On the Waterfront is the movie that Elia Kazan made right after he gave names to the House of America Committee. The plot is about a confused man struggling with the concept of informing on his boss, a corrupt individual in the Longshoremen’s Union, and many people feel that this film is essentially explaining why Kazan, the director, and Schulberg, the screenwriter, informed on other Communists, a number of who were their friends.
Whether the analogy is appropriate is open to question. In a loose way one could compare the unions in the U.S. to the Socialists in the U.S. Kazan expresses the view that the Longshoremen Unions were taken over by power hungry people looking for more domination, and he is likely giving this as an analogy of what Communism in the U.S. became. Communism was, to many, a great idea, but the problem was that someone had to implement it, and the moment a system is installed, the temptation is too great for the installers to put themselves in power. So perhaps Kazan is giving a critique stating that Communism is a great idea until the power hungry people get in, and is showing that the Unions are a similar thing. They are a great idea until power hungry people take over. This may ultimately be more of an analogy of what Kazan feels happened to him, rather than to the Communist party. He felt that hard left communists came in and turned Communism into a more dangerous situation than he wanted it to be. The question also arises though whether this is an appropriate analogy that Kazan is making, because the unions were engaged in criminal acts of violence and protection rackets, whereas, as a number of people would point out, most U.S. Communists were into much softer issues.
The basis for On the Waterfront presents somewhat of a complicated history. There has always been the question, did Kazan and Schulberg steal this idea from Miller? The idea for On the Waterfront “begins with the shared passion of two leftists, Miller and Kazan, for the waterfront and its workers. In The Hook… a character says: “I’m gonna tell you a government fact. Longshore work is the second most dangerous job in America.” To show audiences these crude, uneducated working stiffs, risking their lives for short money and no fringe benefits, yet coming to political consciousness, was irresistibly romantic to them.” Schickel(pg221) At the same time, however, Budd Schulberg, a well-known author and also a former Communist, “had been impressed enough by a series of articles in the New York Sun” and spent time on the docks. What is of particular consequence is “the dates Miller and Schulberg composed their screenplays, which were close to simultaneous”.(Schickel pg225) “In short, the Hook is correct and dutiful, occasionally well-observed, but it is not moving. We cannot imagine it becoming a film as great as On the Waterfront…..the suggestion of plagiarism on the part of Schulberg and Kazan, advanced by Miller’s biographer, Martin Gottfried, is absurd.” (Schickel )pg 226
On the Waterfront is basically about ex-boxer and current longshoreman Terry Malone, who struggles with guilt over the union’s murder of his fellow worker and friend Joey Doyle, and who subsequently contemplates informing on his corrupt union’s activities. Joey was a union member and he worked as a longshoreman, and he was going to talk, so that’s why they killed him. The union corruption had become part of the culture on the docks, and that is what Joey was fighting against. Terry didn’t realize that they were going to kill Joey. They had brought Terry in to weed this guy out. Joey was gong to speak to the police, so they tricked Terry in to leading him up to the roof where they had men waiting for him. Terry had thought though that they were just going to rough Joey up a bit, and he was in shock when they threw him off the building. A rather sad touch is that just after the murder Joey’s pigeon flies into Terry. Another touching thing is that they never show Joey’s face.
The priest, who subsequently holds a meeting to try to stop this mess, is played by Karl Malden, one of Kazan’s favorite actors, meeting Kazan’s preference for distinctive-looking actors. Malden was primarily a character actor who "for more than 60 years brought an intelligent intensity and a homespun authenticity to roles in theater, film and television"(Berkvist), especially in such classic films as A Streetcar Named Desire (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), On the Waterfront, Pollyanna, and One-Eyed Jacks. “an Everyman, but one whose range moved easily up and down the levels of society and the IQ scale, from heroes to heavies and ordinary, decent guys just trying to get along"(McClellan).
The first thing the priest says is that they must address who killed Joey Doyle, but no one wants to offer any information. There is a line earlier in the movie where someone says, “We’re really not part of America.” This is interesting because these mob guys all start acting like kings, like the place is their fiefdom. Part of this movie is a commentary on how power structure works. This movie in a strange way almost documents a parallel development in the U.S. as far as ideals. Whereas the central idea of the United States is that everyone has a voice, in institutions in general there are so many people scrounging for power. So even with the laws of the U.S. it is hard to break that power, even though theoretically they’re supposed to be able to fight that, and the film shows that it is really dangerous to fight these paternal organizations. They have a set of rules; they have leaders; they have secret meeting places they go to. Society as a whole can be strong, but what is often left out in discussions of America, and what this film does an excellent job in pointing out, is that there is no real monoculture in the U.S., but there are mini cultures, circles of people, and islands of people. The world can be completely unaware of this island of people, but it is in this island of people that real corruption can dominate.
So suddenly in America these islands of people are not really American anymore. They just live there. In On the Waterfront the mob boss is waging his power over his kingdom, and it is hard for anyone to break with that. Even though there is supposed to be an official power structure, that doesn’t really matter anymore, and we see a world with different moral views and ideas. An interesting note is that at the church meeting the priest concludes with a reading from Mathew, the saint who was a collaborator.
Terry Malone is played by Marlon Brando. Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for a Leading Role for this movie. He had been nominated two times previously, but after this movie he became a huge star. He was already a pretty big star after Streetcar Named Desire, another Kazan movie, but after this the sky was the limit for him, and he could do any movie he wanted. Kazan loved Brando, and Brando has said that Kazan was responsible for making him into the actor he was. Part of the reason Brando was such a good actor is because he was willing to appear vulnerable, and he has a distinct kind of vulnerability in this movie. A lot of good actors from this period didn’t want to appear unmanly and they wanted to feel very classical, whereas one of Brando’s most effective acting skills was that he had no problem with vulnerability. This comes to light right after Joey’s death. We see how heartbroken Brando is. He didn’t realize that they were going to kill Joey. There is a shot at 7:39 that again shows that Brando is not afraid to have his vulnerability shown. The boss is treating Terry like a pack animal – he is leaning on him. This is a subtlely dehumanizing way of interacting with him. The boss is doing that to emphasize that they have removed Terry’s autonomy and individuality, and the boss is quite literally subjugating Terry to his whims. There is actually an old term for mob bosses that is called ‘leaning on him’.
There is also a great shot at 11:22. We notice Brando, and the back of his head. The shot is timed perfectly so that it looks like the steam is coming out of his head, like almost to say he is thinking heavily about something, that it is eating up his brain.
Kazan had his favorite filming techniques, and they are used effectively in this movie. As he loved to do, the movie was not shot on a film set; it was mostly shot live which gave it an authenticity and grittiness for which Kazan was well known. This filming method was not always totally appreciated by the actors and film crew. The reason the breaths are visible is because it was so freezing cold when they were filming it, because they filmed this in the middle of winter in New York. That is also why everyone is buttoned up heavily. Kazan liked that we could see them shiver and see their breaths.
This also was one of the bigger films that preferred method acting over stage acting. A lot of the people in cinema at this time had been theater actors, and they had transferred over to film acting. This movie, though, is an honest display of how film acting was different from theater acting in many ways. Theater acting is often big crescendos, like John Phillip Souza marches. The emotions are played like instruments in a lot of ways, whereas film acting is very subtle, very understated. It also tells a very real human story. This is one of the films that brought that into prominence.
Brando, himself, became well known for his method acting, often referred to as the Stanislavsky method. In fact, the critics at this time criticized him as being only a method actor, that he couldn’t do classical acting. In reality, though, Brando was a very versatile actor, and this criticism bothered him. He silences the critics on this point when, a couple of years after this film he plays Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for which he received an Oscar nomination. .
Another filming technique that Kazan loved to use was the crowded screen. There is a shot shortly after Joey was killed where there are a bunch of workers waiting at the back and then they suddenly all crowd around for their pay, filling the screen. This is rather a sad social commentary here. They are apathetic to the murder but what they really care about is the money. Once the money comes, everything is okay.
This is another Elia Kazan movie where the woman heals the soul of a man - a troubled man is healed by the love of a good woman. The woman is this case is Joey Doyle’s sister Edie. The scene between Edie and Terry has become famous for the glove incident. Edie keeps trying to grab her glove back from Terry. As the script was written, Terry was supposed to pick it up and give it back to her, but he just randomly decided to put it on, and so in this entire scene she just keeps thinking that she needs to get this glove back from him. It makes the scene more real and it gives her more reason to stick around talking to him. It makes the talk a little more awkward, and plays the situation a little more real, which was something Kazan strived for. Kazan loved it.
There is also an interesting perspective shot at 30:47 after the glove incident. It plays with where the eye line goes. If we follow the fence we see that it curves right into Terry. Terry and Edie are not that far apart but the fence makes it look like they are further apart than they are, which is a good metaphor for the nature of their relationship. There is a house on the other side of the fence, to the left, and opposite on this side of the fence, to the right, there are some trees. This gives rise to another possible metaphor which might represent the difference in most people’s view of Terry, and the potential life that Edie can imagine with a man that she feels drawn to. The house lets her realize that she is inadvertently drawn to him and a life with him which would make her happy, but on the other hand he has a wild-sided nature, like the trees on the right. Terry dominates the image; it is all pointed towards him. She is looking at him, so we follow the fence because it goes towards him. When she starts walking towards him she somewhat commits to his path. At 30:56 we get a really good shot of that. We notice how the tree on the right had made it look like it was a wild forest, and then she decides to walk to him, and then boom, the camera widens to reveal that it’s not forest but a yard and a house.
Another touching, symbolic scene which Kazan pulls off so effectively is when Edie tries to tell her dad that Terry wants to see her again. Her father is not happy about it. He says, “Do you know who Terry Malone is? He is the boss’s right hand.” She picks up a stray kitty and says, “He tries to act tough,” as if she is comparing him to the stray pussy cat, and how they try to act tough, but they are just cats. Her father says, “He’s like the stray cats you keep bringing in, and the only one you wanted to keep was the one with six toes.” She knows that this is going to be a hard sell.
One further scene that we will look at is the scene that is considered one of the greatest in American cinema. Terry at this point has pretty much decided that he is going to speak. The mob has wind of this, and has ordered his older brother Charlie, also a mob enforcer, to drive him to a meeting place, and if he doesn’t convince Terry to change his plan, they are going to kill him. There is actually a funny little story about this. Brando only did this scene once – one take – because he had a therapy appointment right after this. The funny things is, that although this is considered one of the great American performances, Brando said he could barely get through watching this because he was so embarrassed – in fact, he said he was embarrassed by his acting in the entire movie.
The back story between Terry and his brother Charlie was that Terry had been a boxer, and Charlie had arranged a bet against Terry and he agreed to blow the fight. Charlie now is playing the role that the mob has asked him to play, trying to convince Terry to take a different mob job, and thus discourage him from snitching. They discuss their past, and we can see that Charlie feels bad about what his actions did to Terry. He definitely does not want him killed, and he finally says, “Well make up your mind before we get to 437 River Street.”
Everything goes quiet. Terry knows something is up. What this scene shows us about the brilliance of Kazan’s filming is that there is not really a lot of flashy camera work in this scene. It is just a very intimate scene. There are shots of each of the brothers, and then there is a master over-the-shoulder shot of both of them together, which is driven by the acting.
Terry says, “You don’t understand; I could have had class”, and then the famous line, “I could have been a contender.” That is one of the most famous lines in American cinema, and the line is followed by one of the most famous monologues in American cinema. The contender line was selected “at No. 3 on American Film Institute's (AFI) 100 YEARS..100 QUOTES.”(imdb.trivia) The line is quoted by almost everybody, but most do not know how to say it properly. They say it obnoxiously loud, but one of the things that Brando was always praised for was his very understated nature of acting. A little bit of the loudness may come from the fact that a lot of people assume that the line comes from Rocky. Rocky probably borrowed from On the Waterfront, but then all great art is predicated on borrowing ideas from somebody else. Artists take from life; they are influenced by things. Every artist has built on their experience with life or from what art they have experienced. Ultimately, Charlie lets Terry out before the meeting place. He can’t go through with it, and he gives Terry a gun to protect himself.
Historically, this was a time when people worried about the effects of the Cold War, which started in 1947. They worried that Communists would try to infiltrate America, and that all their freedoms, appreciated so much after the end of the Second World War, would be taken away from them. This was also a time when the mafia was gaining inroads into the unions, and violence started entering people’s daily lives. This was fertile ground for a film like On the Waterfront.
On the Waterfront was a great critical and financial success. It was released in 1954, and had a box office take of 9.4 million dollars. It garnered 8 Oscars, including Best Picture to Sam Spiegel, Best Actor in a Leading Role to Marlon Brando, Best Actress in a Supporting Role to Eva Marie Saint, Best Director to Elia Kazan, Best writing, Story and Screenplay to Budd Schulberg, plus Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing. It also got 4 Oscar nominations, and numerous other prestigious awards. It also served its purpose of exposing the corrupt union, as “shortly after the film's debut in 1954, the AFL-CIO expelled the East Coast longshoremen's union because it was still run by the mob.”(imdb:awards)
Elia Kazan, with all his directing brilliance and almost infallible choice of actors has created, in On the Waterfront, a movie that has not lost its luster with the passage of time.