On The Waterfront has eluded me for years, even though it’s been in my possession as a DVD and most recently as a Criterion Blu-ray. The film was released in 1954 and won eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. The AFI named it as the 19th greatest American film in 2007 and it currently is ranked 121 on IMDb. It is a piece of cinema history, I have no idea how many times this film has been shown in some type of montage highlighting films from the past or best quote montages have shown the scene with Brando in the backseat of the car saying, “I could’ve been a contender.” Well I can positively say I’m glad I finally watched this film. This is only the second film I’ve seen starring Brando with the first being Superman. As for Elia Kazan, this is my third outing with the director, previously viewing “Splendor in the Grass” and “A Face in the Crowd”, two personal favorites of mine, with the latter being a truly underrated film.
The story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a former boxer, stands up against corrupt union leaders after realizing the harm they cause for the community. I’m not a great reviewer so I’m going to discuss the four aspects that sold me on this film. Brando is great, I’ve always thought the guy was overrated and just some eccentric actor due to behind the scenes stories from Apocalypse Now and Superman. The mannerisms of Brando were so realistic and added to his performance, the scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint at the bar having a beer is a beautiful scene and shows the range of Brando’s acting. The first few minutes I struggled to see the character but that was my problem seeing Brando not Terry, however this quickly wore off as Brando continued with the role. I will not say Brando carried the entire film because there are so many inputs from others that make this film great, but Brando pushes the film to a higher level with his portrayal. The second aspect is Elia Kazan, the man gets great performances out of all his actors and makes Hobokon look realistic, gritty and beautiful from the docks, alley ways, to the rooftops. Kazan really works the locations into the film and uses the environment effectively the background of some scenes encompass a lot of detail, showing a living city with so much going on in the background. I was surprised by the number of outdoor scenes since I’ve always thought older films used more sets and soundstages. The third aspect is the supporting cast with Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden. All three of these guys were nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Lee J. Cobb is the standout, playing the heavy so effectively. I didn’t even recognize Rod Steiger in the film but does a great job playing Malloy’s brother being Cobb’s right hand man. Steiger adds a lot of depth to the character as he struggles to protect his brother while trying to save his position and himself. Malden’s speech/sermon in the film is probably the strongest religious speech I’ve ever seen in a film and the strongest scene in the film. Finally, Eva Marie Saint is a strong performer and shows Kazan’s instinct to pick and direct his female leads (check out Patricia Neal in A Face in the Crowd). At first I thought Saint was awkward, I struggled with the quick onset of the love story between Saint and Brando and the attitude/emotion about a family member’s death was unbelievable. Those issues are more related to the script instead of Saint’s acting. Her performance progresses throughout the film and she stands toe to toe with Brando.
If there are any issues with the film, they lie in the script and the pacing of the film. The death of the family member didn’t seem realistic enough; the characters seem too impacted more by secondary events instead of the actual death. With a family members death the last thing on my mind would be hanging around with the person who could be connected to the death, let alone going on a date. The overall love story seemed rushed between Brando and Saint, I could be ignoring the fact that they knew each other when they were younger and maybe there was a previous attraction (this seemed to be hinted at but I struggled to pick up on it). Clocking in at 108 minutes the film could have benefitted with more story showing the toll of the death and the building of the relationship. The most disappointing part of the film would probably be the famous scene with Brando and Steiger in the back of the cab, after seeing it and hearing it so many times the effectiveness of the scene was not there. It is still a great performance from Brando, but the impact of Brando realizing what his brother and the union leaders have done to him was lacking. The most impressive part of the film was the religious tones in the film, this was a big surprise. I was not expecting how deep and forward the film would get with religion. Brando’s character battles against himself, his friends and family trying to figure out right and wrong. He is tempted and blinded by his family and friends to ignore the issues and just do as you are told, but he realizes the wrong he has committed through his own self revelation and Saint’s help. With her help and advice from the preacher, Brando realizes the wrong he has committed and repents/confesses for those mistakes. The preacher is an interesting character and I got a vibe from his character as someone who is having a crisis of faith, not in the manner of not believe in God but how far he will go to carry out his duty and do the Lord’s work. Overall, On the Waterfront is a beautiful and uplifting film. While it is very early into 2014, I think this film will be in my top 15 first time watches for the year.
Rating 9 out of 10
Next month: Blade Runner