“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.”
– Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)
Milestones: there are only a handful of films that qualify. The Birth of a Nation brought feature-length filmmaking into the world. The Jazz Singer brought synchronized sound. Citizen Kane brought forth a new breed of complex storytelling and cinematic techniques. Star Wars reinvented the world of genre filmmaking and visual effects. And then there’s On the Waterfront, a film that – at least arguably – changed the world of acting forever. The Criterion Collection has a reputation for only releasing motion pictures that are historically or artistically significant. That they have just released On the Waterfront only cements that credibility. It’s beautiful on Blu-ray, and like pretty much all of their releases, is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in film.
Some folks have a hard time watching older movies. There are reasons for that, some of them superficial, some of them relatively understandable. For the first fifty years or more of filmmaking, the rules of performance were ported over fairly directly from the theater, where broad, carefully calculated movements and confident line deliveries were considered necessary to convey emotion to the back of the room. But cinema brings the audience into the inner worlds of the characters in a story. They get right up in their faces, and deep into their heads. It was a place where absolute naturalism could thrive. Though hardly the first cinematic example of the “Method Acting” technique, On the Waterfront helped popularize the craft, with iconic, intimate performances by Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint as working class residents of a waterfront community, brought to the brink by their connections to organized crime and Roman Catholic morality.
The scene I quoted above, one of the most oft-mimicked in movie history, takes place in the back of a taxicab, between Brando and his brother, played by Rod Steiger. It is a scene of two people talking, and director Elia Kazan lets it play out naturally. Though often beautifully photographed, Kazan’s film lets the actors do the heavy lifting. The characters are themselves, and only themselves, which is a little ironic since they’re also representations of a greater political context that, once learned, taints your appreciation of On the Waterfront in one way or another, for better or worse.
On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy (Brando), a “bum” whose brother Charley (Steiger) is intimately connected with the local mob. They run the waterfront, decide who works and who doesn’t, and takes their enormous cut right off the top. As On the Waterfront begins, Terry is enlisted to bring Joey Doyle, a dockworker speaking out against them, into the open, where he is swiftly murdered. Doyle’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is one of the few people in town who refuse to play “D & D,” or “deaf and dumb,” to the criminal element that thoroughly corrupts her community. She enlists the aid of a newly proactive Father Barry (Karl Malden), to help organize a whistleblowing campaign against crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), but faces an uphill battle. Terry gets enlisted to spy on Edie and Father Barry’s meetings to suss out who the biggest threats to Johnny’s organization are, but Terry falls for Edie, and his conscience begins to fight its way to the surface.
There’s a frustrating dichotomy in everyday ethics. We are told as children that we have a moral responsibility to say something when a crime is committed, or wrong is being done, but we are also told that nobody likes a snitch. There should probably be a thick line between not ratting out your co-workers for taking an extra-long lunch break and protecting an organized crime racket, but not to Terry. His identity as a man is wrapped up thoroughly in his relations to the community, not in his own self-worth or even dignity. Watching Marlon Brando fight himself to embrace a new, cathartic morality – rather than dwelling in the “comforting” quagmire of denial – is one of the great special effects in motion picture history. They say some people cannot change. The oppressive atmosphere and harrowing turns of events that Terry goes through illustrate just how impossible change can feel, and just how possible it really can be.
They also justify director Elia Kazan’s decision to name names at the House Un-American Activities Commission, identifying eight individuals in Hollywood as Communists in the midst of the political witch-hunt, whereas many of his peers refused to do so. Kazan remains an object of scorn from many in the entertainment industry, including those who sat on their hands when he won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999. Armed with that information, it’s hard not to view On the Waterfront – a film about the nobility of whistleblowing – as an overly earnest screed explaining Kazan’s real-life actions. And viewed through that lens, the film doesn’t hold up terribly well. There’s another thick line: between identifying harmful, dangerous and thoroughly criminals to the police so justice can be served, and endangering the livelihood and reputation of your peers to HUAC, an organization now famous for demonizing a political party with little justification, less evidence, and for political gain rather for the common good. On its own, On the Waterfront is unassailable. Within the appropriate historical context, it's a fairly limp excuse.
On the Waterfront sells its point with heavy speeches and severe melodrama, providing a pointed counterpoint to Arthur Miller’s contemporary production of The Crucible, also an allegory for HUAC, although deeply critical about all those who snitched on the innocent in order to save their own skins. Both works, however, are of a relatively equal quality: powerful, emotional, deeply moving and food for complex thought. Even in a vacuum, they’re both thoroughly didactic, message-laden tales, but told with precision and craftsmanship. And On the Waterfront has the added bonus of Academy Award-winning performances so realistic that they helped redefine cinematic acting styles for future generations, right up to this day.
On the Waterfront comes to Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection with a small army of special features, including an enlightening conversation about the film’s significance between Martin Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones, multiple interviews with the film’s surviving cast members, including Eva Marie Saint and Tommy Collins, features on the significance and philosophy of method acting, and a nifty featurette explaining why Criterion’s Blu-ray of On the Waterfront features three separate aspect ratios. As is typical of Criterion releases, the video and audio quality of On the Waterfront are nearly peerless, particularly for a film over fifty years old.
On the Waterfront earned eight Academy Awards, for Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. It’s an important milestone in both the history of acting and the history of the motion picture industry during the Red Scare. It is also an excellent motion picture that needs to be seen, studied and appreciated for generations to come. It is also blunt as hell, so get ready to take that in stride.
On the Waterfront: