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On the Waterfront (1954)

  • Review: **** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, Eva Marie Saint
  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Screenplay: Budd Schulberg
  • Length: 108 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Approved (PCA #16916)

The only way out of the New York City slums was death. On the Waterfront examines the lives oftwo families whose lives are threatened by their own existences.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had ambitions. He was going tobe a celebrated prizefighter but fate intervened. As was typical with life inthe slums, fate was personified in his brother Charley (Rod Steiger). Thedockworkers union for which Charley works as a bookkeeper, serves the communityby ensuring its members find work. If you don’t pay dues, you don’t work. Nevermind that the dues are high and the operation, run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J.Cobb), is little more than a group of racketeers.

Events are set in motion that push Terry into a dangerousposition. He can either turn on the union and help stop their influence on thedocks or keep quiet and let the murders and other illegal activities continue.Opposing Friendley and his goons are a catholic priest and the sister of a manthe union killed.

Father Barry (Karl Malden) doesn’t try to influence Terryspecifically, but is hoping to encourage those who are being stepped on tostand up for themselves. Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), on the other hand,discovers Terry knows more about her brother’s death than he lets an and doeseverything she can to convince Terry, with whom she falls in love, come out andtestify.

Though his character opined that he “coulda been somebody”,Brando was anything but a nobody. With his celebrated performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando maturedfurther as an actor in On the Waterfront.His act even earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor, which he didn’trefuse. Saint was also singled out for her brave and emotional performance.However, the film really belonged to the men. Brando was simply marvelous. Evenwhen he found success, it was easy to see Terry tortured by his past. He wantedto be that “contender” before but was crushed by his brother’s greed.

Cobb was equally stellar and, had he not been nominated againsthis cast mates Maldenand Steiger, he probably could have won. Cobb’s Friendley was anything but. Hecreated an absolutely unlikable character that lives on long past he fades fromthe screen.

The film also took awards for Best Picture, Director, Writing,Editing, Art Direction and Cinematography. It was one of the biggest victoriesin Oscar history at the time and it’s not difficult to see why. When the filmwraps at 108 minutes, you don’t feel that any amount of screen time was wasted.Every character, line of dialogue and scene folds perfectly into the package.

On the Waterfront has several themes crisscrossing throughout. Director Elia Kazan deftly weavesthe story in a dramatic and engaging way. Redemption, revenge, love and faitheach play an important role in the film. Though the audience knows the filmtakes place in the past, it’s still like looking at the modern world in ablack-and-white mirror.

Instead of racketeers keeping people from making a decentliving in a safe and open environment, we have politicians, businessmen andreligious leaders acting in the same capacity. On the Waterfront may be about one aspect of life in the past butits message is still pertinent in our modern landscape.