On the Waterfront

Marlon Brando delivers one of his strongest performances here as Terry Maloy, the flawed hero of this riveting drama. Maloy and his brother Charlie were “bought” at an early age by local mobster Johnny Friendly, who tempted them with easy money and cushy jobs. Charlie went to college and became one of Friendly’s henchman, while Terry, more the physical type, trained to become a boxer. Yet his potential was wasted because of rigged fights and bets which forced him to lose. And now he’s one of the many poor slobs who work as longshoremen on the waterfront, sweating like pigs for almost nothing. They have to be part of an Union, but corrupted as it does, it doesn’t do much but suck their hard-earned cash from them. Some of the guys would like to take action, to go talk to the authorities, but that generally results in unfortunate “accidents”.

The movie is about how a cold, tough working man used to care only about himself grows to begin to wanna do the right thing. Maloy hates being called a bum, but he gradually realizes he behaves like one by rubbing shoulders with a priest who has the guts to leave his church and try to make a difference in the real world, and through his relationship with the sister of a righteous dock worker who was killed for his beliefs. The priest kind gives him a conscience (or at least makes him realize he has one), while the girl is maybe the first to ever show him kindness. It’s this support that might convince Maloy that he too can make a difference…

“On the Waterfront” was directed by Elia Kazan, who had already worked with Brando on the amazing A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan received a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Oscars, and controversy rose from the fact that he helped blacklist supposed communists in Hollywood during the McCarthy witch hunt. But his faults as a man don’t take away that he’s a brilliant filmmaker. This movie is near-perfect. It’s tense and evocative, it’s effectively paced and beautifully photographed, and it brings up important issues like why a majority of people can surrender to a minority of bad elements and stand silently while they’re being screwed. And then there’s the uniformly great cast. Karl Malden is very intense and earnest as the priest, Eva Marie Saint brings strength to the part of the girl Maloy falls for, Rod Steiger is interestingly nuanced as Charlie and Lee J. Cob is appropriately menacing and sleazy as hoodlum Johnny Friendly. Of course, the film belongs to Marlon Brando, undoubtedly one of the most gifted actors of all. Right from the start, he literally becomes his character. His delivery, his body language, everything is jut right. Brando is always riveting, and you’re really compelled to follow him through good times, bad times. His performance becomes even more powerful through the religious symbolism that lurks beneath the story, with Brando as an unlikely Christ figure with a sacrifice to make… “On the Waterfront” is definitively one of the great American movies.