Director Elia Kazan (left) with Marlon Brando
Brando with Eva Marie Saint
Brando with Eva Marie Saint
Brando applying his own makeup
Brando (far right) with Eva Marie Saint (left) and Karl Malden (center)
ON THE WATERFRONT A
USA (108 mi) 1954 d: Elia Kazan
Conscience...! That stuff can drive you nuts.
—Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando)
—Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando)
It’s impossible to separate this film from its place in history, coming after director Elia Kazan testified against fellow members of the film industry before the House Un-American Activities Committee that launched an investigation about communist infiltration into American life, which has entered the mythology of American history, giving rise to McCarthyism, a term synonymous with the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy for conducting what has been described as a witch hunt, making headlines through accusations of subversion or treason, yet failing to uncover any corroborative evidence that America or the film industry were ever infiltrated by any subversive group. Under the guise of rooting out communism, HUAC was clearly motivated by anti-Semitism, as the committee’s hidden agenda was to expose Jewish collaborators as anti-American, as Jews comprised an overwhelmingly large percentage of witnesses called before the committee, where 6 of the original Hollywood Ten were Jews, and one of those who was not Jewish was accused of “writing like a Jew,” each subpoenaed to appear before Congressional hearings where they were viewed and treated as criminals, despite the fact there wasn’t one iota of truth to any of these accusations, yet it didn’t stop the committee from delusionally making them anyway, irrespective of the damage done to destroyed lives and careers. For most of the accused, the committee itself was never thought of as a legitimate body, as their entire reason for existence was rooted in fabricated falsehoods and guilt by association, so the vast majority simply refused to cooperate. The televised process was viewed as a humiliating charade, as the committee as well as the FBI already knew every name that informers mentioned. For Kazan to testify so willingly was a brazen insult, giving legitimacy to a witch hunt and credence to a Congressional kangaroo court that should have been ridiculed and mocked for their irrationality, but it also guaranteed his future working in Hollywood, as his career thrived while others were put out of work. Kazan’s testimony ended the careers of former acting colleagues, along with the work of playwright Clifford Odets, who was personally tormented by the public reaction to the testimony, with his career suffering profoundly afterwards. Kazan was vilified for his actions, willingly cooperating as a friendly witness with a committee who’s underlying aims were bogus and bigoted, yet remained defiantly unapologetic afterwards, taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times to justify his decision, becoming the most reviled witness to testify, losing his lifelong friendship with playwright Arthur Miller who refused to speak with him afterwards, yet his behavior became the subject of his allegorical play The Crucible, while suffering the stains and indignities for the rest of his career of being labeled a traitor, a snitch, a rat. This film has always been viewed as Kazan’s answer to his critics, as justification for struggling with his own conscience and cooperating with the committee, doing the right thing, so to speak, as Brando’s character Terry Malloy does here, yet Kazan remains to this day the most polarizing and divisive figure from his era, which was quite apparent in the muted response when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Academy Awards in 1999 nearly half a century later, with hundreds of protestors picketing the event. Had there been no HUAC hearings, leftist John Garfield from Force of Evil (1948) was the most likely candidate to be given the role of Terry Malloy, whose blacklisted screenwriter/director Abe Polonsky was quoted as saying about Kazan, “If I was on a desert island with him, I’d be afraid to fall asleep because he’d probably eat me for breakfast.” Ah yes, the animus. What has never been in doubt was Kazan’s unique talent and influence within the industry, given credit for discovering both Marlon Brando and James Dean who became towering icons in the film history, while at the same time he was also the nation’s most brilliant theater director, known for his use of naturalistic Method acting in stage or screen performances, like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which changed the face of the industry. In an era that is largely perceived as safe and conformist, it’s also unusual for a Hollywood studio to take on a controversial social problem, making what is arguably his best film, where what’s striking about it is the staggering collective power of the ensemble performances.
Listed at #8 of AFI’s list of greatest American movies, AFI's 100 YEARS…100 MOVIES | American Film Institute, one of the 15 films listed in the category “Values” on the Vatican film list, and winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Brando, never better, nominated in four consecutive years), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint in her first movie role), Best Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Editing, Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), and Art Direction, with 3 other nominations in the Supporting Actor category and another for music written by Leonard Bernstein (composed after the shooting was finished), this film combines an extraordinary degree of talent and is a striking example of artistry achieved through collaborative efforts. The origins come from an idea by playwright Arthur Miller who wrote an unproduced screenplay in 1947 entitled The Hook inspired by the true story of Pete Panto, a young Brooklyn longshoreman who stood up against the corrupt Mafia-connected union leadership. Fearing his rise in popularity amongst dissident workers, the union had him killed, dumping his body in the East River. Shortly afterwards, journalist Malcolm Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for his 24-article series for the New York Sun at the end of 1948 entitled “Crime on the Waterfront,” exposing union corruption on the docks of New York ('An Underworld Syndicate': Malcolm Johnson's 'On the ...). Miller brought his screenplay to Kazan and suggested they work jointly on the film, but the director’s testimony before the committee ended that relationship permanently, leaving Miller incensed, where their division came to embody the deep divisions that tore the country apart during the McCarthy era. Kazan contacted screenwriter Budd Schulberg, son of a Hollywood producer, changing the setting from Red Hook, Brooklyn to Hoboken, New Jersey, which had been the site of recent assaults, firebombings, beatings, and mobster activities, all investigated by the New York State Crime Commission which released their findings that the longshoreman’s union in control of the ship docks was infested with mob-infested corruption, so the film’s story was taken straight from the headlines. Schulberg was disappointed that Kazan singled out Terry Malloy, a lowly dock worker, as the face of the film, as his emphasis had been on the collective struggle of the men to get the mob out of their union, but Kazan clearly identified with Terry’s personal struggle and the complexities involved in taking a stand, interweaving personal relationships with family loyalties, as his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a crooked union lawyer, is the right hand man to the ruthless union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), where the thrust of the drama is Terry’s confusion and hesitancy to squeal, as it goes against everything he’s learned on the streets, but he’s helped along by a hard-nosed Irish-American priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), who’s certain that testifying before the Crime Commission is the right thing to do, where his actions become equated with moral heroism. It’s the presence of the priest that takes this into morally sanctimonious territory, with an overreach of heavy-handed religious symbolism that is pounded into our skulls, offering religious redemption, as if God is sanctioning these acts, turning Terry into a Christ figure, which is a self-justifying way of rationalizing one’s own uneasy conscience, but there are some major differences that make this an inept metaphor, making mobster control over the waterfront analogous to Communist Party control over the individual. While the union is run by the mob, a self-serving criminal organization that controls its interests through theft, bribery, murder, and intimidation, showing little interest in the workers themselves, but selling them out every step of the way. Testifying against their murderous grip over people’s lives is the right thing to do, requiring courage, all but guaranteeing a loss of job and income, but draws no parallel to Kazan’s cowardly testimony to keep his job, as artists in the film industry were not murderously corrupt, in fact they were guilty of no crimes whatsoever, even by inference, and represented no threat. Communism held no stranglehold over any of them, as most former members joined in the 30’s during the heart of the Great Depression with 50 million unemployed and the banks closed, and voluntarily left the Party on their own accord, just as Kazan did, with the Hitler-Stalin pact convincing most who still lingered. So why all the sudden interest of the committee? The real crimes are the actions of ideological right-wing fanatics from a misguided committee who equated Communists with murderous thugs, abusing their power to score political points, displaying a vengeful bloodthirstiness in going after innocent victims, creating a Cold War Hollywood blacklist against its own citizens that unnecessarily destroyed people’s lives through innuendo and character assassination, using smear tactics that actually undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The film is notable for developing a storyline around a series of “informers,” (with Kazan, still reeling from the pangs of a guilty conscience making five consecutive films afterwards about betrayals) taking viewers right into the heart of the dock workers, all eagerly lined up for work each morning, dependent upon a foreman to select them for a daily assignment, where they have to fight amongst themselves for the last available positions, revealing a cutthroat style of capitalism at work, accentuating the futility of longshoremen where the privileged lay around and do nothing while those at the bottom are tasked with the most difficult and dangerous work assignments. As described by Arthur Miller, the hiring process was known as the “shape up,” where it was estimated that there were half as many jobs as there were men who lined up for them every morning:
I stood around with longshoreman huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day.
After distributing the checks to his favorites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over and in his generosity tossed them into the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometimes getting into bad fights. Their cattle-like acceptance of this humiliating process struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself. It was though they had lost the mere awareness of hope.
Mob boss Johnny Friendly is a money collector, as he gets a cut of every piece of the action, with the money rolling in day and night. He has Terry lure a friend and neighbor Joey Doyle onto the roof, with the mistaken belief the union would talk some sense into him, maybe even rough him up a little, but instead he’s thrown off the roof to his death, conveniently preventing his testimony before the Crime Commission. While his sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint, studying in a convent to become a nun) is outraged at her brother’s death, she’s equally furious over the men’s code of silence, remaining deaf and dumb, pleading for some help from Father Barry, but to no avail, while Terry is treated like a hero for doing Johnny’s bidding, given the cushiest work assignments after that. Father Barry tries to organize a meeting with the dock workers, just a paltry few show up, urging them to testify about the murder, applying the moral teachings of Christ to waterfront unionism, but his sermon falls on deaf ears. Nonetheless the church is raided by Johnny’s thugs who strong-arm the few that showed up. Terry maneuvers Edie out a back way to avoid detection and takes a noticeable interest in her welfare, where she’s never met anyone like him, aimless and without ambition, a former prize fighter from the streets, raised in a group home with little formal education, unlike his big brother who is college educated and tasked with responsibilities. Terry has a quieter side where he raises pigeons on the roof with a panoramic view overlooking the docks down below, where he can simply sit far away from the noise of the rat race. When he takes Edie out for a beer, the experience is near surreal, but there’s also a curious connection, as she’s been taught to rescue souls in distress, and Terry is a deeply conflicted individual. When another potential informer is snuffed out in an unfortunate dock accident, Father Barry’s presence gains greater traction with the workers, suggesting their silence only serves their oppressors, calling each death a crucifixion, gaining traction in Terry’s troubled consciousness, ultimately exploring the depths of his own guilt, revealing to Father Barry how he inadvertently set up Joey Doyle. When he tries to tell Edie, she is aghast in disbelief, an unforgettable scene with words drowned out by industrial ship noises, with anguished faces capturing the essence of agony and grief. When Terry receives a subpoena to testify at an upcoming hearing, the loose cannon is Johnny Friendly, who can’t take chances with a screwed up kid, sending his brother to take care of the matter for him. Few scenes are more memorable than their infamous cab ride, where Charley tries to convince him to take an easy job somewhere else where he’ll be out of trouble and can line his pockets with bribe money, but Terry doesn’t fall for it, reminding him of the time when he had to throw a fight, when he had a shot at the title, when he was better than the other guy, but the mob bet against him, which sealed his fate and ended his career. Blaming it on his brother, who should have been there for him, it’s all just a lost opportunity, expressed as an irrepressible acknowledgement of failure, “I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody,” I Coulda Been a Contender - On the Waterfront (6/8 ... - YouTube (2:43), infamously re-quoted by a washed-up Jake La Motta at the end of Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980), Raging Bull (12/12) Movie CLIP - I Could've Been a ... - YouTube (2:47), all rushing headlong into an incendiary finale, filled with a burning intensity and some high-powered drama. Evocatively portrayed with shocking realism by Boris Kaufman, a Russian Jewish émigré and younger brother of famed Russian documentarist Dziga Vertov (whose original name was Denis Kaufman), the film captures the dingy atmosphere on the docks as well as the seedy, claustrophobic atmosphere in the cramped working class neighborhoods, never escaping the soot-covered landscapes that dominate their lives, becoming one of the most important films of the decade, filled with tension, innovation, and daring emotional upheaval.
Cinephelia & Beyond