An ex-prize fighter turned New Jersey longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses, including his older brother, as he starts to connect with the grieving sister of one of the syndicate’s victims.
I tell you what, we just don’t get the same cattiness from filmmakers like we did in the 50s and 60s. Elia Kazan made On the Waterfront as a direct response to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and as a direct response to him naming those who were members of the Communist Party, much to the chagrin of others in the entertainment industry at the time, because those whose names were named were blacklisted from the industry. When HUAC was involved, you did not name names. Those in the industry viewed it as an invasion of privacy and as a full on witch hunt (which it was). However, Kazan, having once been a registered member of the Communist Party himself, chose to name those who were also registered in the party at the time he was, from 1934 to 1936, effectively ending the careers of those he named. The significance of that, for those that don’t know, is that there was a surge in people registering for the Communist Party during the Great Depression years because people were at such a loss with what was presented to them. All of this was at a time where everybody felt they were in the right. And that includes Kazan. He showed that he felt he was right by directing On the Waterfront and releasing it a mere two years after his talk with HUAC.
To make it simple: in the realm of On the Waterfront, the mob run union is Hollywood and the entertainment industry and the cops who want people to talk about said mob run union is the United States government. And the main character Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, is our filmmaker. Just with that information, looking at how the film ends, we know that Kazan feels victorious and was waiving that in the faces of all those involved.
The union and law enforcement aren’t the only comparison of good vs. bad to be drawn. Pigeons are a big focus in the film. The main character raises them, as do several others in the film. At one point, Terry Malloy begins to talk about the hawks in the neighborhood and how the pigeons need to fight back because “Pigeons aren’t peaceful”. Pigeons being the obvious metaphor for the longshoreman down at the docks and hawks being Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his gang.
Appealing even more to the people of the United States at the time, Kazan even incorporates a religious element to the film. Karl Malden plays Father Barry, who is used as a voice of reason for Terry throughout the film. “How can we call ourselves Christian and protect these murderers with our silence?” Father Barry says, appealing to America’s religious nature.
As per usual, Elia Kazan is able to get astonishing performances from his actors. None more astonishing, however, than Marlon Brando’s performance. All the little unscripted, impromptu nuances he does throughout the film makes him that much more real and relatable to the viewer. From the scene where Edie Doyle drops her glove to Terry speaking to his brother, not in an angry tone, but in a disappointed one; All these little things make the character that much more real and truly showcase Marlon Brando’s skills in his profession.
Lee J. Cobbs makes Johnny Friendly one of the more despicable villains and I truly love his performance in this film. Same goes for Karl Malden. He’s one that could seamlessly disappear in and out of roles. And, of course, I can’t talk about the acting in On the Waterfront and not bring up Eva Marie Saint. This was her first major film, but you’d never know it from the performance that she gives.
I’ve named Elia Kazan as one of my favorite directors before, but he’s not a filmmaker that can be rewatched as much as, say, Steven Spielberg. So, I don’t often watch his films. However, whenever I do, I’m reminded why I love Kazan’s work so much. Not only do the themes in his films strike a chord with me, but the way he sets up shots are so aesthetically pleasing to me while also being so intricate. The best example I have in On the Waterfront is when Terry is telling Edie that he was involved in the killing of her brother Joey (who’s murder begins the film). Terry runs down from where he had been talking to Father Barry (again, his voice of reason), to meet Edie. The spot where they stand is vacant, but the noise all around them makes the scene feel very busy, emphasizing the anxiety that Malloy feels in that moment. We hear the wind and we hear the boats, and then every once in a while we get a bit of Terry and Edie’s conversation. We see reactions more than anything. And all of that is what, in my opinion, makes Kazan an unmatched filmmaker. That scene is one of many that is geniusly crafted.
I understand why On the Waterfront is on the American Film Institute’s list. What I need to think about is, would the film still be on this list if it didn’t have all the important background about Kazan and HUAC? That I’m not sure. But, I have some time to think on it. I have 18 more movies before I have to compile my own list.