Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/5/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront tells the story of a former boxer working for a mob-controlled dock until he decides to rebel with the help of a young woman and a priest. In this fight against the corruption, the boxer faces his demons and his past where he finds himself in more trouble with the mob. A film that rallies against authority, it is considered to be one of Kazan's greatest films as well as one of his best collaborations with Marlon Brando. Also starring Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and in her film debut, Eva Marie Saint. On the Waterfront is a powerful, engrossing drama from Elia Kazan and company.
A series of murders near the docks over resistance against a mob-connected union boss led by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Working for Friendly is a former boxer named Terry (Marlon Brando) and his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) as Friendly's lawyer. Terry does duties for Friendly but is unaware of what is the consequences when a young man named Joey Doyle was pushed off the top of a building to his death. While the police tries to investigate, the locals and those who work at the dock remain silent in order to not say anything against Friendly. Not wanting to be silent is Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) as she turns to local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) for help. Barry reluctantly decides to help the dock workers to speak out while Terry becomes smitten by Edie who he had a scuffle with over some tabs that she needed for her father.
Charley hears about a meeting held by Father Barry as Friendly wants Terry to attend the meeting. Barry reveals what he hopes to do as members of the mob storm in as Terry saves Edie from a beating. While Edie's father avoids a beating, Terry and Edie become close as she reveals that she wants to be a teacher. After learning that Terry has the same love for pigeons like Joey, she gets to know him more while asking questions about what he knew about Joey's death which he evades in order to give her a good time at a bar. When a couple of Friendly's men ask Terry to meet him, Terry reluctantly meets with Friendly and Charley as they know what Terry is doing with Edie. Especially as a man named K.O. Dugan is about testify until a supposed accident at a ship happened where Father Barry pleads his case to the people about standing up to Friendly. At the ship where Barry was talking about all that is going on were Edie and Terry who becomes tormented where he finally tells Barry what happened with Joey.
After finally confessing to Edie about the night of Joey's death, Terry is now targeted by Friendly as Charley decides to get Terry to stop talking. In hoping that Terry wouldn't talk anymore and get into trouble, he bribes Terry into taking a job where he wouldn't do anything but get paid. Terry refuses where he reveals all the potential he could've had as a prize fighter making Charley feel guilty as he decides to handle things with Friendly. Unfortunately, trouble comes ahead where Terry turns to Edie for help where something tragic would force Terry to stand up against Friendly but at a huge price until he decides to make a move that would please all of the dockworkers around him.
The film is a tale about a man who is forced to do things for his boss unaware of the consequences. Yet, around those who know what he is doing. He's been called a bum to the community for just taking money to lose fights or do things that he would be unaware of. Thus comes the world that Terry Malloy is surrounded by where his only moment of peace and comfort is to feed pigeons up on the roof where nearby is a pigeon coop that belongs to Joey Doyle. When Joey is killed because he was about to stand up against Johnny Friendly and his goons. Terry becomes tormented as it would take Doyle's beautiful sister and a hardened local priest that would be the people to say enough is enough.
In many ways, it's a film about redemption and standing up against the wrongs with the world. At the center of this story is Terry Malloy. A man who was forced to do things and then be tormented by all that's around him. Once he meets Edie, he tries to tell her about the way the world works but Edie isn't so easily swayed as she is determined to find justice for her brother's death. Even a man like Father Barry wants justice so there won't be any wrongs in the world as he approaches this resistance with a powerful presence where he would smoke a cigarette and get his hands dirty when it comes to confrontations. Yet, he's a man of great morals while he has a great monologue where talks about a man's death and how it impacts an entire community and those who work at the dock.
The screenplay by Budd Schulberg which is based from a series of articles by Malcolm Johnson about the dirty corruption that is going on in the docks from mob-controlled unions. The screenplay is filled with great dialogue, amazing development, and lots of heavy drama that goes on throughout the film. Yet, it's Elia Kazan's direction that really shapes the story into something far more powerful with its imagery and grittiness. Shot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, there's a beauty and ugliness to the location as Kazan doesn't sugarcoat it one bit. At the same time, the camera is engaging with its close-up of characters and the locations they're in. With striking compositions that are memorable, Kazan's direction is definitely top-notch. Even as he brings intensity to some heightened moments of action and drama, there's a theatricality to it that is quite intimate in some scenes as if the actors are performing in a theater. What Kazan does overall is create a film that is engrossing in every scene and performance that goes on as he makes a film that is truly solid.
Cinematographer Boris Kaufman is truly amazing in its black-and-white photography. Kaufman's photography is striking in some nighttime exteriors where everything is black and grey with white lights in the background to convey some kind of dark, eerie tone for those scenes. The daytime exteriors have a mixture of beauty and grittiness while it has amazing shots of the Hoboken docks. The interiors, notably the bar is filled with a brightness that is beautiful though something doesn't seem right once it's near the pool hall where it's dark. Kaufman's work is truly exquisite as it has some of the best photography work captured on film at that time. Editor Gene Milford does brilliant work in the editing with the use of fade-outs, fade-to-black, and rhythmic cuts to help capture the dramatic intensity of the scenes and moments of intense action. Milford's cuts are stylized but also straight-forward in its presentation as Milford's work is truly stellar.
Art director Richard Day does excellent work with the look of the film from the bars, the church, and the outside locations including the pigeon coops as the production of the film has a grittiness while making it look real for its Hoboken locations. The sound work of Jim Shields is wonderful for its location sounds including the clangs that goes on in the docks and all sorts of noises as it captures that gritty world of the Hoboken docks. The film's score by Leonard Bernstein is phenomenal from its somber yet swooning pieces in the romantic moments involving Terry and Edie to the more intense, sprawling arrangements of the action scenes that goes on. With a wonderful orchestra, Bernstein's score is definitely one of the film's highlights as it is truly memorable and one of the best scores ever made.
The casting is brilliant with small roles from Pat Hingle as a dock worker named Jocko, Thomas Handley as a boy named Tommy who helps Terry with the pigeons, Tami Mauriello as a thug of Friendly's, James Westerfeld as the dock supervisor Mack, Pat Henning as K.O. Dugan, and John F. Hamilton as Edie's father. Rod Steiger is excellent as Charley, Terry's older brother and Friendly's right hand man. Steiger has this presence where he could be the guy to get Terry to get his act together. Yet, underneath all of his tough guy exterior is a man wracked with guilt over the fact that he put Terry into this world of crime. Lee J. Cobb is phenomenal as Johnny Friendly, the no-holds-barred, hard-talking mob boss who wants to have total control of everything. Cobb's performance is just magnificent in his tough guy demeanor and that sense of authority as he's perfect in just being a hard-*ss who thinks he's the boss.
Karl Malden is brilliant as the tough but sympathetic Father Barry. A priest who likes to smoke and drink beer while being someone in the community that's not willing to be quiet. Malden's performance is just amazing in every scenes where he's soft-spoken but a man with a conscience and that can guide someone to do the right thing. His best scene is in the ship where he talks about a man's death and the monologue he brings with such authority and passion is definitely Malden's finest moment. In her film debut, Eva Marie Saint is great as Edie Doyle. A determined young woman seeking justice for her brother's death while finding the soft, caring side of Terry Malloy underneath his quick-talking, street-wise demeanor. Saint's performance is dazzling as a woman who is a bit tough but also who doesn't know much about the dark world of the streets as she has a lot going for her as Saint truly exemplify the complexity and warmth of Edie Doyle.
Finally, there's Marlon Brando in one of his iconic performances of his career. In the role of the tormented Terry Malloy. Brando exudes all of the charm, wit, and struggle of that character along with someone who is troubled by demons and the fact that people call him a bum. Brando's performance is filled with a tough guy attitude who can talk fast, be tough, and not be someone to messed with. Yet, there's a softness in him as he deals with guilt and the fact that there's someone like Edie who he wants to connect with. Brando has great rapport with all of his co-stars while he manages to make Terry Malloy an unlikely hero. What Brando brings to the screen is charisma and a vulnerability that makes him connect with the audience as he has one of the film's most famous lines in cinema about what he could've been. It's truly one of the most marvelous performances captured in cinema.
On the Waterfront is truly an amazing, engaging, and sprawling film from Elia Kazan featuring an iconic, sympathetic performance from Marlon Brando. Along with a great supporting cast including Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger. It's a film that is a must-see for those new to Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando as well as anyone looking for great cinema of the 1950s and American cinema itself. With some great dialogue, an amazing story, and characters that people can relate to. It's a film that is truly timeless as it still manages to hold up more than 50 years since its release. In the end, On the Waterfront is a brilliant and heroic film from Elia Kazan and star Marlon Brando.
Elia Kazan Films: (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) - (The Sea of Grass) - (Boomerang!) - (Gentleman's Agreement) - (Pinky) - A Streetcar Named Desire - (Viva Zapata!) - (Man on a Tightrope) - (East of Eden) - (Baby Doll) - (A Face in the Crowd) - (Wild River) - Splendor in the Grass - (America America) - (The Arrangement) - (The Visitors) - (The Last Tycoon)
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