Classic Movie Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


Title: On the Waterfront
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Today’s classic film is too fancy for Hoboken and too hot for church. On the Waterfront introduced a new style of naturalistic acting and pioneered a filmmaking style that inspired the New Hollywood movement a generation later.  It’s most famous for an oft-quoted monologue, but I don’t think that scene is quite so great without the context of the film around it.

Marlon Brando stars in this film as Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey and sometimes serves as “muscle” for the mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, once again being George C. Scott’s doppelgänger).  Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man, so Terry gets special treatment in assignments.

Terry begins to be aware that his good life is built on lies and must make difficult decisions after inadvertently playing a part in the murder of a longshoreman who was willing to talk to the police.  The victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is outraged by everyone willing to be “deaf and dumb” about the crime and inspires the parish priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to take action. Edie and Terry also grow close which affects his changing heart.

The romance between Edie and Terry is the one thing I don’t really buy about this movie because Terry gives off a million red flags that someone like Edie would see right away.  Other than that this film is a compelling drama with terrific acting by all the leads and interesting staging and camera angles that take advantage of the gritty Hoboken locations.  Not only is this a great movie that realistically depicts the issues of working class people but it also reminds me of how Catholic social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan stood with the people like Father Barry in the mid-20th century.

The movie is great drama, but it also metaphorical.  There are all too many real life examples of organizations, even ones that should have positive uses like unions, falling victim to corruption. In more recent years things like the push for Iraq War, the rise of Trump, and the current efforts of the Republican party to suppress voting rights are all built on the ability of people in power to use fear, greed, and indifference to manipulate people into going along with something that they know is wrong. Unfortunately, director Elia Kazan also made this film to justify his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ruining the lives and careers of  several people who ended up being blacklisted for being labeled “Communists.” Comparing so-called “Communists,” usually people who tried advocating for economic equality and against racial discrimination to the murderous mobsters who were American capitalists at heart is just wrong.

On the Waterfront is a case where the art is greater than the artist, but it remains a spectacular film.

Rating: ****1/2