Rod Steiger as Charley and Marlon Brando as Terry.
February 13, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
Our weekly mission to "revisit a revered motion picture ... to see if it holds up" sometimes yields surprising results. For instance: Weird Science, not so great these days. On occasion, however, we treat ourselves to a truly esteemed movie - yes, more esteemed than Weird Science! - for which 'classic' has become a universally agreed designation, even amongst those who haven't seen it. And so it goes for Elia Kazan's 1954 Best Picture winner On the Waterfront, which is also said to contain Marlon Brando's greatest ever performance. Could any production truly live up to such claims? Allow me to suggest On the Waterfront is one such 'classic' that holds up; a declaration that deserves only one, dismissive response: "No duh."
Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a failed boxer and desperate dockworker suspected of having played some part in the murder of a colleague. He refuses to rat the guilty parties out to the cops on account of the impoverished stevedores' unspoken agreement to protect the Mob; threatened, as they are, with the loss of their livelihood by those very criminals. As his romantic relationship with the victim's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), flourishes, his guilt builds to a crescendo. Spurred on by an idealistic priest (Karl Malden), he puts both his and his brother Charley's (Rod Steiger) life on the line by pledging to roll over on gangster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
Originally scripted by Arthur Miller - who refused to write the villains as Commies, as per the studio's request - it was eventually reworked by Budd Schulberg. Released just two years after Kazan notoriously "named names" to Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee, it's easy to imagine the director seeing himself in Malloy and relating to his ethical wrangling. On the Waterfront can be read as an apology - or perhaps a justification - of the director's controversial actions. Or perhaps it's wish fulfilment: Malloy may be a turncoat amongst the longshoreman, but he's an honourable one, and survives a vicious beating to finally earn recognition as a hero. To read the - otherwise stupefyingly stirring - last scene in isolation would suggest Kazan felt unfairly maligned for revealing his friends were associated with the Communist party. However, if we assume the feature is indeed an extended metaphor, can we read it's most famous sequence - in which Terry howls his regret over throwing a fight with the refrain, "I coulda been a contender" - as an anguished expression of guilt?
These questions and assumptions will linger for as long as On the Waterfront remains a beloved American film. Six decades later, it still feels relevant; perhaps, with the United States' economy in flux, it's as relevant now as it was in the 1950s. The script is wonderfully understated, while still allowing for a couple of rousing, haunting monologues. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman gorgeously realises each and every sequence in rich, occasionally shadow-strewn black-and-white. Though Brando collects the lion's share of the praise - and he is indeed as good as you've heard as the conflicted anti-hero - the entire once-in-a-lifetime cast meets the bar he sets. And the stewardship of Kazan, even during this time of personal and professional turmoil, is sublime. It doesn't quite get better than On the Waterfront.
On the Waterfront is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix Play.