On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)

The primary failing of On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s celebrated anti-union drama and home of one of Marlon Brando’s signature performances, is its weak script. The excessive shorthand, meant to imply a certain fatalistic expertise, leads instead to a lack of clarity. There is a feeling in the opening half-hour that we have missed the first third of the film; we’re never really set up with any authority on how the corrupt union that controls longshoremen employment —- and, by extension, the entire waterfront community in the Hoboken harbor —- does what it does or what exactly it does to begin with that would lead immediately to someone, set up by Brando’s Terry Malloy, getting killed for spilling the beans. The allegorical elements of the story are so much front and center that Kazan feels free to paint his heroes and villains in broad strokes worthy more of a B-picture than a high and mighty Hollywood drama. Kazan had personal investment in this story, intending it as a bit of self-defense, which is easy enough with his enemies displayed in a manner so pat and absent of nuance, elucidation, detail.

Beyond that, it’s mostly passable entertainment. Terry’s crisis of conscience is believable even if its abstract origins are not; does he cooperate with “investigators,” does he — alas! — “name names,” thus betraying his friends? Or does he subsume himself in the culture of the Waterfront and lose his all-important Integrity? Tough choice for a tough guy who’d rather just raise pigeons and brood, and it doesn’t help his malformed man-brain when he falls into the life of Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), sister of the murdered boy he helped the Mob fix. After several tortured exchanges between them and a few rousing sequences (the poorly written but sublimely delivered speech by Karl Malden’s long-suffering Father Barry, the kind of priest with a lot of interest in local organized crime, is a particular highlight), we’re led to a satisfyingly smug, exhilaratingly violent climax and ending, somewhat typical of the film’s hawkish, manipulative attitude.

The dirty non-secret here is Kazan’s motive for making On the Waterfront; legendarily, it’s a direct response to criticisms set forth from Hollywood liberals and specifically The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s incisive and brilliant play that’s many times more illuminating and emotionally charged than this movie. Kazan, you see, was one of the former far-leftists in the business who “named names” before HUAC. He’s hardly alone — a number of film personalities you love dearly, from John Wayne to Jimmy Stewart to Walt Disney to several of the actors in this very picture (Malden and Lee Cobb, to name a couple), were virulently and unapologetically fearful of the “communist threat” and of the outer threat to their own careers should they not testify. The times were very different then, and we don’t have the information to chastise Kazan or write him off as a scumbag, as many are quick to do; and if he were a scumbag, it would hardly change his capacity to make great films.

The problem is that most of Kazan’s peers who cooperated with HUAC didn’t attempt to publicly justify their actions quite so nakedly and marble-mouthedly and in so rambling, confused a fashion as On the Waterfront does. And we must judge the film on the basis of that problem because we have no choice. The central irony that Miller was a former collaborator of Kazan’s underscores the pettiness of this enterprise: On the Waterfront is more than anything a diatribe about getting yelled at by your friends for being a mean old ding-dong. The entire last act of the film, after Brando gives in and supplies the cops with information, is a long parade of supposedly hurtful cold shoulders and accusations. How horrible: people are being sort of nasty, though not directly violent, to you. Kazan seems to see this as a Christ-like walk of heroism, but it’s cowardly and inconsequential. The men who testified before HUAC continued to enjoy lucrative careers and artistic fulfillment, as Kazan himself exemplifies — the mountain of money and Oscars he received for this film alone gives the lie to his supposed alienation in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the testimonies led to the nasty practice of blacklisting, which actively ruined careers and lives in what should have been a tolerant industry and arguably led to at least one death (John Garfield) and to the suicides of actor Philip Loeb and attorney Bartley Crum. That’s just to start with. Kazan was on the side of the G-men here, if the wrong side of history, and he had nothing to complain about — he still had his family, most of his base of collaborators, throngs of adoring film fans. The people who suffered during the years of McCarthyist paranoia arguably never got their lives back, so it’s a bit repulsive to see a film that trivializes all this on top of painting those who suffered as a blank, evil, fanciful Mafia. Equally troubling is the characterization of Terry at the finale as a stand-in for Kazan. Kazan never got on the ground and fought dirty with the Bad Guys, walking the holy walk of the blood-drenched hero. He named names then went home and ate dinner, and made more movies, and lived happily into his nineties. I don’t begrudge him that but it certainly gives you a sour feeling when watching this, and gives you the urge to pull out The Front a.s.a.p.

As a director, Kazan has an eye for the majestic in this blue-collar world, and he is able to squeeze some gorgeous pictures out of all the gritty turmoil, like a great photojournalist. Few filmmakers have ever made such resourceful use of fog. At various points in the film, you can almost taste the salt in the air, the cold spray, the doom. This is a welcome distraction from Kazan’s silly excuse-making and the ugliness of the film’s politics. Really, I don’t know how much better this film could possibly be, given that it handles all of its more unsavory elements — the Mob clichés, the macho self-assurance and misogyny of Terry, the rather shrill message about brotherhood “codes,” and the HUAC metaphors already discussed — as well as can be expected. It does, after all, try to tie its slice-of-life story to the mind of a single character. It helps tremendously, but here’s the catch: he’s played by Marlon Brando. Like I said, I don’t know how much better this film could be, but I have a few suggestions.

This is a minority opinion, obviously, going against virtually everything written about this film, Brando, and American films in general, but Brando, an overly showy actor to begin with, is unacceptable in this film. That goes for his mumbling demeanor, his self-conscious “Method” excess, his sheer pretension and theatricality. He doesn’t want this movie to be about put-upon workers; he wants it to be about Marlon Brando. He is upstaged by every actor he communicates with in the film, in every shot. Even Martin Balsam, a personal favorite of mine restricted to a bit part (this is his first film), outdoes Brando. So do barely-credited peripheral performers like John F. Hamilton (who was in Hitchcock’s long-lost The Mountain Eagle!). Brando interprets Terry as something close to an ape or a newborn puppy, with scarcely a gleam of intelligence in his eyes, determined to serve the emotion of the story far less than his own reputation.

Equally problematic is the renowned performance of Eva Marie Saint, or rather the character she portrays. She is wonderful, beautiful, articulate, understated, and all the rest. But her character has no serious function in the film, except perhaps to provide Brando with a few extra hangups — that scene amid the tires is nice, and you could probably write a good non-threadbare romantic subplot for this film in theory — and her standing-and-crying presence here is a jarring distraction from the rest of the story. Especially troubling is the scene in which she, romantically interested in Terry before she discovered he was partially responsible for her brother Joey’s death, begs him to go away as he knocks on her door, only to have him break it down and force himself on her despite her pleas until she finally concedes… and then nothing ever comes of it. From then on they’re unquestioned allies. Somehow On the Waterfront never seems to catch flack for this horribly evil rape scene which, again, serves no purpose here — and that’s just as disturbing as its artificial senses of heroism and dignity.

The characterization of Lee J. Cobb as villainous Johnny Friendly is quite good; it’s pleasing that he’s both hated by the audience and fascinating, and very much a frail human being, especially by the conclusion. He is still, however, a monument to just how simplistically this mostly actor-driven film looks upon the world. Kazan has too much of an agenda to tell this story properly, to the point that it’s hard to see whether there’s much value in it at all. This is an essential product of ’50s Hollywood cinema, but it leaves a pretty awful taste in my mouth and I can’t say I feel much warmth toward it any longer.


[Substantially expanded and modified from a review posted in 2006.]

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