“On the Waterfront” (1954), director Eliza Kazan’s morality tale about a mob-infested dock union, proved irresistible to Academy voters in 1955 and took home eight of the dozen Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. Today it is celebrated for the career-making performance of its star, Marlon Brando, who plays a former boxer caught between the demands of the law and his loyalty to his own corrupt community. Although “On the Waterfront” often ranks high on critics’ best movie lists, it is by no means a perfect film, and viewers’ responses to it will depend primarily on their feelings about Brando and their perspectives on the picture’s controversial politics.
Brando plays Terry Malloy, a dock worker in the pocket of the local mobsters who run the union. After he unwittingly helps the mob murder a young man who talked to the cops, Terry begins to have doubts about his involvement, especially because he’s attracted to the victim’s pretty sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). The mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), expects Terry and the rest of the workers to tow the line, and his enforcers are ready to eliminate anyone who poses a threat to their power. Meanwhile, an earnest priest named Father Barry (Karl Malden) tries to rouse the locals to action against the crime lords and get justice for the murdered man.
There are plenty of people for whom Brando is the quintessential actor, and he certainly epitomizes a particular kind of rough masculinity. His Terry might be a blue-collar everyman, but he’s also inarticulate, unimaginative, and not very smart. He doesn’t seem to realize that his crisis of divided loyalties might have fatal consequences for his mobster brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), until it’s much too late. Maybe he really did take one blow to the head too many during his boxing days, as the mobsters suggest. Karl Malden’s crusading priest is by far the more interesting character, full of righteous indignation and energy. His crucifixion speech in the ship’s hold is a high point of the film, and it puts Malden’s character in rarefied company as one of Hollywood’s greatest screen priests. Malden was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role but split the votes with fellow nominees Steiger and Cobb, leaving Edmond O’Brien to take home the trophy for “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954).
Kazan meant the picture as a justification of his own testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in which the director named former friends whom he suspected of being Communists. The corrupt dock union symbolizes the Hollywood industry, and Terry’s decision to inform is presented as heroic, even though history tells us that government authorities are no more interested in the common man’s welfare than the mobsters. Terry is merely a tool used by the law to achieve its own ends, just as he was used by the mob. The workers for whom Terry ultimately suffers are a cowardly, unsympathetic lot who stand by and watch the thugs beat Terry almost to death in repayment for his disloyalty; their sense of solidarity seems too little, too late when it finally comes. The message is supposed to be about doing the right thing, but Terry is, as he says, more a bum than a hero, and the moral gets lost in the telling.
The controversy over Kazan’s testimony followed him for the rest of his life, even prompting many audience members to protest his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999. It’s a shame because he did make some excellent films, among them “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), which also stars Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. If you like Brando, you can see more of him in “The Godfather” (1972) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Malden, who really deserves more recognition, can also be found in “Kiss of Death” (1947), “The Gunfighter” (1950), and “Baby Doll” (1956). Don’t miss Rod Steiger’s Oscar-winning performance in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) or Eva Marie Saint’s iconic turn in “North by Northwest” (1959). If you like morality tales, try “High Noon” (1952), “12 Angry Men” (1957), and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962).
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