MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #19. On the Waterfront (1954)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

Within his first half dozen theatrically released movies, Marlon Brando turned in four performances that have all gone down in Hollywood history as nothing short of legendary.   A Streetcar Named Desire is melodrama at its best.  Julius Caesar was his chance to show that the whole mumbling method actor thing didn’t get in the way of performing Shakespeare.  And The Wild One was master class in how to do attitude and cool, before anyone knew that attitude and cool would be a major part of movies for the rest of time.  But I think the absolute best early Brando performance is the smallest, the most real, the least showy.  The best early Brando performance, and possibly the best ever, is On the Water Front.

In Hoboken New Jersey, there are only two jobs, working for the unions on the docks, or working for the mob who control the docks and unions.  Former boxer, current mob errand boy, Terry Malloy (Brando) calls Joey Doyle to meet him on a tenement roof.  When Joey falls to his death a few minutes later, it’s just accepted by the neighbourhood that the mob took Joey out and there’s no use in retaliating.  Only two people don’t get the message, Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and local Irish priest, Farther Barry (Karl Malden).

When local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cob) gets wind that Farther Barry is organising workers to resist the mob control of the unions, he sends Terry to the next meeting of Father Barry’s resistance organisation to get some inside info.  Here, Terry meets Edie and is immediately smitten.  The more time Terry spends with Edie the more guilt he feels over the part he played in Joey’s death.  And the more he thinks he might have to stand up to Johnny Friendly, and his own brother, Charley “the Gent” (Rod Steiger).  Turns out, its Charlie’s brotherly influence that corrupted Terry long ago.  But Terry was meant for bigger, better things.  And maybe now, he has the guts to go after them.

Director Elia Kazan copped a lot of shit in Hollywood for naming names during the McCarthy era communist witch hunts.  And that’s fair enough.  History has come down well and truly on the side of the people who held fast and told Senator Joe McCarthy to basically go fuck himself.  Which makes it even weirder that when Kazan made a movie in which the hero basically names names, it became one of the most well respected and iconic Hollywood movies of all time.

Maybe it’s the fact that Kazan swung the story around to make On the Waterfront all about the little guy standing up to a corrupt system.  Or maybe it’s just the collection of amazing performances.  But whatever it is, watching it today was the first time I’ve watched it with that context in mind.  And it meant I liked it even more than I have on previous viewings.

On the Waterfront
Directed By – Elia Kazan
Written By – Budd Schulberg

Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor – Brando
Best Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor (Malden nominated, last to Edmond O’Brien for the Barefoot Contessa)
Best Supporting Actor (Steiger nominated, lost to Edmond O’Brien for the Barefoot Contessa)
Best Supporting Actress – Saint

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about On the Waterfront?
Roger Ebert
The Cinephile Fix

4 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #19. On the Waterfront (1954)

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