Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reconsidering: On the Waterfront

This post is dedicated to Renee H., who gently persuaded me that this film is worth giving a second chance.

"On the Waterfront" is one of those movies that I did not not love at first sight. Once upon a time I had an aversion to: Marlon Brando, 1950s black and white movies with jarring, jazzy scores, and movies that are relentlessly downbeat and ultra-ugly-real. So, you can see how I might not have been enchanted with this film.
And then there is Elia kazan and that whole House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) naming names thing.

I am not one to analyze the nuts and  bolts of a film. I'm not expert at dissecting the mechanics. For me, the measure of a great film is how lost in the story I become, how much I care about the fates of the characters, and how much it might speak to something deep inside of me. In this respect, I wholeheartedly reverse my position and say this is a great film, but I do have reservations.

The Cast
From every main character to every uncredited performance this film is expertly cast.
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, the bum/longshoreman who could have been a contender, but now contents himself with doing the bidding of corrupt union leader Johnny Friendly, is quite perfect. I still don't come easily to him, but there is no denying the sensitivity beneath the brute. His Terry Malloy is a complete person.
Eva Marie Saint as Edie, the sister of the whistle blower who is lured to his death by Terry, is an angel of the slums. It is hard to believe that a few years later she would be out-sexing any of Hitchcock's blondes in "North By Northwest." She is the heart of the story, the innocence and righteousness that has not yet been corrupted by life on the waterfront.
Karl Malden as the re-energized activist priest Father Barry is my favorite character and my favorite performance in the film. The death of Edie's brother gets him out of his church and into the faces of his parishioners. Malden's Father Barry is warm, compelling and brave. Once he believes in his cause, he is wholly committed and there is no turning back. He is, after all, on the right side of justice.
Rod Steiger plays Terry's older brother, Charley. Poor Charley. He is the saddest character in the film. He sold his soul and his kid brother for a place at Johnny Friendly's side. His later regrets cost him his life.
Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly is a powerhouse - so charming when you do things his way, so deadly when crossed.

The Score
Okay. It's perfect. It's Leonard Bernstein. That's all.

The Story
The screenplay by Budd Schulberg, is based on a real life whistle blower who courageously exposed corruption within the Longshoreman union. It is a story of power, conscience, courage and the dignity of work. And this brings me to thing that has always bothered me about this film. Terry Malloy is hailed as a hero who named names. He was certainly a hero, because he sought to bring justice to those with no voice and to take his one chance to right some terrible wrongs (and avenge the death of his brother and Edie's brother).

Here's where that pesky back story creeps in. Kazan and Schulberg were both friendly witnesses to the HUAC, but it was that committee that was the real-life Johnny Friendly whose favor resulted in employment. The Communist party never controlled who worked and who didn't, but the blacklist that emerged as a result of the hearings sadly did. Lives and careers were ruined because those whose names were named were denied the right to shape up and get that precious job ticket. Those who did not name names may object to the film's phrase of "D&D"( deaf and dumb) when questioned by the Feds. Those who refused to testify might have thought otherwise.

At the end of "On the Waterfront" the men go back to work and now only the boss is standing between the men and a day's pay. But the boss is never kind and benevolent. He is the reason for the need for the labor union in the first place. Who will speak for those men now?

"On the Waterfront" is a delicious, complex, confounding and beautiful film. Taken at face value, it is a tale of personal conscience and heroism against a mob. Scratch the surface and we ask: are Schulberg and Kazan condemning HUAC? Are they assuaging their guilt? Are they justifying their actions? Only the viewer can decide. That is why I will have to view this film again.

Thanks, Renee!


karen said...

I'm not a huge Brando fan, but he's brilliant in "On The Waterfront" as are many other cast members...Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, etc. It was such a slice of real life groundbreaking film. I don't understand your references to HUAC. Hopefully by this time everyone condemns those witch hunts led by Joe McCarthy. For further reading about Hollywood and the communist scare try the book "City of Nets". It's fascinating reading.

FlickChick said...

Hi Karen: Both Schulberg and Kazan were friendly witnesses at the House Un-American Committee hearings. Although they didn't name any names that weren't well known already, Kazan in particular was sensitive about how his testimony was viewed. The phrase "naming names" as used many times in the film, where that action was viewed as heroic (while naming names at the McCarthy hearings was viewed as distinctly unheroic).

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

However one feels about Kazan's behavior at the HUAC hearings, there is no denying that he created something special with On the Waterfront. Glad you took a second look.

FlickChick said...

Oh Kim, I so agree that it is a wonderful film. And those political undertones just make it that much more interesting.

karen said...

Guess I took this film "at face value" and appreciated the brilliant performances without getting into HUAC
references. It was Brando breaking away from his brother's control..man against mobsters for me. I'll keep reading my book and learn something.

karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FlickChick said...

@ Karen: I am sure he was scared - and so were the suits who ran the studios. They did what they did to keep working. But whatever Kazan did and for whatever reason he did it, I believe an artist should be judged by his work, not by his life. Kazan was a great director and made many important films. However, there is no denying the subtext here because he and Schulberg put it out there. But, that's what makes it such a rich film. Taken at face value, it is a great film. Digging deeper, it is still great.

Silver Screenings said...

I agree with you re: Karl Malden's character. This really is a special film and your review has done it justice. :)

FlickChick said...

Thank you Silverscreenings. And yes - Karl Malden was just so compassionate.

karen said...

When I use the word "suits" I refer to non-creatives...especially the marketing crowd.

Diane said...

I am so glad you gave this film a second view. I loved it the first time and now you have made me want to go and take a second look. It has been a long time since I first saw it.
I agree, the actors were brilliant and the content of the film up for discussion, again.
Good review...

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Diane. I hope yo get the chance to see it again.

The Lady Eve said...

FlickChick - For many years I was only aware of Budd Schulberg as a gifted writer and Elia Kazan as a great director, unaware that the two had been friendly witnesses. When I found out, I was flabbergasted - and appalled. I've since heard that "On the Waterfront" was a justification by the pair for having been informers themselves. Kazan later said that the film was his way of answering his critics (contentiously, of course), whereas Schulberg always denied that his screenplay was related to his having named names.

For me, there’s no doubt that “On the Waterfront” is a masterful film, as were most of the films Kazan and Schulberg worked on together or separately. What is more difficult is reconciling the significant question of moral character that seems in such contrast with the sorts of films they made.

FlickChick said...

So true, Lady Eve. Kazan had to live that down for the rest of his career. One decision can impact an entire lifetime.