Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.
Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.
This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.
Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.
This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”
On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.
Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.
Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.
This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.
Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.
A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.