Today is Labor Day and a national day of rest for American workers. Although anyone with a steady job earned a much needed day off today, with malls, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. still open – unfortunately – not everyone has a vacation day today. Conversely, with the U.S. unemployment rate hovering just above nine percent, there are millions of others who can’t find work.
So in honor of everyone who has ever been employed, let’s look at two very different classic films that focus on the American worker: “On the Waterfront” and “Clerks.”
“On the Waterfront” (1954) 5 / 5 stars – On the waterfront, scores of longshoreman seek scarce daily jobs of backbreaking labor. Whether unloading pallets of bananas or Irish whiskey off the boats, the work may be difficult and the days are long, but a day’s pay is earned.
Of course in Johnny Friendly’s (Lee J. Cobb) operation, there is no 401(k) plan. You won’t find any dental insurance coverage or short-term disability either.
While Johnny and his close-knit team wear $150 suits and can’t stop counting the cash, the workers earn a mere pittance. To make matters worse, if anyone gets out of line – like Joey Doyle – they get pushed off the roof of the nearest building.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) works for the Johnny’s Local 374 as well, but he’s not the brains of the organization. A former prize fighter, Terry is used as the occasional “muscle” or for odd jobs, but he doesn’t like how he and his fellow workers have been treated over the years.
Major questions arise in Terry’s mind after Joey’s death, and become exasperated when he begins courting Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint).
Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is one tough priest, hates Johnny’s brand of “work/life balance” too, and would love nothing more than to see Johnny go to jail for Joey’s death.
And Terry sits at the center of it all.
In a mesmerizing performance by Brando, he portrays Terry as kind-heartened thug who can’t catch a break.
Lots of people call him a bum which leads to one of the most famous lines in movie history: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
Brando’s charisma isn’t just limited to that one line. He brings a sincere and endearing humanity to this man who a “earned a one-way ticket to Palookaville.”
Brando’s masterful work earned him a Best Actor Oscar, Saint won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (as the tough young woman who won’t take no for an answer), Elia Kazan won the Best Director award and the film won for Best Picture.
This is a classic film in every sense, and turns up the dramatic tension with Terry and Edie’s relationship and the difficult daily battles on the waterfront itself that you rarely find in movies.
“Clerks” (1994) 5 / 5 stars – Filmed in black and white on a shoestring budget, Kevin Smith’s feature film debut isn’t known for its production values. With all the look and feel of a student film, Smith’s movie takes place in the Quick Stop Groceries convenience store and adjacent video rental store in New Jersey.
It’s here that Smith chronicles the lives of 22-year-old slackers, Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), but what this film might lack in special effects, more than makes up with intelligent and side-splitting dialogue between all the players.
This is one funny movie.
While Dante moans and groans about having to work on his day off, his best friend, Randal, swings by to converse on the important topics of the day.
– The uncompleted Death Star blowing up in “Return of the Jedi”
– Playing hockey on the roof of the convenience store
– Old girlfriends and current girlfriends
– And of course, sex…including participation from hermaphrodites.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, the conversations are fast and furious, and extreme care to the dynamic back-and-forth is apparent.
But while Tarantino’s scenes build like a slow burn, Smith delivers his comedic blows more quickly.
Whether Dante argues with his girlfriend, Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), about her amount of sex partners, or Randal jousts with a video store customer about a pair of movies, Smith delivers clever one-liners that bring instant laughter or mouth-agape intensity waiting for the next words.
Along the way, Smith treats us to a strange array of customers and hilarious sight gags, including a sign at the register that says, “IF YOU PLAN TO SHOPLIFT, LET US KNOW. THANKS.”
And drug dealer Jay (Jason Mewes) and his buddy, Silent Bob (Smith), absolutely steal every brief scene in which they appear.
But the two leads – Dante and Randal – are the stars of the picture.
Despite their contempt for their customers and lack of passion with their jobs, they remain heroes for a significant percentage of Generation-X’s movie-going public.
From my conversations with those younger than Generation-X, Dante and Randal are equally “respected” as well, however, don’t rent this film for Grandma. Even though “Clerks” is filmed in black and white, I don’t think she would appreciate the movie’s themes or salty language/subject matter.
But Smith touched an important comedic nerve in 1994, and in the process, gave us a classic.
“On the Waterfront” and “Clerks” are both available on DVD and Blu-ray.