1954

On the Waterfront

“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Ah, the earnest dialogue spoken by Marlon Brando in one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema. Brando sitting in the taxi with his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) trying to explain his reasoning why he opposes Johnny Friendly, Hoboken’s most powerful man with a gun pointed to his face. This scene is so earnest, so powerful, delivered perfectly by Brando, who does fantastic by showing a sweet, gentle side to his nature despite performing the tough-guy act. As the great critic Roger Ebert quotes, “What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress?”

Before we get too much ahead of ourselves, I should at least point out this movie I’m reviewing is On the Waterfront, arguably one of the greatest movies ever made. It is special in many ways, but it is unanimously praised in how it changed the landscape of acting. The casting of Marlon Brando helped dearly. He changed how things were in a film. He made acting less predictable and did things never done before in cinema. He provided such texture to his role and in each scene he is in, you can see how he manages the line between gentleness and tough-guy act. Director Elias Kazan made a point not only Brando’s acting was better than most, it was also more influential than most. He brought such a tenderness to his character and he won Best Actor at the Academy Awards in 1954, which he wholeheartedly deserved.

I really found the plot interesting, and there is actually truth behind the plot. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a young man who tends to his pigeons and works on the docks for a corrupt boss of the unions, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), while he dreams to be a boxer. One day, he witnesses a murder committed by some thugs of Friendly’s. Terry becomes close with the sister of the victim, Edie Boyle (Eve Marie Saint) because he feels responsible for her brother’s death. She introduces him to Father Barry (Karl Malden) who attempts to have Malloy take a stand against Friendly in order to smash the racketeering.

As I mentioned in the above paragraph, this film is based off some truth. The film has an obvious political agenda, based off the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Commission) hearings. The director, Elia Kazan was called to the committee, and he named names. Names who were affiliated with the Communist Party. Critics have commented in the past that this film may have hidden, political motives, because of what he did at those HUAC meetings. I actually believe the film is based off that, but I applaud him in making the film. No one should be afraid to state what they believe in. Another part of history is the longshoremen of the Hoboken docks. Hoboken had trouble in all its racketeering, so that all plays an influential part in the movie.

The main role of any director is to get the best performances he can out of his actors. Well, Kazan was certainly up for the task in this film. Everyone churned in amazing performances. I already gave my love letter to Brando, who previously worked with Kazan in 1951’s A Streetcar for Desire. The film could have turned out to be very different. Frank Sinatra was originally cast as Terry, but the producers went ahead to cast Brando instead. The best move they could have done. This is Eve Marie Saint’s first film role, and she eagerly rises for the challenge. A perfect foil for Brando. Her scene with Brando in the bar as they talked about feelings for each other is another priceless cinematic scene. Another important role was Rod Steiger, who played Terry’s brother, also mixed up with Friendly. That taxi scene was incredible, as Brando and Steiger had amazing chemistry. Despite opposite views, the brothers very much love each other. Karl Malden as Father Barry does a wonderful job, although it feels like his acting is overshadowed by the heavyweights. Finally, Lee J. Cobb as the union boss, Friendly does an excellent job. I loved his final scenes of the movie. His fate is very deserving, and without spoiling much, I was laughing in the face of Friendly’s as the movie came to a close.

Overall, this is just one incredible film. If you were to say that this is the best film of all time, I would have no issue with that. This is one of my favorites , and it’s one of those few films I can find no fault with. From the masterful direction to the skilled direction to the expert  cinematography, there is much to love about the film. This was nominated for twelve Oscars and won eight of them. Brando and Saint took home awards and so did Kazan as director. Cobb, Malden, and Steiger were all nominated. This gripping crime thriller should be a showcase for film professors everywhere. This film changed the perspective of acting and it changed American acting for the better. The film and the muckraking articles that inspired it brought light to crime in the Hoboken streets and perhaps those streets became cleaner in the immediate aftermath. If you love movies, check this film out.

My Grade: A+

How did you like it?

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