thought of as Kazan's crowning achievement, which is saying a lot considering he directed many classics including “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “East of Eden” and "Gentleman's Agreement”. Kazan was one of the co-founders of the Actors Studio which was the birthplace of Method Acting (a naturalistic, personal, and emotional approach to acting), and often cast actors from the Actors Studio in his films, including most of the cast of “On the Waterfront”. He provided film debuts for many actors and actresses who went on to become major stars. You can read more about Elia Kazan in both “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A Face in the Crowd” posts, and a bit more about Method Acting my “A Place in the Sun” entry.
As former boxer “Terry Malloy”, Marlon Brando gives a performance that many have called the greatest in cinema history. This seminal portrayal oozes with vulnerability and honesty. For a film about a man struggling with psychological issues of conscience, Brando triumphs at displaying inner thoughts and emotions. It is acting at its highest and most moving level. Within the first five minutes one can already feel the inner conflict arising within “Terry”, and as the film progresses his struggle between integrity and loyalty becomes more intense. While “Terry” continually tries to keep his chin up, Brando never lets us forget the man has a heavy heart. One of the many exquisite examples is his scene with “Edie” at the bar. As “Terry” talks a bit about himself, without specifically saying so, Brando makes it clear "Terry" is hiding a painful past of loss and letdowns underneath his words. Making the unsaid visible is most woefully displayed in the film’s most famous scene in the back of a taxi with “Terry” and his brother “Charley”. I’ll talk about that iconic moment below, after you watch the film. “On the Waterfront” was a tough shoot for Brando who had recently lost his mother, was depressed, and in therapy. After he first viewed the film he didn’t think his performance was good. No one else agreed and for his portrayal Brando was awarded a Best Actor Academy Award (he won a second for the 1972 classic “The Godfather”), a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. I wrote more about Marlon Brando’s life and career in the “A Streetcar Named Desire” post. Click on the film's title to check it out.
Karl Malden plays “Father Pete Barry”, a priest who does what he can to combat the crimes on the waterfront. Along with “Edie”, he helps influence “Terry” about whether or not to testify against “Friendly” (and ultimately his brother "Charley"). “Father Barry” is no ordinary priest, and Malden presents him as an unpredictably complicated human being trying to find his way while standing up to the mob. He is fantastic all throughout the film. While his blazing sermon at the dock is perhaps his standout moment, I particularly love Malden in the scene with “Terry” at the bar. His anger, verging on tears for a moment, is marvelously surprising. Malden was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for this film. He appeared in a total of four films directed by Kazan - the others being "Baby Doll", “Boomerang!", and "A Streetcar Named Desire” (for which he won his only Oscar). He also appeared in three films with Brando. You can read more about Karl Malden in the “A Streetcar Named Desire” post.
Lee J. Cobb plays “Michael J. Skelly” aka "Johnny Friendly”, the man who took over the local labor union - and someone you never want to cross. Cobb is sensational as he endows this man with a genuinely intimidating intensity. The way he uses his physicality is astonishing and the sign of an actor completely inhabiting a role. Watch the way he moves his body with self-assuredness and an air of command. You can clearly see it in the way he fluidly greets and “handles” “Terry” in the pool room scene. So much is told about their relationship just through his body movements alone. In his career, Cobb continued to play intimidating and volcanic men, almost always adding a hint of vulnerability.
When a broken wrist ended his dreams of becoming a violinist, Lee J. Cobb turned to acting at a young age. Beginning in his teens he traveled back and forth between Hollywood and New York in pursuit of work. He eventually joined the Group Theater (the precursor of the Actors Studio) of which Kazan was also a member. After appearing on stage, Cobb went back to Hollywood in the late 1930s and landed parts in a couple dozen films, including “Golden Boy”, "The Song of Bernadette”, “Anna and the King of Siam”, "Call Northside 777", and in 1947’s “Boomerang!”, directed by Kazan. In 1949 Cobb starred on Broadway in Arthur Miller's landmark Broadway play, “Death of a Salesman”, and gave a performance that has been regarded as being one of Broadway’s best. Around this time the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was targeting many of the former Group Theater members (including Cobb) as supposed communists (you can read more about HUAC in my "High Noon" post). Cobb was reluctant to testify, but caved in after enormous stress and his wife being institutionalized due to a nervous breakdown. To try to help her as well as save his career, he ended up testifying as a “friendly” witness and named names of other supposed communists. He was cast in “On the Waterfront” the following year, and for his work he earned his first of two Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations (his second was for “The Brothers Karamazov” in 1958). In 1957 he gave a standout performance in the classic film “12 Angry Men”, which along with “On the Waterfront” is his most memorable. Cobb also worked extensively in television, particularly from the 1960s onward, including the TV series “The Virginian”, and a TV movie version of “Death of a Salesman” in 1966 (for which he earned one of three Emmy Award nominations). He appeared in many classic films, including "How the West Was Won", "Exodus", "The Three Faces of Eve", "Our Man Flint”, and "The Exorcist". He was married twice. Lee J. Cobb died in 1976 at the age of 64.
Rod Steiger gives yet another of the film’s outstanding performances as "Terry's" older brother, “Charley ‘the Gent’ Malloy”. Along with Brando, Malden, and Cobb, Steiger came from the Actors Studio. Perhaps that is why this film (and Steiger's performance) is filled with gobs of raw emotions, making for complex and arresting characters. Though “Charley” is the right hand of the corrupt “Friendly”, he shows brotherly concern and deep feeling for “Terry”. His worry is more to keep his brother safe and alive rather than thinking what would be morally right for “Terry”, as he is not aware of the difference. Steiger gets to showcase his immense acting talent in the magnificent scene with “Terry” in the back of the taxi. As mentioned, I’ll talk about that scene after you watch the film so I don't spoil it for you. For his portrayal of “Charley”, Steiger received his first of three Academy Award nominations, this time for Best Supporting Actor. He won a Best Actor Oscar for the classic 1967 film, “In the Heat of the Night”, which is film #12 on this blog. You can read more about Rod Steiger by clicking on the title of that film.
Eva Marie Saint is phenomenal as “Edie Doyle”, whose mission is to find out who murdered her brother. The virginal “Edie” injects innocence, redemption, and a voice into this dark labyrinth of silence and corruption, grounding the film in humanity and spreading it to others. In a way "Edie" is the catalyst for the meat of the film, slapping “Terry” across the face upon their first meeting, jolting his brain into allowing his conscience to fester. Like her co-stars, Saint trained at the Actors Studio and she too brings a tangible and intricate inner life to her role. One such example is the scene when “Terry” and “Edie” are alone for the first time in the park. During that entire scene there is a hypnotizing undercurrent of unspoken emotions as“Edie” fights her attraction for “Terry” amidst her anger and sorrow over her brother, and her inexperience with men. Because of how well Saint and Brando convey the unsaid, it becomes a stirring scene of cautious tenderness and budding romance while the two simply chat about their childhoods and her being in school with nuns. This scene has become famous for when “Edie” drops her glove and “Terry” picks it up, cleans it, and puts it on his hand until she finally takes it back - all while they talk. At the time it was unusual to see such insignificant fiddling - especially during spoken dialogue, and rumors abound to this day that it was improvised. It was not. The glove dropped while the two were rehearsing, and Brando picked it up and tried it on as Saint kept trying to take it back. While watching the rehearsal Kazan thought it heightened the scene and gave “Edie” a reason to stay and speak with “Terry”. He told them to keep it in the scene and repeat it during the actual filming.
Eva Marie Saint was bitten by the acting bug while appearing in a college play. She then modeled, appeared on radio, in theater, and began appearing on television in 1947, working her way up from bit parts to leading roles. She also began studying at the Actors Studio in 1948. In 1953, she appeared on television in the play “The Trip to Bountiful” opposite Lillian Gish. and subsequently in the original Broadway production where she was a critical success. Kazan saw her in the show and then cast her in “On the Waterfront”. Being her first film, Saint was terrified, but took some comfort in knowing that she would be surrounded by fellow Actors Studio colleagues. For "On the Waterfront" she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, her first and only Oscar win or nomination. It began a very successful film career. Saint next appeared in a comedy ("That Certain Feeling”), then two dramas ("A Hatful of Rain" and "Raintree County"), followed by her most famous performance as the femme fatale in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, “North by Northwest” opposite Cary Grant. With “North by Northwest” Saint was at the height of her celebrity. Rather than devote her life to stardom she chose to keep her family her priority, limiting her film work, though she would continue to appear on stage, film and TV her entire career. Some of her other classic films include "The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming", "Grand Prix", "The Sandpiper", and "Superman Returns”. Primarily appearing on television from the 1970s onward, she had recurring roles on the television series, “Moonlighting”, “How the West Was Won”, and “The Love Boat”. She earned five Emmy Award nominations, winning one for the 1990 TV movie, “People Like Us”. In 1951 she married director Jeffrey Hayden, to whom she remained married for sixty five years, until his death in 2016. They had two children, the first of whom was born two days after she won her Oscar for “On the Waterfront”. I had the pleasure of briefly speaking with her decades ago at a screening of “North by Northwest” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I remember her being very kind and friendly. As of the writing of this post, Eva Marie Saint is 96 years old.
I want to point out two actors who went on to become quite famous though they make only brief appearances in this film. First is Martin Balsam who plays “Gillette”, one of the two investigators from the Crime Commission. You first see him towards the beginning of “On the Waterfront”, looking for “Terry” at the pier. He is the one smoking a pipe who “Terry” calls “shorty”. Balsam went on to become an Oscar and Tony Award winning actor, appearing in such films as “Psycho” and "12 Angry Men”. I’ll write more about him in an upcoming post. The other actor is Fred Gwynne who plays “Mladen ‘Slim’ Sekulovich”, one of "Johnny Friendly’s" henchmen. We initially see him when we meet “Friendly” in the pool table scene at the bar. “Slim” is the first to count the money, while hunched over the pool table. This was Gwynne’s film debut and though he continued to appear in films, he became best known for starring as “Herman Munster” in the classic 1960s TV show, “The Munsters”.
The film’s Oscar nominated musical score was the only original film score written by one of music’s true maestros, Leonard Bernstein. Largely considered one of the 20th Century’s most important musical figures. he was already well established in the music world. Producer Spiegel approached Bernstein hoping his name would add weight, appeal and ultimately box office dollars to this independently produced production. Bernstein was not sure about taking the job until he saw the rushes, and then accepted. His score is not the invisible film score audiences were accustomed to at the time. It often sits front and center as if it were a character in the film. And like the other “On the Waterfront” characters, it too is complex and filled with emotion, as it ranges from a solo instrument such as a desolate horn, to a full blown sweeping orchestra. I don’t think one can overestimate its power and effect, and I’m not sure the film would carry the same massive impact without it. For instance, just after the opening credits, the film begins with blaring percussion as we are introduced to the docks, “Friendly” and “Terry”. It is a completely telling musical preamble for the hard-hitting, beaten-down, gritty world to come. And then there is the poignantly heartbreaking theme that is repeated in such powerhouse moments as in the back of the taxi, and when “Terry” and “Edie” meet up with “Charley” in the alleyway. This score made it to #22 on AFI’s list of the “The 25 Greatest Film Scores Of All Time”.
By the time “On the Waterfront” came about, Leonard Bernstein was already a renowned music conductor, the Music Director of the New York City Symphony, a composer of ballet, symphonies, two Broadway musicals, a fine pianist, and the first American conductor to appear at La Scala in Milan, Italy (conducting Maria Callas in “Medea”). After “On the Waterfront”, he continued conducting and composing, most famously writing the music for the Broadway show “West Side Story” (one of my favorite musical scores) with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. In addition, Bernstein appeared countless times on television, earning thirteen Emmy Award nominations, seven wins, plus a Hall of Fame Emmy Award. He would also win sixteen Grammy Awards (out of sixty three nominations) plus a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, one Tony Award (with three nominations), and the Kennedy Center's Lifetime Honor. He was an advocate for music, composers such as Gustav Mahler and Aaron Copland, founded music festivals, was a humanitarian who spoke out for civil rights and social change, and he gave money towards the arts in education. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era but never testified before HUAC, and it didn’t affect his career very much (as he wasn’t really part of the film industry). He did make it onto President Richard Nixon’s "enemies list” because of hosting a fund-raising party for the Black Panthers in 1970. Bernstein was gay but because of the era and his career, in 1951 he married actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre (who acknowledged his homosexuality and was aware of his sexual relationships and affairs with men). They remained married until 1976 when he felt he could no longer lead a double life. He returned to Montealegre the following year when she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1978. They had three children together. Leonard Bernstein announced his retirement in 1990 and died five days later. He was 72 years old.
In addition to the film’s Academy Award nominations for its score and three supporting actors, and its wins for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress and Screenplay, “On the Waterfront” also won Oscars for Best Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Richard Day), and Best Film Editing (Gene Milford).
This is a film in which all its aspects come together in complete harmony, and one that goes much deeper than what’s presented. Largely considered one of cinema’s greatest films, you are guaranteed to be enthralled. Enjoy “On the Waterfront” - one of my favorites!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The scene in the taxi between “Terry” and “Charley” is one of cinema’s most famous, and is repeatedly mentioned as containing perhaps the greatest demonstration of the art of film acting. It was said that Kazan just let the two actors work the scene themselves with little or no direction. What emerged was an intimate dance between two wounded brothers, impeccably played by two actors feeding off one another. Here “Terry” finally verbalizes the unsaid - that this brother whom he loved and trusted let him down. When “Charley” points the gun at “Terry”, Brando’s move to gently push it away is extraordinary, coming from such an unexpected place of tenderness and devastation. The heartbreak is furthered when we see “Terry” finally realize his brother has sold him out when he almost inaudibly utters, “wow”. And the pain on “Charley’s” face when “Terry” reminds him he said “this isn’t your night” is overwhelmingly tragic. In the end “Charley” sacrifices himself for his brother. It is an exemplary scene, played with astounding emotional depth and truth. The shattering line, "You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am”, was ranked by AFI as the 3rd Greatest Movie Quote Of All Time”.
One thing I didn’t mention before you watched "On the Waterfront" was the influence of the HUAC investigations on the film. Before the film, both Kazan and Schulberg had named names to HUAC (in effect ending the careers of those they named - whether the accusation was true or not). Kazan was possibly the most notorious of HUAC's “friendly" witnesses, as not only did he name names, but two days later put an ad in the New York Times defending what he did. “On the Waterfront” is about betrayal, informing, naming names, the price of being silent, and grappling with one’s conscience. Speeches such as “Father Barry’s” sermon at the dock (when he says, “Now, getting the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. And what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you”), or "Terry's" response at the end of the film when “Friendly” complains that he ratted them out and "Terry" says, “I’m glad what I done to you, you hear that? I’m glad what I done!”, are often seen as Kazan’s justification for giving naming names. Schulberg denied this, while Kazan did not. Either way, it is my belief that “On the Waterfront” transcends the HUAC episode in history and still strongly resonates as a story about conscience and moral choices we all end up facing in one way or another.