Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
On the Waterfront (1954): Dir. Elia Kazan. Written by: Budd Schulberg. Based upon news articles by Malcolm Johnson. Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger. Unrated. Running time: 108 minutes.
As one of the landmarks of both American film and American screen acting, Elia Kazan’s 1954 film weaves a story of conscience on the Hoboken docks. It’s a big film, and wants you to know it—hence the lead casting of Marlon Brando.
Brando plays Terry Malloy, a man mired in the corruption of the waterfront. After inadvertently causing the death of a fellow worker, Malloy faces the decision of keeping quiet or ratting on the union boss responsible. Complicating Malloy’s choice is his brother Charlie (second-in-command to the corrupt union boss) and the saintly sister of the slain dock worker.
The film goes for a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, one that bleeds into the screenplay, acting, cinematography, and direction. A story of this size benefits from Marlon Brando’s iconic performance—he approaches the part with both thuggishness and quiet vulnerability. He is a haunted figure, but not without hope for his future. Even with some moments of staginess, it’s a brave performance for sure.
And the circumstances that beset Terry let us see the different sides to his decision. He is supported and challenged by the local priest, by a woman who sees his inner strength and humanity, and by his still-caring brother. But as well-structured as that conflict is, the film’s sensationalized nature hurts its intended grittiness. This very much feels like a constructed version of the waterfront, as opposed to the waterfront itself. It even contains key logical errors, because without them, the plot would come to a screeching halt.
I don’t quite hold Waterfront in the same esteem as its reputation, but I salute its intentions and appreciate its examination of a complicated and relentless underworld. Its influence is undeniable on filmmaking (and storytelling in general), and it engages the senses with its sharp attention to character.
Next film: Marty, 1955