Movies That Everyone Should See: “On the Waterfront”

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In 1948, The New York Sun ran a 24 part, pulitzer prize winning exposé entitled “Crime on the Waterfront”. The series exposed the graft, theft, loan sharking, extortion, kickbacks, corruption and racketeering which were rampant on the shipping docks of New York and New Jersey. In light of the revelations, the two states obtained approval from Congress and the President to form the Waterfront Crime Commission of New York Harbor, which is still in existence today.

It also inspired one of the greatest movies of all time.

“On the Waterfront”.

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“On the Waterfront” is the story of Terry Malloy, a stevedore who used to be a professional boxer, played by the legendary Marlon Brando.

Brando was expelled from high school for riding his motorcycle through the halls. He was one of the cut-outs in the collage on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Can you call him a two time Academy Award winner if he refused to accept one of them? He supposedly used the other as a doorstop. He was the Godfather, he was Kurtz. He was paid $3.7 million dollars for two weeks of work on “Superman: The Movie”, and he refused to memorize his lines.

Jack Nicholson once said, “When Marlon dies, everybody moves up one.”

Brando was on fire when he was cast in this role. He had been nominated for Best Actor in three of his previous four films (“A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Viva Zapata!”, and “Julius Caesar”). The one he wasn’t nominated for? The iconic “The Wild One”. He had won three consecutive best actor BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), from 1951-1953.

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Director Elia Kazan had worked with Brando twice already by “On the Waterfront”, having directed “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Viva Zapata!”. He had initially hired famed playwright Arthur Miller to write the script based on the New York Sun series, but Miller pulled out due to studio interference. Miller was replaced by Budd Schulberg.

The collaboration between Kazan and Schulberg is notable, as they had both testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Kazan, in 1952, identified eight people in the motion picture industry that were either Communists or former Communists. “On the Waterfront” was Kazan’s response to the critics of his testimony – Malloy’s breaking of the “Deaf and Dumb”, “Don’t be a pigeon” omertà that shrouded the docks was supposed to parallel Kazan’s own turning in of Communists.

Both Kazan and Schulberg would win Oscars for their work here.

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Brando’s Terry Malloy is an ex-boxer who took a dive to fix a fight. It ended his fighting career. Now he works as a stevedore on the docks. People call him a bum. He’s certainly not the brightest guy in the world, but he’s tough, and he has a sense of honor. Terry’s brother is a mob lawyer. “Charlie the Gent”. It was Charlie that convinced Terry to take the dive.

The docks are under the control of organized crime, specifically mob boss Johnny Friendly. Friendly controls the union, and profits from it. But everyone also pays him kickbacks for the chance to work. He gets a piece of the shipping action, as well. He also runs loan sharks down at the docks, who prey on the desperation of the stevedores.

Everyone is afraid to talk, for fear of retribution.

When Terry unwittingly sets up a stool pigeon to be killed, it sets into motion a string of events which will eventually crack Friendly’s stranglehold on the docks. Terry sends informant Joey Doyle up to the rooftops under the pretense of returning one of his pigeons. He’s unaware that Friendly’s men who await up on the roof intend to kill the man. But indeed, Joey Doyle winds up getting tossed off of the building to his death. Even though Terry is disturbed by the fact he set Joey up to die, he remains loyal to Friendly at first. “I don’t know nothin’, I ain’t seen nothin’, I’m not sayin’ nothin’,” he tells the Crime Commission.

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But he soon meets Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and Father Barry (Karl Malden), who have set their minds on justice.

Edie is forlorn. She’s plaintive. She’s a melancholy beauty looking for answers. And Malloy has them. She’s also in danger in this hostile neighborhood, and Terry’s protective nature is triggered. He starts to look out for her.

She and Terry wind up falling for each other in spite of the secret between them. But Terry won’t rat, and she can’t abide his silence. The two run hot and cold as Terry struggles with his conscience.

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Boys, THIS is my Church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess comin’!

Father Barry is a local priest who sees the injustice the mob is perpetrating and leaves the safety of the pulpit to preach on the docks in order to stop it. He holds a secret meeting at the church for the stevedores to try to convince them to break their silence. The mob beats the dock workers as they leave. Father Barry is undeterred, delivering a fire and brimstone sermon about the evils of turning a blind eye when another worker gets killed on the docks. Even though he’s getting heckled and has things hurled at him, he stands up straight and bellows out a speech about the mob right in front of Johnny Friendly and his gang.

Eventually the pair begin to wear Terry down.

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When Johnny Friendly decides that Terry is a threat to rat, he sends his brother Charlie to straighten him out, and the result is one of the most famous scenes in movie history.

Charlie is told to drive Terry out to a warehouse. Along the way, he’ll be given the chance to “set him straight”. If he can convince Terry to wise up, fine. Everything is ok. But if not, Terry will be killed upon arrival at the warehouse. The two men sit in the back of a car, and have a high stakes conversation. Initially, Charlie offers Terry a high paying dock job for his silence, but when Terry waivers, Charlie pulls a gun. And yet it’s Terry that wins the argument. With one of the most memorable monologues in film history.

Terry plays on his brothers guilt for having him take the dive that ended his career.

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Terry: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: 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, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.

Adding to it’s stature, much of the scene was improvised. Steiger did his close up shots with a stand in reading him Brando’s lines. Brando had left the set for an appointment with his psychiatrist.

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Charlie pays the price for not giving Terry over, but it finally pushes Terry over the brink. His testimony awaits, along with his confrontation with Johnny Friendly. It culminates with Terry’s bruised and bloody walk of defiance down the docks. In the film, he’s leading the stevedores back to work, but Brando may has well have been staggering towards film history.

The movie won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. It was nominated for four others, as well, including three in the Best Supporting Actor category: Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger. Leonard Bernstein was nominated for the score. It initially came in at number 8 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies even though it dropped to number 19 on the tenth anniversary edition. Terry Malloy cracked their top 25 Heroes (#23) and his legendary speech to his brother “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” was selected the third greatest movie quote of all time. “On the Waterfront” was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989.

It’s a movie about bravery and toughness. It’s a movie about doing what’s right in spite of the fact that you’re going against the crowd. It has a fantastic romantic subplot and some of the greatest supporting characters in film history. The scene between the brothers is one of the greatest movies scenes of all time, and I think the finale is one of the greatest “Endings” ever.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”

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15 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “On the Waterfront”

  1. Yup, Agreed on all counts. A brilliant piece of how good truly collaborative work can be. If you ever get a chance, go back and watchi this from the point of view of the editor, the guy who takes all the disparate parts and puts them together onto a coherent whole. Gene Milford must have been cackling with hysterical glee (between bouts of cursing the actors, the director, the cinematographer, the set decorator etc etc… but that’s just par for the course), but the final product is as close to perfect as one is likely to see (Maybe second only to The Maltese Falcon, which is widely accepted as the finest piece of movie making ever… we can discuss my issues with Citizen Kane another time).

    Anyway, On the Waterfront is frequently sited as a case study in “how to do it right”, which it is, done right.

    • I hear you, actually, no need to rewatch, just watched it last night! Plus I capped these myself, so your point isn’t lost on me at all.

      In fact I was struck by the scene in the back of the cab. For two guys, sitting in one place, basically just talking (ok, a gun IS pulled at one point) there were about 500 different awesome screenshots to choose from if you wanted. The acting was just a clinic and youre right, the craftsmanship across the board was top notch.

      Take the “Walk down the dock” at the end of the movie, the way they cut that up. Showing Brando, then the foreman, then his feet staggering, then back to the foreman going in and out of focus. They totally support the action there with the production choices. It’s remarkable. It’s a great one.

  2. I’ve always been underwhelmed by Brando.

    *dodges the Fogscannon*

    I wouldn’t call myself a fan, and have found that most of the things I’ve tried to watch with him in it… drag?…

    *sidesteppes the Fogs-arang*

    I’ve tried to watch this from start to finish on TCM. Didn’t happen. I will admit, though, that from the cab ride on at the end it was interesting and well done. I guess I’m just too far removed from this one to really care.

    *tosses back the Fogsnade, just in time, only to be run over by the Fogsmobile.*

  3. Ah, such as right wing propaganda. The most widely-written (if not pedantic) interpretation of this movie is that Kazan made it to justify his decision to name names at HUAC. Although I did try my best to watch the movie outside that context.

    And I was always underwhelmed by the “I coulda been a contender” monologue because I’ve seen de Niro’s version first.

    But mind you, I like everyone involved involved in this movie. I love them more everywhere else but I don’t mind them coming together for this overrated yet decent code era movie.

    • Not sure which De Niro movie you’re referring to, but I think the scene here is a classic. Great special feature on it on the DVD, I was very impressed with it.

      During my brief research I got conflicting information about whether Kazan ever actually owned up to specifically mirroring his own HUAC experiences here or not. It fades to scholastic knowledge anyways, the film is what gets seeen and discussed and passed along, not the intentions.

      Some interesting tidbits to pass along to those who aren’t familiar with the backstory though, you know?

  4. I’m surprised you didn’t say much about the importance of the acting. I think that this and Streetcar (also Kazan/Brando) together was the turning point for Hollywood acting, moving from showmanship to natural realism. That is why Waterfront stands out for me so much.

    • Heyyy… glad to see you dug this one up. Definitely one in this series that never got enough comment love!

      You know, you’re right? Looking that back over, I didnt pay enough props to the acting at all.

      Hey sometimes, hindsight is 20/20. I’d like to take a mulligan on a lot of these articles. :D

  5. I like the film, I don’t love it. It’s well made and acted, but it never really blew me away. And I’d be lying if I said the film’s political back story didn’t bother me a little.

    Also, like paolocase, I prefer the monologue when it’s De Niro in Raging Bull.

    • It’s a classic, I love this one. You may have a point about DeNIro though, good grief he was awesome in RB. Heartbreaking….

      Maybe it helps to have seen the movie and fallen in love it with it first before you know the backstory? I know that’s how I came at it…

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