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On the Waterfront : Lust, Conscience, and the American Way
Written: Nov 14, 2001 (Updated Nov 14, 2001)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
- User Rating: Excellent
Pros:Brando, Steiger, Saint and a few memorable scenes.
Cons:The Controversy, Kazan's weak-visualization-in-some-scenes some corniness.
The Bottom Line: A flawed, dated and still very controversial classic featuring stunningly good performances and some unforgettable scenes.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
The newly released DVD of On the Waterfront does not bring us a pristine looking version of the film that has been meticulously restored as happened with Citizen Kane. It looks okay over-all and does have some interesting extras. It's also a bit revisionistic in how it stays away from most of the controversy.
I find my throwing down this particularly review as my 200th particularly interesting. Hope you will too.
1954's On the Waterfront is most famous for the "I could'a be a contender scene with Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in the back of the cab of course. If you're a film buff you've seen it, howled with the parodies of it and been amazed at how powerful the scene remains even after all the parodies and all of this time. It's a remarkable scene and if you haven't seen it.... DON'T TELL ANYONE ...(unless you truly aren't a film buff).
On the Waterfront is a film about conscience and ethics. It was made by director Elia Kazan not just to entertain the public but to justify what he was doing and why.
It became a highly charged political film. It remains a film of great controversy because the man who made it, director Elia Kazan, cooperated with Senate Joe McCarthy's (and Nixon's) 1950s witch hunts for communist sympathizers in the U.S. known as HUAC (House on Un-American Activities Committee) and director Elia Kazan's testimony (naming names) led directly to the imprisonment of (what became known as) The Hollywood Ten. Ten members (there were actually more than ten) of the Hollywood community who served some prison time for their past political affiliations. Many others wound up blacklisted for several years. It hurt and/or destroyed hundreds of careers in the entertainment industry.
Elia Kazan strongly believed that communism was evil and was getting a toe-hold in the United States. He felt he was in a position to help and it was his patriotic duty to cooperate with Senator Joe McCarthy's campaign to stop communism in the United States.
In the film, a Union boss accusses Terry Maloy (Marlon Brando) of being a rat.
Maloy's response is : " I'm standing over here now. I was rattin' on myself all those years. I didn't even know it."
It's a statement that also reflected Kazan's own beliefs about what he was doing.
In hindsight everyone knows how misguided HUAC and the campaign was and after McCarthy and gang started publicly destroying careers, opposition to this campaign of intimidation grew until McCarthy's political aspirations were destroyed once and for all in a public showdown between the media and the Senator. After all McCarthy was using the opportunity to further his own political career as well. The fall-out from the ordeal lingered for many years. Many had been forever tarnished by the scandals, many had lost their livelihoods, a few even served prison time.
Director Elia Kazan has never apologized for the role he played in HUAC. He believed, at the time, he was doing the right thing. He believed communism was an evil that had once temporarily seduced him and had seduced some others, and it needed to be erased from the United States. As he was cooperating with the investigation, he made the film 'On The Waterfront' in 1954.
Kazan used the film to justify his actions in real life. There are many who will never forgive Kazan for what he did and who further resent how he used film to explain what he did to the public. There are many others who are outraged he did not apologize or perform any kind of penance for the actions he took.
Kazan was publicly attacked and was ostracized by an ever growing number of people for what he did. Yet, for many years he continued to make some still well regarded films.
When On the Waterfront was nominated and then won 11 Oscars in 1955, Kazan admitted in his 1988 autobiography that he felt a sense of vengeance toward his critics since the film was deeply personal to him. It may have been the film won so many Oscars because it was good politics for the town to show it stood by a man like Kazan who was on the side of the conservatives and cooperated with government.
The controversy over Kazan was again re-ignited when just a few years ago he was given a special honorary Oscar for his body of film work. Many in the industry were again outraged that an unapologetic Kazan was given an award for his work.
It boils down to how politics and art and religion are always going to be intertwined and how you feel about decisions that try to assess the work within the context it was created or apart from it.
On the Waterfront is an emotional film that still packs a powerfully strong message about doing what you believe is right and standing by your convictions. The choice is pretty easy… too easy… for the film's main characters because the corruption in the film is clearly illegal and evil. There's not a lot of gray area in the film. It's a film that over-simplifies a struggle between good and evil.
The film is not one of any kind of complexity. Our hero is barely educated, working class schlub who first develops his backbone because he finds his conscience after the lust he has for a beautiful woman allows him to clearly see what's going on around him. Passion, lust and conviction however are things almost everyone can understand.
What turns this film into a classic is the performance of Marlon Brando. The script is over-loaded with crowd pleasing situations and lines, but Brando and to a lesser extent, the other actors, don't over-sell the script. They counter the scripts loudest platitudes and pronouncements with a brand new style of acting that downplays theatrical conventions and reaches for realism.
The film's sense of realism was also heightened by the decision to film on location in and around Hoboken, New Jersey. Kazan's directorial style is pretty unimpressive. His blocking of his actors and background extras is usually very stagey and awkward.
Brando's acting brought to the screen a new vocabulary for actors and the audiences who watch them. He burst on the screen in Kazan's film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and began having an influence on actors and performances all over the world. The exaggerated mannerisms of theatrical actors had been toned down for film performances but never eliminated. Brando, using a technique embraced by (Lee Strassberg's) The Studio (ironically using the Russian Stanislovsky system as its basis) acted by creating a series of specific character enhancing tics and quirks that were riveting for audiences to watch. These weren't just 'natural' moments, but stylized one's emphasizing a particular gesture or calling attention to a specific prop or piece of 'business' to better define or broaden the character being portrayed.
Brando had worked with Kazan in 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire and 1952's Viva Zapata. Originally Frank Sinatra was to be the star of On The Waterfront, his accent was already perfect after all. Producer Sam Speigel wanted Brando since he was a bigger and hotter box office draw at the time then Sinatra was. So after working on the all-star Joseph Mankiewicz production of Julius Caesar, Brando again signed up to work with Kazan.
The film is based on the true story of a longshoreman who tried to stop a corrupt union. Budd Schulberg wrote the script based on drafts of what would become newspaper reporter Malcom Johnson's 24 part Pulitzer Prize winning series: Crime on the Waterfront -which wasn't actually published in it's entirety until 1955 (in the now defunct New York Sun). The article exposed corrupt labor practices and racketeering.
On the Waterfront is an awkward mixture of gangster melodrama and a pseudo-documentary-like expose. Audiences and critics however over-look how wrong some of the details actually are (some of the staging is awful, on occasion the camera seems to be in the wrong place, Karl Malden's priest is an overwrought Conceit), because the acting and some of the dialogue is so effective. Even as you wince over the corniness of some of the scenes or a few of the lines, you forgive the film all of its flaws because of Marlon Brandon's utterly compelling and memorable performance as Terry Malloy.
Terry Malloy is an ex-prizefight who works as a longshoreman on the rough docks of Hoboken. He's given pretty easy jobs however because his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right hand man of the corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Charley has been using and taking advantage of his brother for years. Terry is unwittingly involved in setting up the death of Edie's (Eva Marie Saint) brother. When he realizes what has happened and how he has been used he starts to question what he has been doing with his life and how his relationship with his brother Charley really is. It was Charley who made Terry take a dive at the biggest fight he ever had. There is also a priest (Karl Malden) who keeps trying to get longshoremen to testify to the corrupt labor practices that are rampant on the docks.
Eventually, Terry risks everything and does what he knows in his heart is the right thing to do--he takes on Johnny Friendly, defying his brother, risking his livelihood and life and hopefully winning the heart of the woman he has fallen in love with.
On the Waterfront is presented in its original theatrical 1.33:1 frame. The film has quite a few scratches and lots of visible grain. There's also a few scenes that appear very washed out. Some scenes look nearly perfect. I'm dissapointed the red carpet treatment wasn't given to the film. Most viewers however will be completely forgiving to this more than 46 year old film.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono (in both English and French tracks). The dialogue is always easy to hear and understand. Leonard Bernstein's score at times sounds flat and at other times lacks bass and sounds too shrill. It is a shame a re-mastering and re-mixing of the elements did not take place. The audio is more than adequate and does not detract from your enjoyment of the film however.
There are several interesting extras on the disc. However the film might have presented an opportunity to deliver
an second disc of extras covering the controversy of Kazan, and the film itself. It does not. In fact it avoids most of that completely. The film was made with a great deal of emotion and passion behind it, the director was making a personal statement and reminded everyone of that fact in his autobiography in the late 1980's. Too bad there is not more on that aspect of the film.
CONTENDER- Mastering the Method is a recently produced piece that last just under 30 minutes focusing mostly on the 'I COULDA' BEEN A CONTENDER' scene. There are interviews with Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando biographer, Patricia Bosworth, Martin Landau and James Lipton (host of Inside the Actor's Studio). Everyone delivers interesting information-though Lipton is down-right annoying to watch. It was Steiger's first big film and he explains how he very intimidated by Brando. * * * * *
There is a nearly ten minute interview with director Elia Kazan who talks about the casting of the film while refusing to take any credit for the great performances the actors delivered in the film under his direction.
Also included is a video photo gallery that features both publicity and behind the scenes stills played with dialogue from the film on top of the images being shown.
Above average filmographies are included on the disc for : Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Eva Marie Saint.
The original theatrical trailers for On The Waterfront, Suddenly Last Summer and Picnic are also on the DVD.
The DVD COMMENTARY :
The feature length commentary is from film critic Richard Schickel and Elia Kazan biographer Jeff Young. Some interesting information regarding the production itself as well as the events that inspired the film are discussed at length. It's a bit dry but very interesting.
On the Waterfront won 8 of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for in 1954. Kazan became a very controversial figure. The film is a classic. It is dated and flawed but it delivers some incredible performances and still is an emotionally powerful film that is exciting to watch and easy to get caught up in. The quality of the DVD elements could be better, but they are in decent shape and the extras are a real plus and will probably make the film highly collectible to film buffs. And when it's all said and done with there is the incredible, perhaps best performance Brando has ever delivered.
Christopher Jarmick,is the author of The Glass Cocoon with Serena F. Holder a critically acclaimed, steamy suspense thriller.
Original portions of this review Copyright© Christopher J. Jarmick 2001. The above work is protected by international copyright law.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older