A review of On the Waterfront directed by Elia Kazan

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

On the Waterfront
directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden

Marlon Brando is flesh and feeling, beauty and believability, but even after watching him carefully in On the Waterfront, I couldn’t say what his secret is. He is alive and responsive on the screen, seeming incapable of falsity, and yet, are these qualities really so rare? Some actors impress with the vividness of their intelligence or emotion or sensuality, and yet watching Brando (1924-2004), not one of these things seemed more prominent in him than any other. Only his aliveness, and his wholeness, seemed distinct to me.

One recent Tuesday afternoon, two days after a snow storm that left the streets and sidewalks slippery, I attended a local movie theater screening of On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay by Budd Schulberg, starring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle, Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly, Karl Malden as Father Barry, and Rod Steiger as Charley Malloy, Terry’s brother and Friendly’s aide. I was surprised by the diverse audience, college students and little old ladies, men and women, various ethnicities, all apparently attracted by Brando, a classic film, free popcorn, and a one-dollar ticket price. It was wonderful to see such a full theater, especially knowing the majority of the theaters showing new films in the same complex at that time were mostly empty. As Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, Brando plays a longshoreman and former boxer who becomes unintentionally involved with a crooked labor union’s murder of an admirable young man, Joey, willing to talk to the police about the corruption on the docks. The film is about a conflict of values: on the one side seems truth and law, embodied by Eva Marie Saint as the dead young man’s sister, Edie, and Karl Malden as the local priest, Father Barry, who is challenged by Eva Saint’s Edie to practice his religion in the community as well as the church; and on the other side are most of the workers and the union bosses and their thugs, men who are either involved with the corruption or who silently accept it. It’s not an accident that on the side of right are two people, one a sheltered woman, who have been involved with books and religion—with ideas about the way things should be—and on the other side are men resigned or committed to the way things are. One rarely sees social conflict so sharply presented in terms of their roots in capitalism, education, gender, the price of survival, and religion. Brando’s Terry Malloy—a man who had been induced by his own brother to lose an important boxing fight—is the principal figure who is torn between the two sides: his conscience and his consequent actions are at stake. Often Brando, as Terry, seems alert to everything while trying to only deal with part of what he sees. (That is a path to compromise and self-betrayal and gross stupidity.) Brando’s Terry is asked by Lee Cobb’s Johnny Friendly to monitor Malden’s Father Barry and Eva Saint’s Edie, to be a spy among them, but that also makes Terry a witness to their good intentions, which Terry at first mocks and is suspicious of. Terry gravitates between wanting to comfort and help Edie and wanting to do whatever the other men, such as Johnny and Charley, expect; he gravitates between confession and silence, courage and capitulation.

It had been years since I had seen Brando in a film: A Dry White Season, The Freshman, Don Juan de Marco, and The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996, were the last things I had seen of his. I wanted to see him in 2001 in The Score with Robert DeNiro, Angela Bassett, and Edward Norton, but I have not seen that film as of this writing. A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, followed by Julius Caesar in 1953 and The Wild One the same year, and On the Waterfront the following year, and later Guys and Dolls, The Young Lions, and Mutiny on the Bounty were the foundation of Brando’s unsurpassed popular and professional reputation. Brando’s appearances in Queimada (Burn!), The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now were made after his reputation had been achieved, and it seems he gave his genius, his torment, or simply his presence to those four films.

To call Brando a legend seems hardly to say anything at all. Growing up, the actors and performers who seemed special to my parents also seemed special to me—whether or not the performers’ charisma or talent appealed to me, even as a boy I could not ignore the affectionate and respectful tone I heard when my elders spoke of Lena Horne, Canada Lee, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne. Marlon Brando was among them. (I recall seeing A Streetcar Named Desire and The Young Lions.) I also couldn’t fail to be impressed by the old film magazines I saw in the storage room of the high school library I worked in, featuring names I hardly heard anyone speak: Mary Astor, Theda Bara, John Barrymore, the Gish sisters, Jean Harlow, and Mary Pickford. Theda Bara’s smoky reputation and name as an anagram for Arab death remain with me. There were also names that were still spoken—among film lovers, and in film texts—that seemed out of mythology: Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, Paul Robeson, Gloria Swanson, and Rudolph Valentino. Brando, although still active in film, was one of those names too: he seemed mercurial and powerful. Seeing, years later, Brando in films such as Apocalypse Now and Last Tango in Paris and Reflections in a Golden Eye as an adult, immediately before and during college, was interesting, but not really any more illuminating. What was Brando’s unique gift? Later, as I lived as a writer and a worker, Brando began to embody a kind of eccentric individuality for me: aware, mocking, self-indulgent.

Brando’s ability to seem alive to feelings and ideas give the choices he is faced with in On the Waterfront vivid reality and moral dimension: one sees him, and remembers young men one has seen, known, in daily life, attractive men who might have gone in any direction, and many different kinds of actors seem Brando’s descendants. Brando seems unafraid to be onscreen, unafraid of observation or judgment: he is friendly, regretful, sad, charming, doltish, evasive, impulsive, and more. Beauty names not only his softly muscled form, but his vibrant masculinity, which did not require the sacrifice of feeling or imagination; and in him androgyny is no synonym for femininity or weakness, but a word for completeness. Eva Marie Saint is sometimes poignant—she has a breakable quality—and sometimes she is a little stiff, and Lee J. Cobb’s performance is sometimes quite controlled and other times hammy, Karl Malden’s performance is fine despite the grandstanding moments the script gives him, and a handsome Rod Steiger is consistently good as an amoral man. The characters they play in the film inhabit a common world: the waterfront where men work, the tenements in which people live, the streets they walk and bars they frequent, the church and a nearby park. In On the Waterfront, Brando’s Terry encourages Edie’s brother Joey to a rooftop, where he thinks Joey will be talked to and even beaten but not killed, as he is killed, and the film follows Edie’s attempt to find her brother’s killers, and the priest’s attempt to address the crime on the docks, and the inevitable resistance they meet. In On the Waterfront, there’s a whole culture of people—workers, thugs, youth gang, neighbors—who seem rejecting of going to the police and the courts with the truth of what’s going on. “Snitch” and “stool pigeon” are the terms used for people who do. (This was especially fascinating to me as I met recently people who thought the worst thing you could do was snitch—they considered it honorable not to: and the fact that among them were felons and drug addicts and derelict mothers whose children had been taken from their care was never seen by them as the reason for their belief in the wrongness of pointing fingers. They were no good, and couldn’t bear up under the weight of any scrutiny.) There is a difference between people who make mistakes, like Terry, and people whose way of living is always intentionally cruel, dishonest, exploitative, and law-breaking, such as Johnny Friendly. There is also a difference between reporting a significant crime, such as murder, and reporting idiosyncratic but legal pursuit of personal liberty such as dissident speech acts and radical political associations: a difference between injury and independence. We shouldn’t pretend not to recognize such differences—in morality, in practical consequences. It’s possible to think—in youth, intellectual pride, or bitterness—one can live without moral values, but that is usually the origin of an immoral life or a criminal career: morality is pursued not only for others, but for one’s self, to light one’s own path (home). Self-redemption, and social value, begins when a man apprehends what is right and acts on it, a perception that—Brando convinces us—Terry Malloy starts to see, though the film also suggests that without a personal love (Edie) and a personal loss (Charley) he might not have been entirely persuaded. What might have happened if Terry had not begun to think in a new way? He would have remained a mediocrity or become a criminal; and the film’s audience might have been encouraged toward despair or cynicism.

In On the Waterfront, it is obvious that there is very little loyalty among criminals: when Terry’s brother Charley, who has been of essential longtime help to Johnny Friendly, refuses to kill Terry, Charley himself is killed by Friendly and his men. It is as if criminality and immorality are conceived as a calling, a commitment beyond all others, and once you show slackening from the commitment you are a stranger and a traitor to be punished. It’s a fraternity of the damned.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer who lives in New York. His work has been published in AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 24FramesPerSecond.com, and World Literature Today. He enjoys reading, especially Henry James, Chekhov, Rilke, Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and hearing writers talk about their profession, and visiting museums and botanical gardens, listening to Streisand, and seeing the films of Garbo, Jude Law, Denzel Washington, Ingmar Bergman, Andre Techine, and Michael Winterbottom, among others.