I like On The Waterfront.
Nowadays, that can be a dangerous thing to admit. On The Waterfront won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1954 and Marlon Brando’s lead performance as boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Malloy is still regularly cited as one of the best of all time. The scene where he tells his brother (played by Rod Steiger) that he “could have been a contender” is so iconic that other films still continue to either parody or pay homage to it. On The Waterfront is one of those films that regularly shows up on TCM and on lists of the greatest films ever made.
And yet, despite all that, it’s become fashionable to criticize On The Waterfront or to cite it as an unworthy Oscar winner. Certain film bloggers wear their disdain for On The Waterfront like a badge of honor. Ask them and they’ll spend hours telling you exactly why they dislike On The Waterfront and, not surprisingly, it all gets tedious pretty quickly.
Like all tedious things, the answer ultimately comes down to politics. In the early 50s, as the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee conducted its search for communists in Hollywood, hundreds of actors, writers, and directors were called before the committee. They were asked if they were currently or ever had been a member of the Communist Party. It was demanded that they name names. Refusing to take part was career suicide and yet, many witnesses did just that. They refused to testify, apologize, or name names.
And then there was the case of Elia Kazan. When he was called in front of HUAC, he not only testified about his communist past but he named names as well. Many of his past associates felt that Kazan had betrayed them in order to protect his own career. On The Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to his critics.
In On The Waterfront, Terry Malloy’s dilemma is whether or not to voluntarily testify before a commission that is investigating union corruption on the waterfront. Encouraging him to testify is the crusading priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the saintly girl who Terry loves. Discouraging Terry from testifying is literally every one else on the waterfront, including Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger). Charlie is the right-hand man of gangster Johnny Friendly (a crudely intimidating Lee J. Cobb), who is the same man who earlier ordered Terry to throw a big fight.
At first, Terry is content to follow the waterfront of code of playing “D and D” (deaf and dumb) when it comes to union corruption. However, when Johnny uses Terry to lure Edie’s brother into an ambush, Terry is forced to reconsider his previous apathy. As Terry gets closer and closer to deciding to testify, Johnny order Charlie to kill his brother…
The issue that many contemporary critics have with On The Waterfront is that they view it as being essentially a “pro-snitch” film. It’s easy to see that Elia Kazan viewed himself as being the damaged but noble Terry Malloy while Johnny Friendly was meant to be a stand-in for Hollywood communism. They see the film as being both anti-union and Kazan’s attempt to defend naming names.
And maybe they’re right.
But, ultimately, that doesn’t make the film any less effective. Judging On The Waterfront solely by its backstory ignores just how well-made, well-acted, well-photographed, well-directed, and well-written this film truly is. Elia Kazan may (or may not) have been a lousy human being but, watching this film, you can’t deny his skill as a director. There’s a thrilling grittiness to the film’s style that allows it to feel authentic even when it’s being totally heavy-handed.
And the performances hold up amazingly well. Marlon Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy gets so much attention that it’s easy to forget that the entire cast is just as great. Rod Steiger makes Charlie’s regret and guilt poignantly real. Karl Malden, who gets stuck with the film’s more pedantic dialogue, is the perfect crusader. Eva Marie Saint is beautiful and saintly. And then you’ve got Lee J. Cobb, playing one of the great screen villains.
The motives behind On The Waterfront may not be the best. But, occasionally, a great film does emerge from less than pure motives. (Just as often, truly good intentions lead to truly bad cinema.) Regardless of what one thinks of Elia Kazan, On The Waterfront is a great work of cinema and it’s on that basis that it should be judged.