d. Elia Kazan / USA / 108 mins.
Elia Kazan's powerful and groundbreaking film On the Waterfront opens with a burst of dramatic intensity (a man is thrown from a rooftop) and never lets up. It is indeed a rare film in its general sense of completeness – a total synthesis of remarkable performances, direction, photography, writing, and music that appears only in the truly memorable films of Hollywood, the likes of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Vertigo. Nearly everyone involved either won an Oscar or was nominated; out of eleven nominations, it took home eight, losing only in the categories of score and supporting actor (three from the film were nominated in that category and it is estimated that they essentially split the vote).
Even if you know nothing of On the Waterfront, you probably know Marlon Brando in the film. He is often credited (along with James Dean) with revolutionizing male character portrayals with rawness, masculine vulnerability, and pure kinetic energy. No performance from his fruitful early career is better than his turn as Terry Malloy, a worker caught in the machinery of a corrupt longshoremen's union, torn between opposing forces of moral obligation to himself and an external sense of loyalty. The film's most famous moment – Malloy's "contender" speech – has become pervasive in our culture not only because it's easily quotable but because Brando delivers it with such conviction and emotion. It's unfortunately rife for parody and sometimes sold short; taken out of context, the speech is perhaps an easy target for mockery, but within the movie it's an absolutely heartbreaking moment.
Brando steals the movie, but the supporting performances all buttress his, starting with Eva Marie Saint (Grace Kelly had turned down the role, giving Saint her big-screen debut and an Oscar). Her character Edie is every bit as charged and broken as Terry, and her unwavering moral compass and clarity make her a wonderful foil to the ambivalent Terry. The three men who earned supporting actor nominations all play tremendous roles: Lee J. Cobb as the head of the longshoremen's union, who has evident ties to the Mob; Rod Steiger as Terry's brother, the man who pulled strings for Terry and now urges him to stay quiet on the union's corruption; and Karl Malden as a patient and determined priest, counseling those who know to come forward.
Behind the camera the team is equally strong. Boris Kaufman's black-and-white cinematography is evocative. Leonard Bernstein composed the film's heavy and moody score, one of his only forays into pure film scoring. Budd Schulberg's screenplay was rooted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning reportage of a investigative journalist at the New York Sun; the story is densely layered, dabbling both in post-war realism and traditional gangster genre.
As for Kazan: it's often said he made this movie in defense of his "naming names" during the Red Scare before the House Un-American Activities Committee, as if to suggest that there is nobility in raising your head high and ousting corruption as you perceive it. In Kazan's case, he was a devoted progressive who legitimately thought communism was a destructive force within both liberal politics and Hollywood. He suffered alienation after his testimony but also grew more defensive of his decision.
It's surely up to the viewer to determine if his analogy withstands intellectual scrutiny – personally I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced, and neither was playwright Arthur Miller – but regardless of what you believe, it's difficult to deny Kazan's passion spilled forth into every aspect of making the movie. He is on the record as saying, "Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.''
Agree with his viewpoint or not, it's deniable that On the Waterfront benefits from Kazan's fury and determination for perfection. The result is one that easily ranks among my favorite films. It's one of Hollywood's masterpieces and certainly the ultimate fight-against-corruption film.
21 August 2008
d. Elia Kazan / USA / 108 mins.