As Elia Kazan’s defense of his decision to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee 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. Kazan went on to win Best Director, 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.
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
 That would be, in case you were wondering, the McCarthy Era.  The role was originally given to a young Frank Sinatra, who subsequently sued.  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.  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.