On the Waterfront (1954)
January 17, 2022 7:04 PM - Subscribe

An ex-prize fighter turned New Jersey longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses, including his older brother, as he starts to connect with the grieving sister of one of the syndicate's victims.

Dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) persuaded him to throw a fight. When a longshoreman is murdered before he can testify about Friendly's control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and the streetwise priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to testify himself, against the advice of Friendly's lawyer, Terry's older brother Charley (Rod Steiger).

Helen Bower: Brando's performance is a revelation. The very soul of Terry looks out from his hooded eyes. He emerges from frustration and futility to stand for something.

This is clearly a character that Brando thoroughly understands. His Terry is less acting than it is living the plight of a groping mind, and he gives Terry a strange, wistful boyishness.

Miss Saint is a blond with high cheek bones who has something of a pathos Teresa Wright give a character. Troubled and tender toward Terry, even when she knows the truth about her brother, she is the reed, fragile but unbreaking, upon which Terry leans.

. . .

Father Barry's seron in the hold of a ship over the shattered body of another of Friendlys victims is the most poignant and unusual of many dramatic scenes.

Kate Cameron:

The professional cast is interesting, with Marlon Brando heading it in the role of a young stevedore. Marlon is an uneven actor. Sometimes he is very good, as he was in Julius Caesar, and sometimes he is unintelligible because of his manner of slurring words and running them together. As Terry Malloy, Kazan has made him speak up and out so that the audience can understand him, although at times he goes back to his old habit of mumbling. But, this tendency aside, Brando gives an impressive performance of a confused boy who wants to do the right thing without betraying his brother, who is an important cog in the union machine.

Kazan over-emphasized the last sequence in the film, but on the whole, his fine direction shows in the strength and power of the dramatic action on the screen.

Outstanding performances are turned in by Karl Malden in the role of a priest who makes the waterfront characters his particular charge, by Lee J. Cobb, as the big bully who bosses the boys, by Rod Steiger, John Hamilton and a couple of well-known pugilists, Tony Galento and Tami Mauriello. A fine little actress, Eva Marie Saint, makes her screen debut in the role of a girl whose brother is ordered killed by the union boss and who falls in love with Terry. There is an appealing quality to her acting and she has a sensitive face that reminds me of Julie Hayden at her best on stage.

Penelope Houston: During recent years, Hollywood "realism" has developed its own immediately recognisable conventions and attitudes. A now familiar technique of handling actors demands those mannerisms - Karl Malden's check in mid-speech, for instance - always just a little too studied for naturalism. There is a cunningly employed under-statement, so that a scene of violence and tension ends with a priest demonstrating the human touch by ordering a glass of beer. And it seems symptomatic that, as in the Hollywood-influenced Terminal Station, location shooting no longer guarantees an appearance of actuality. In spite of Boris Kaufman's beautifully atmospheric camerawork, recording the pale. cold early morning light on the docks, the depressed back streets and dismal little parks, the scenes are so carefully set, the characters so deliberately grouped (as in the saloon interior, with the two comatose down-and-outs propped picturesquely against the staircase), that we seem to have reached a point halfway between the studio and the real. It is a long way from the rougher idioms of The Naked City, though perhaps Kazan's own Panic in the Streets was already moving in this direction.

Primarily, however, one distrusts this sort of convention because, in making it too easy to create a plausible seeming surface, a set of characters who will be accepted for their familiarity, it inevitably encourages evasion. In
On the Waterfront, there is a scene in which Terry has to tell the girl of his part in her brother's murder: as they speak, their voices are drowned by a bellowing ship's siren. If the picture were presented as no more than melodrama, the trick would seem acceptable enough; but in buildin gup his subject as he as, Kazan has foregone his right to evade so crucial a stage in this particular relationship. IN a sense, the incident may be taken to sum up the film: excitement is whipped up, attitudes are struck, but the incidental detail blots out the human situation and - though it is not for want of trying - the trnasition from melodrama to drama is never made.

posted by Carillon (12 comments total)
Personally felt the ending propped up a middle that sagged too much. As well I'm not sure I was totally bought into the will they won't they relationship between Terry and Edie, it feels more forced by the plot plus I don't love the it's ok I broke down your door and ignored your no's but it's on because we're in love part.

My partner had never seen Brando before and walked away asking me is they it? Regarding his acting. I thought it was pretty good overall though, does a great job conveying how he's always gone along with things and never really thought about the system. Once he does though it takes him time to realize he's not ok with your things work.
posted by Carillon at 7:27 PM on January 17, 2022

I will also say I didn't know how to address Kazans huac bullshit, and his legacy as contributing to a pretty disgraceful chapter in Hollywood. So I didn't, but not sure how I feel about my inability to wrap this post around that.
posted by Carillon at 8:26 PM on January 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

My partner had never seen Brando before and walked away asking me is they it?

If you and your partner are still curious to explore more of Brando’s work, I highly recommend watching A Streetcar Named Desire—his first major screen appearance, also directed by Elia Kazan. His performance in that is modern and brutal and electric and, after seeing it, I’ll wager both of you will absolutely get what all the fuss was about.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:52 PM on January 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I can’t say I was ever taken by this film. Brando is especially hard to take, as I just don’t respond well to this style of “troubled/anguished sensitive male” that was the big thing back then (see also: Montgomery Clift and James Dean) They just never ring true to me. They always feel overdone and distracting. I dunno. YMMV, I guess.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:17 AM on January 18, 2022

Marlon Brando playing with Edie's glove - whew. This was the first Brado movie I ever saw outside of The Godfather (which is much less impressive when you don't know that Brando isn't literally the fading old man he's playing in that movie!).

But in this movie, one simple scene, he and the lady walk past a children's playground, some swings, and he just casually fiddles with her glove while they walk. It's a standout moment for me. Unforgettable.
posted by MiraK at 1:14 PM on January 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I will also say I didn't know how to address Kazans huac bullshit,

I kind of hate this movie, because I think it's Kazan trying to write a narrative where throwing friends to HUAC was like Terry taking on the mob.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:27 PM on January 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Marlon Brando playing with Edie's glove - whew.

That's the scene that always gets discussed in acting classes as an example of Brando's ability to bring depth and reality to even the smallest moment.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:35 AM on January 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think the thing about watching Brando now is that his acting doesn't seem as revolutionary as it did at the time. Now most acting training is grounded in the work of Stanislavsky and the various American adapters like Meisner, Adler, Strasberg, etc., but Brando was really doing something raw and new for the time. It is still somewhat "theatrical" -- all those teachers were grounded in theater first -- and the dialogue is somewhat overwrought for modern tastes, but I still feel like Brando's performance is great.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:39 AM on January 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

This movie provides a vision of what the United States could have been, a place where the raw toughness and talent of the American worker in league with a truly committed spiritual leadership and a loving woman overcomes the cabals of grift and greed. One of the finest pieces of cinema and a true contribution to culture.
posted by No Robots at 11:23 AM on January 22, 2022

I read a story somewhere once that when Arthur Miller finished “The Crucible,” he gave to to Elia Kazan to read. Kazan said it was a wonderful play and he’d love to direct it, and Miller said, “You really don’t get it, do you, Elia.”
posted by holborne at 9:42 PM on January 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

I came in to say exactly what Saxon Kane said about how groundbreaking Brando's performance was at the time. You've heard of the term "Method Acting" - that's another name for the kind of technique Brando was using, and at the time it was arresting and novel. Training in that technique can fuck you up big time (I was at the Lee Strasberg studio in college and I was a mess for a couple years after), but after seeing a whole lot of other classic Hollywood films and their cast's performances, and then seeing this, I viscerally got why it was so revolutionary back then.

I kind of hate this movie, because I think it's Kazan trying to write a narrative where throwing friends to HUAC was like Terry taking on the mob.

Oh, that's absolutely the comparison he was making. In the interest of giving Kazan as fair a shake as we can give - when he did testify to HUAC, he took pains to give them names of people he knew they already had; so ultimately HUAC didn't gain anything by his testimony. He also was disillusioned with the Communist Party by that point, who had also been pressuring him about 10 years prior. So to his mind, testifying was just a paperwork thing to get them off his back, and he was careful to not really get anyone in TROUBLE or anything.

But it was still hardly the black-and-white noble scenario he's depicted here, and he really romanticizes his own apologetic nevertheless, which is pretty icky.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:34 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

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