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DVD Review: On the Waterfront

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As Elia Kazan’s defense of his decision to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee[1] and “name names,” On the Waterfront is a deeply personal film about finding your priorities and convictions and having the courage to stand up for them. It is a heartfelt, moving piece of art, a gem of the cinema that contains one of the all-time great performances. It is at the same time misguided, despicable, and utterly classless. Such is the duality of art.

Some back-story: Kazan (as well as Schulberg, who wrote the script) briefly flirted with communism back when everyone flirted with communism, came to believe it to be an evil that needed to be defeated, testified to the committee as to his involvement and the involvement of people he worked with, and made this film to justify that decision. His testimony helped blacklist fellow filmmakers who had done little more than attend protest rallies and meetings, effectively ruining careers and lives. This action so disgusted the film community that he felt it necessary to defend his actions, and even managed to convince Brando (who was “sickened” by Kazan’s testimony) to star in the film[2]. Kazan went on to win Best Director[3], one of the film’s 8 Oscars.

Since Kazan made no secret of his motives, it would be foolish, if not irresponsible, to ignore them when examining the film. Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who helps mob leader Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) have his friend killed in order to prevent his testimony. With the help of a priest (Karl Malden) and his friend’s sister (Eva Marie Saint), he comes to see the corruption and finally decides to testify himself after his own brother is killed. He successfully helps destroy Friendly and the union is able to get their rights back. Essentially, his testimony helps destroy evil men that are controlling lives, keeping people silent, and running the waterfront apart from any sort of lawfulness.

By all accounts, these are evil men. They do no work, give cushy jobs to their friends, and have no problem killing people who step out of line. They are not working class. And Terry’s testimony helps destroy them. It is an effective metaphor, albeit a fundamentally flawed one. Kazan, in his testimony, did not bring down Johnny Friendly, but rather the innocent working men who attended the labor meeting in the basement of the church. But these are innocent men hopeful for a better way of life, not corrupt union leaders. Kazan’s film, meant to be his defense, is in many ways his prosecution. Of course, Terry does the right thing in the end, but that is not what Kazan did.

It’s ironic that one of the goals of the socialist movement was to eliminate the poor working conditions in places like the waterfront, where men aren’t guaranteed a day’s wages and safety is not a concern. Terry Malloy does more for the socialist movement in On the Waterfront than Kazan’s testimony could ever undo.

Political theory aside, there is no denying that the testimony of men like Kazan ruined the lives of innocent, hard-working men like the longshoremen of On the Waterfront, and for that there is no suitable defense.[4]

As for the film itself, it is a fantastic piece of pure cinema. Brando’s performance is perhaps the most influential in film history, and not just for the famous “I coulda been a contender” scene. The brilliance of the scene comes in the little things, the way he gently pushes away Charlie’s gun or handles Edie’s glove. He has that famous Brando intensity and brutality, but at the same time is sensitive enough to break into tears when his pigeons are killed. It is a complicated, layered performance, but it is also the type of performance that broke a lot of the “rules” of film acting. You can see it in nearly every scene he’s in. He’s truly a revelation.

I’ve probably seen On the Waterfront five or six times, but only once knowing all the backstory. For a long time, it has been a film I’ve admired for its greatness (and Kazan for his direction, which is nothing short of amazing) and have always considered to be in that upper echelon of cinema along with Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), Dekalog (1989), and The Godfather (1972, 74). At the same time, my personal distaste for the McCarthy hearings and those who participated is as strong as it is for any sequence of events in American history. It is, let’s say, a difficult thing to reconcile and makes this review a difficult one to write. But we do what we must. Can it be possible to both love and hate the same film? Honestly, I don’t yet know.

starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Eva Marie Saint
written by: Budd Schulberg, from the articles by Malcolm Johnson
directed by: Elia Kazan
NR, 108 min, 1954, USA

[1] That would be, in case you were wondering, the McCarthy Era.

[2] The role was originally given to a young Frank Sinatra, who subsequently sued.

[3] There’s really no way to tell if the Academy was willing to look past Kazan’s motives or if they were still scared to McCarthy’s wrath. When Kazan was awarded an Honorary Oscar several years ago, a large portion of the audience refused to stand and applaud, in protest of his testimony.

[4] Full disclosure: if you haven’t figured it out already, I have a great deal of distaste for those who “named names”. One of my heroes is Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, and were I working in Hollywood during the 1950’s, I would likely have been one of the names on Kazan’s list and I would have had no intention of helping the Russians take over.

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About Lucas McNelly

  • Scott Butki

    I may have missed this but how did you choose which 100 movies to review?
    I went through and used the Ameriacn Film Institutes 100 most influential movies list/book and read and reviewed each of those a few years ago.

    Brando is amazing in Waterfront – to see that is to understand why he is still so well regarded despite making a spate of clunkers before he died.

  • Bliffle

    Lucas: “…the line “briefly flirted with communism back when everyone flirted with communism” is meant to be somewhat poetic. Obviously not everyone did, but back then a great number of people did, especially artists. It was not, prior to McCarthyism, considered unusual or anti-American or any such thing.”

    No, you’re wrong. From the time of the Revolution most US citizens viewed the communist government of Russia as illegitimate and dangerous. And that goes double for the communist presence in the US. We immediately switched our attention to the communist danger after VE day and VJ day: McArthur knew full well that he had the backing of the american people when he responded to the communist demand for half of Japan with the threat of ABombs. In ’48 there was a vigorous widespread demand for a pre-emptive bombing of Russia (with ABombs) before they became a threat.

    Why do you say such things? Were you there? I was. Or is it just convenient to so retrofit your theories with bogus invention?

    “As for your other comments, they read like a Fox News Op-Ed piece,…”


  • mg

    thanks for your respnse to my comment. in kazan’s book he doesn’t state why miller pulled out, but does say he threatened to sue if kazan went ahead with the film. i guess that never happened. rumor has it that miller dropped the whole thing in exchange for kazan not giving his name. who knows?

  • the line “briefly flirted with communism back when everyone flirted with communism” is meant to be somewhat poetic. Obviously not everyone did, but back then a great number of people did, especially artists. It was not, prior to McCarthyism, considered unusual or anti-American or any such thing. It took the American propaganda machine to affix those labels.

    Kazan didn’t begrudgingly (sp?) tell what he knew in the sort of “but I don’t want anyone getting in trouble…” way. He named names fast and furious and many of them had no basis in fact. A great number of innocent lives were ruined as a result. There’s no honor in that.

    As for your other comments, they read like a Fox News Op-Ed piece, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

  • Bliffle

    “Some back-story: Kazan (as well as Schulberg, who wrote the script) briefly flirted with communism back when everyone flirted with communism,…”

    Not so. Not everyone. Not even most people. Not even many people. Union organizers of the 20s and 30s, etc., were conciously anti-communist and recognized that the CPUSA was dominated by Moscow and was the servant of Soviet imperialism. In fact, most people knew that, whether they were pro or anti union.

    It was mostly “intellectuals” such as writers and authors and such who flirted with communism. Filled with their own expanded egos, they deemed mere unionists ill-equiped intellectually to make decisions on behalf of the kind of lumpen-workers that writers themselves declined to associate with. The brainy writers, it turns out, were more easily duped by the fancy words and linguistic trickery of soviet agents than mere plumbers and carpenters.

    One would think that any sensible person would be cautious of the ideas and judgements of a writer who, after all, is paid for the efficacy of his lies and fictions. And that goes double for any actor who is paid to convincingly enunciate the fictions and lies of other, unseen, people.

    The utter corruption of the “intellectuals” was clear to most US citizens when those smartasses employed every cavil to attempt to defend the Moscow show trials (at the behest of soviet agents controlling the CPUSA).

    Besides that, it is dishonorable to attempt to exculpate oneself with the adolescent excuse “everybody’s doing it!” that all parents are familiar with, and which every parent has a duty to refute. Most do. Some don’t, and the result is GWB’s whiney “everybody thought Iraq had WMD”.

    What Kazan did was honorable: he told the truth about what people said and did. For that he was made an Enemy Of The People by the conspiracy-drenched entertainment industry.

    None of this mitigates the fact that Joe McCarthy was an egotistical maniac who commandeered a senate committee that was formed for relatively benign fact-finding purposes (with no prosecutorial power), that was commandeered by the Far Right and subsequently provoked by the Far Left (led by the soviet-controlled CPUSA). Thanks to these twin idiots some ordinary folks thought they had to choose between two extreme ideologies and some made Really Bad choices: don’t be one of them.

  • The thing is that Miller pulled out partly due to Kazan’s testimony and partly because the studio wanted the villains of “The Hook” to be communists.

    As for On the Waterfront, from Wikipedia: “It is seen by many as a jab by Kazan at his former close friend, Arthur Miller, who along with Lillian Hellman was bitterly and openly resentful of Kazan’s “betrayal” of film artists to the HUAC as communists. Specifically, it may be a direct response to Miller’s The Crucible, about a heroic New England Puritan who chooses to die rather than make false accusations of witchcraft. On the Waterfront, being about a heroic mob informer, is widely considered to be Kazan’s answer to his critics.”

    Kazan has never hid the fact that On the Waterfront was an answer to his critics. Some have speculated that part of the reason it won so many Oscars was because a lot of the Academy voters wanted to feel justified in whatever actions they may have taken. In a situation like this, it’s irresponsible not to mix art and politics. Kazan was a brilliant director who did some horribly vile things to people close to him and made a film to justify those actions. To forget that is to view On the Waterfront as an entirely different film.

  • mg

    mr. mcnelly’s review of the film is quite interesting, but arthur miller and kazan had a project called “the hook” before kazan’s testimony, so the film was not made entirely for the purpose of redeeming himself. he did admit in his autobiograhy that he used the film to justify his actions and your analogy to the contrary is correct. “the hook” was to be a story about the waterfront and the screenplay was finished. it was never made. then schulberg wrote it and it became the famed film. let’s not confuse art and politics -kazan was a great director, even if not a great humanitarian.

  • I really enjoyed your review. I’m a pretty conservative guy in many ways, definitely not a socialist, but I enjoy reading about how great cinema can deeply touch those of all political persuasions, even if they process some of the material differently.