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  On the Waterfront Coulda Been A Contender
Year: 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, James Westerfield, Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello, John F. Hamilton, John Heldebrand, Rudy Bond, Don Blackman, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, Pat Hingle
Genre: Drama, Thriller, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) used to be a boxer and had a chance at the championship had other circumstances not intervened to see to it that he would always be a runner-up and never at the top of his profession. Now, having left boxing, he makes his living as a longshoreman at the New York harbour, helping out his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) with any jobs needing a bit of strongarm attention as decreed by the union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who makes no bones about being as self-serving as he can. He gets away with this because he can threaten violence upon anyone who stands up to him, as Terry is about to discover as one intimidation goes too far...

On the Waterfront remains one of the most controversial of the Best Picture Oscar-winners, and a film whose status as a classic is forever debated. It was the brainchild of director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who had one significant thing in common that has coloured the perception of their filmographies ever since. But perhaps it is not as black and white as it appears, for looking at their other output, when the inevitable politics are brought into it, the question of their motives for making such a production may not be clear cut, and actually murkier than it appears. What was the problem? Kazan and Schulberg named names to the HUAC right before.

Brando, though he was championed as the greatest Hollywood actor of the nineteen-fifties, was always sceptical that this, one of his signature roles, was all it was cracked up to be: he found his performance too mannered and was never able to enjoy it in retrospect. But he also found the film to be a justification for its director and writer (and indeed, some of its actors) accusing their former friends and allies of being Communists when such a position could cost a talent their career, and in some cases their lives, and that left a bad taste in his mouth. That this appeared to compare the Communists to the corrupt gangsters in the longshoremen's union seemed to be a false equivalency.

The Hollywood lefties were, after all, a bunch of intellectuals who meant well, no matter if you believe their tenets were justifiable or not, and there is no record of them flinging anyone who disagreed with them off a roof, as the mobsters do at the beginning of On the Waterfront. Nothing Kazan and Schulberg could say would divert attention from their "finking" and this film's dubious message, that despite the fact they would go on to create liberal-flavoured works afterwards - Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, for example, is deeply suspicious of rabble-rousing political leaders in a manner that suggests he was more balanced in his opinions than the rabidly anti-Red crusader his antagonists painted him as. And besides, the corruption in unions was a genuine thing: this was torn from the headlines, as they say.

Schulberg even had the priest character, played by Karl Malden, make it blatant that the mob were driven by greed, one might say rampant capitalism, in one of the speeches that littered the drama, so not the Communist ideal in any way, more the American Way turned into something monstrous. There are plenty who find the harsh tone, where it's a surprise to see anyone behaving with any geniality at all, bracing, and the eventual ordeal Terry must go through to overcome the criminal element as powerful as anything in fifties cinema. Yet just as much, it does have an alienating effect, and Brando was not wrong about his interpretation of his own reading of Terry, as what was originally refreshingly naturalistic has, through being so influential, more of a note of the parodists who made fun of him in his latter, dissipated days. Eva Marie Saint, in her movie debut, won an Oscar too, and she now comes across better, someone who is truly moral and to whom an injustice has been served - maybe summing up the guilt in the film's creators. Essential, but not easy. Music by Leonard Bernstein.

[Masses of features on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of this title, see here:

New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Alternate presentations of the restoration in two additional aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen) and 1.33:1 (full-screen)
Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
New conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones
Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982), an hour-long documentary
New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with scholar Leo Braudy, critic David Thomson, and others
New interview with actor Eva Marie Saint
Interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001
Contender: Mastering the Method, a 2001 documentary on the film's most famous scene
New interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley, an actor in the film
New interview with author James T. Fisher about the real-life people and places behind the film
Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score
Visual essay on the aspect ratio
Trailer
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Kazan's 1952 defense of his House Un-American Activities Committee testimony, one of the 1948 Malcolm Johnson articles that inspired the film, and a 1953 piece by screenwriter Budd Schulberg.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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