On the Waterfront Review

For a ceremony that will go to any lengths to avoid controversy, the Academy Awards has done pretty well over the years in ruffling more than a few feathers . Whether it be politicos like Michael Moore or the Sarandon/Robbins pair using the show as a soapbox, the streaker that upset David Niven in 1974 or even just Ordinary People beating Raging Bull to the best picture gong in 1980, the show can be relied on every couple of years to throw up something that will get tongues wagging long after who won what on the night has faded from memory. One of the most memorable of recent years was when the Academy bestowed their Lifetime Achievement Award on Elia Kazan, a man who has polarised Tinseltown opinion for over half a century. The moment when Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro introduced him on stage, with half the audience on their feet and the other half keeping their arms firmly crossed and lips pursed, was one of the most quietly dramatic moments the awards had seen for many a year.

The reason for the protests was that just over fifty years ago Kazan was one of a small number who decided voluntarily to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, one of the arms of Joseph McCarthy’s infamous hunt for Communist influences in America. Hollywood, seen as a haven of liberalism and decadence, was one of the prime targets – if anywhere was going to be full of Commie infiltrators trying to corrupt the nation it was there. Through the investiations, most of Hollywood tried to stick together, some refusing to testify and others prevaricating to such an extent that it couldn’t be said that any incriminating information was learned from them. Kazan faced a particular problem, in that he had actually been a member of the American Communist Party (ACP) in the 1930s, and so decided to make a deal with the HUAC, as one of the so-called “friendly” witnesses, to name others who had also been affiliated with the ACP in return for clemency himself. Of the “Hollywood ten” who ended up being blacklisted by the commission, Kazan had named or confirmed eight – something that, as can be imagined, did not go down well with his peers. The result was that the ten were prevented from working openly in the industry again while Kazan was allowed to continue his career – he’d saved his own skin but at a terrible price. Comments he later made did not help rehabilitate him either – he’s quoted as saying “There's a normal sadness about hurting political, but I's rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot.” (sic)

On the Waterfront, made in 1954, was an answer to his many critics, a justification of what he did and why. Starring Marlon Brando, whose movie career Kazan had helped launch with A Streetcar Named Desire three years earlier, it tells the story of dock worker Terry Malloy, who finds himself faced with a moral crisis when torn between the mob running the waterfront business – including his own brother Charley – and a strong attraction to the sister of a man he (unknowingly) helped lure to his death (played by Eva Marie Saint in her film debut). It was inspired by a series of Pulitzer Prize articles written by journalist Malcolm Johnson published in the New York Son in 1949 and written for the screen by Bud Schulburg.

Nowdays it is a cliché to extol just how good Brando is as Kazan’s alter ego. When the actor died, it was inevitable that the clip most news outlets used for their reports was the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, but to boil the performance down to just one moment, however magical it is (and it is very good indeed) is unfair. The slow but steady transition Brando gives Malloy, who starts the film as just another unthinking goon obeying whatever order he’s given by the boss, through to the principled, brave character who in the last scene stands up the very same man, is rightly heralded as one of the greatest ever to come out of Hollywood. Kazan could not have had better onscreen representation, Brando illustrating every painful decision he has to make, every step on his road to ultimate redemption, with passion and prowess. If the films Brando had made up to this point had made his reputation, this cemented it in the public consciousness forever, and is a joy to behold. Stanislavski himself would have been proud the way Brando inhabits the character - watch the way he caresses his brother’s gun in the car scene, for example, or the way he handles Edie’s glove – these are not scripted moments but Brando himself, literally embodying the character’s every movement, every gesture. His famous mumbling delivery, too, helps add to the impression this is a real person, not a thespian delivering a performance - a character such as Malloy wouldn't speak the Queen's English, after all, but had he been played ten years earlier he would have had much better diction than Brando rightly gives him.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast are not completely outshined by Brando, amply illustrated by the fact that of the five Oscar nominations that year for Best Supporting Actor, three (Cobb, Malden and Steiger) were from this film (none of them won, sadly). Though I am not the biggest fan of Eva Marie Saint, she gives a good, credible performance as Edie Doyle, one that belies the fact this was her first time in front of movie cameras. Although she doesn’t overly emote over the death of her brother, her poise brings a dignity to the character entirely fitting – it’s easy to see why Terry would want to do the right thing by her. Rob Steiger, as Terry’s brother, is only really given one moment to shine, the already mentioned car scene, and he does not disappoint – while he isn’t technically as good as Brando, his portrayal as a man who secretly knows he is on the verge of signing his own death warrant because of his loyalty to his brother is moving in its own right, although it is probably only on a second viewing that one begins to appreciate the contribution he makes. Lee J Cobb, too, as the villain Johnny Friendly, is fine too, although in this modern age, when we are so familiar with figures such as Jimmy Conway and the cast of The Sopranos (to which a lot of his lackeys bear an odd resemblance) he does not quite have the raw menace some of his later cinematic equivalents do. That said, his eventual downfall is still deeply satisfying, and one wonders if it would have been as believable if a more modern gangster – de Niro in Goodfellas, perhaps, or Pacino in The Godfather Part 2 (it’s tempting to list Don Corleone himself, but I don’t think he would ever have ended up like that somehow) – had found himself in that situation.

Bud Schulberg, who regrettably never wrote anything of note again, delivers a beautiful screenplay, a morality play that never for a moment falters and is full of memorable moments and scenes. From the early scene when the relationship between Terry, Charley and Johnny is established and the seeds of destruction are sown, through to the sequence in which Father Barry (Karl Malden) makes his impassioned speech in the hold of the ship while being pelted by eggs and other missiles, and on to the final moments with its deeply satisfying climax, the piece is never less than riveting. Although the relationship between Charley and Terry is not as firmly established as it might have been – I can only recall them being a handful of scenes together (alive at any rate) – the fact his brother is so heavily involved with the very people he is considering bringing down is only one facet of the dilemma facing Terry. Every scene, every line adds to Terry’s plight and journey, and if some of the secondary characters are a bit one-note in comparison – Father Barry is a crusader, Johnny your typical merciless mod boss – this doesn’t detract from the examination of the man’s soul at all – in fact, it focuses more attention on it.

The film’s naturalism is greatly aided by the choice of where to make it. Kazan elected to shoot the film in the actual New York and New Jersey locations (reportedly during an absolutely freezing winter) and it pays off, giving the film an extra authenticity. The fact that the characters hang out on real rooftops looking over a real docks complements the naturalism of Brando’s performance and it is in fact difficult to imagine it working nearly as well in an all-studio based setting. Kazan is a cunning director, too, making smart choices about where to put his camera – the opening shot is a clever example, the incongruity of the sheer size of the operation being run by very men illustrated perfectly by the small hut sitting in the foreground of a massive liner.

As great as it is, though, unfortunately it doesn’t work as the apologia Kazan had hoped for; the problem is that his choice of metaphor for himself is flawed. While there is absolutely no moral ambiguity in what Malloy ultimately chooses to do, Kazan’s decision to testify was very much a grey area, the rights and wrongs of which are still debated to this day. His justification, then, is hollow, and would have changed no one’s opinion about what he did and did not do. What Kazan does manage to get across was the anguish he went through to make that decision – of course, he was extremely fortunate to have the greatest actor alive at the time to illustrate this – which, from the film’s point of view, is more than enough. The anguish paid off – the film won eight out of the twelve Oscars it was up for – including best director for himself and Best Actor for Brando, the other himself. The film has a lasting legacy that few others can rival, and, even though one may not agree with Kazan’s decision, it can’t be argued that it did lead to one of the great films (and performances) of the 1950s. Ultimately, the director might not have won anyone over with his defence but, from a purely cinematic point of view, it is very difficult to argue that he didn’t deserve that honourary Oscar that night in 1999.

The Disk
The film is presented on a single dual-layered disk in its original 4:3 print. The main menu is made up of clips from the film playing as if on a cinema screen, with a musical background. The film itself is subtitled but only a selection of extras are – and even those don’t come with English subtitles, which seems rather odd.

Although there is little sign of digital artefacting, the print itself is not in the best of shapes. There is plenty of flicker throughout as well as small blots on the picture, and the occasional curious appearance of what appears to be a moth or something that darts around the screen as well as, at one point, what looks like a film strip running down a third of the picture. There is also a softness to the picture. None of these, aside from the flickering which can become irritating, detract too much from the viewing experience but they are noticeable.

A typical audio track for a film of that time. There is a subdued quality to it with a lot of white noise, but dialogue is never lost and the music track is fine, if not exactly stereo quality. In some scenes as well it does appear that the lip synching is slightly off, which is odd.


This superb track comes from Richard Schickel and Jeff Young who wrote biographies of Brando and Kazan respectively. They make a good pair, discussing both the film and the filmmakers in detail, drawing out themes, anecdotes, and anything else you could possibly like to know in connection with the film. Like attending a film school lecture, this is highly enjoyable and one of the best "knowledgeable experts" commentary tracks I've heard.

Contender: Mastering the Method
Twenty five minute documentary taking its lead from In the Actor’s Studio. The majority of the time is taken up with an analysis of the famous car scene between Charlie and Terry, with contributions from people such as Rod Steiger himself, Martin Landau and a biographer of Kazan. The last few minutes drift a little, talking about Brando and Kazan’s general approach to the film, including an interesting example of how Brando’s Method acting was implemented.

A Conversation with Elia Kazan
Although Kazan skirts around the issues surrounding his motivation for making the film, it is still a pleasure to hear him talking about his greatest picture. He is evidently very proud of it – he describes it as the film that came closest to his original aims with it – and it’s good he got to contribute to the disk shortly before his death in 2003.

Video Photo Gallery
Four and a half minute collection of stills (and a few behind-the-scenes shots) from the film, accompanied by sound clips from the part of the movie the pictures are from, backed by the film’s score. This works very well and makes the gallery more interesting than the usual sort found on disks, working as much as an encapsulation of the entire movie as an insight into the filming of it.

Included are selected film credits for Kazan, Schulburg, Brando, Malden, Cobb, Steiger and Saint. For some reason these are given in reverse order, and come with a photo of the person in question. Not very useful.

Theatrical Trailers
Three trailers are included – On the Waterfront, Picnic and From Here To Eternity. Seems a bit of a random selection but it’s always nice to see these old-fashioned trailers and they do a good job of selling the film.

The highlight of the Brando collection, no more needs to be said about the film itself. The transfer is a little disappointing, but there are some good extras here, with the commentary and short Kazan interview in particular being well worth checking out.

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