On the Waterfront (1954)

“I’ve been on the docks all my life, boy, and there’s one thing I’ve learned — you don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions.”

Synopsis:
A longshoreman (Marlon Brando) stands up to his corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb), against the advice of his brother (Rod Steiger).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I’m in complete agreement with Peary’s assessment of this “terrific film”, which remains one of my favorite movies of all time. As Peary notes, On the Waterfront — which won eight Oscars — possesses “great acting, a fascinating premise, strong direction by Elia Kazan, tough dialogue by Budd Schulberg, and many classic scenes.” Marlon Brando (young and sexy) is nothing short of brilliant as Terry Malloy; nearly as impressive (Brando’s hard to top!) are Eva Marie Saint in her award-winning screen debut as Edie, and Rod Steiger as Terry’s protective yet misguided older brother.

On the Waterfront has been criticized on multiple fronts over the years: by those upset about its portrayal of the longshoreman’s union in the 1950s as corrupt; by those who claim On the Waterfront is essentially anti-union (I disagree); and — most famously — by those who believe Kazan was trying to offer Terry’s story as an apologetic for his own name-spilling to the House of Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). Ultimately, however, I choose to view the film as a fable-like character study about personal redemption, rather than a polemic on unions, corruption, or Kazan himself.

The film’s primary flaw (as noted by Peary) is the fact that “too much Christian morality is expounded by the overacting Karl Malden” — indeed, the scenes with Father Barry are a major distraction. Fortunately, there are enough memorable moments in On the Waterfront — Terry walking with Edie in the park; Terry’s poignant talk with Charlie in the taxi cab; the final climactic moments on the docks — to make up for those which don’t quite work. Also noteworthy are Leonard Bernstein’s majestic score (his first), and Boris Kaufman’s luminous black-and-white cinematography. Ultimately, On the Waterfront remains a glorious example of collaborative filmmaking, and merits multiple viewings by film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy
    Brando
  • Eva Marie Saint as Edie
    Saint
  • Rod Steiger as Charley
    Steiger
  • The touching romance between Terry and Edie
    Romance
  • Terry and Edie’s first walk in the park together
    Walk
  • Terry and Charley’s taxicab scene
    Contender
  • The final climactic showdown between Brando and Cobb
    Final scenes
  • Boris Kaufman’s evocative b&w cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Leonard Bernstein’s soaring score

Must See?
Absolutely. Despite its flaws, this remains both a personal favorite and a genuine classic.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “On the Waterfront (1954)”

  1. An absolute must!

    It had been quite a while since I’d revisited this; on seeing it again, I was immediately taken and held by its power. Gotta say, scene-for-scene and practically shot-for-shot, this is pure knock-out cinema!

    Oddly, though it did win many Oscars, this is a classic that I don’t often hear mentioned by ffs. Maybe it has too much of a heavy rep as ‘a union film’ instead of “a fable-like character study about personal redemption”. (Now that I think of it, unlike the work of a number of other high-profile directors, the only Kazan title that I often hear talked about is, of course, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.)

    At any rate, this is one I’ll have to remember to visit a little more frequently. Every actor is in top form. Kazan was truly an actor’s director, and if you see nothing else usually in a Kazan movie (although there tends to be a whole lot more anyway), you’re going to see riveting performances. Brando?: what else can one say? Steiger, too. The performance Kazan got out of Saint is remarkable. And let’s not forget the wonderul Lee J. Cobb. (It’s also fun seeing – in tiny parts – such actors as Pat Hingle, Fred Gwynne and Martin Balsam.)

    I can’t say I go along with the thoughts here on Malden’s character. Having known quite a few priests, this is just the way this guy would talk and I don’t see anything particularly distracting about the character.

    Otherwise, however, I agree: one terrific pic!

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