On the Waterfront is one of those films that has transcended time and become a part of popular culture. Who hasn’t seen Marlon Brando’s famous moment where he tells his brother Charlie, “I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody Instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it. It was you, Charlie.” That heartbreaking moment when Terry Malloy confronts his brother Charlie over the paths their lives have taken has become one of the iconic moments in cinema history. Unfortunately, Marlon Brando became a bit of a punch line as his life drew to a close, but we need to remember that he was a power house of an actor in the 1950’s and 1960’s and films like On the Waterfront displayed his virtuosity as an actor.
Another reason that On the Waterfront is so iconic and has become a timeless classic is that it was of its time. That is to say that it was an important social commentary on what was happening to the working class of that time. People seem to look back on the 1950’s with a very Pollyanna point of view. We think of that decade as one of wholesomeness when the United States was some sort of Stepford utopia. However films like On the Waterfront took a totally different point of view as to what was going on with the working man and the conditions he was facing. This is a gritty film. There is no polish to it. There is no feeling good about what happens. Even the triumphant ending comes with a great cost. This film is in your face and forces you to take a hard look at who we are as a society and what is socially acceptable behavior. We see that making the choice to do the right thing is a lot harder than it should be and is rarely met with appropriate enthusiasm.
This is a story about Terry Malloy (Brando), a washed up prize fighter who now works as a longshoreman and is a stooge for the union. His brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) is the right hand man of the union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), and a long time ago, when Terry was on the verge of a shot at the title, Charlie had to tell Terry to take a dive because Friendly was taking the action on the underdog. Now Terry is nothing more than hired muscle for Friendly and Charlie, and he’s too much of a dope to see what’s really going on. That is, until he sees Doyle get thrown off a roof after he sent him there and he only thought that Friendly’s guys were going to lean on him. Friendly runs such a corrupt operation that no one dares speak up against him. In fact, he’s created a culture where ratting out a murderer is viewed more negatively than the murder itself. Doyle was killed because he was going to talk to the crime commission about the union’s corrupt practices, and the other dock workers figured that he had it coming since he was turning stool pigeon. Even Pop Doyle is reluctant to say anything that might get him in trouble with Friendly when he knows that Friendly is behind the murder of his own son.
There is one person who isn’t going to take this sitting down, and it’s Father Barry (Karl Malden). He gets some of the disgruntled workers together at the church, along with Doyle’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint in her film debut), but no one wants to stand up to Friendly. Charlie sends Terry to watch the meeting and report back, but Terry seems more interested in Edie. In fact, when some thugs come and break up the meeting, Terry gets Edie safely out of there. In the commotion, Kayo Dugan is beaten up and Father Barry convinces him to talk about the corruption and that he’ll be there with him all the way down the line. But word gets out that Dugan is talking to Father Barry and he meets with a fatal “accident” on the job. Father Barry administers Last Rights and implores the other men to stand up for themselves. His impassioned speech has an effect on Terry who is starting to crack. Even though he tells Edie that his philosophy on life is to get the other guy before he gets you, he’s starting to see that he’s being used as an instrument of Friendly’s corruption.
A subpoena is delivered to Terry because he was the last one to see Doyle alive and Charlie and Friendly both know if he’s going to be D & D (deaf and dumb) or a canary. Terry is starting to fall for Edie and the words that Father Barry is telling him make a lot of sense, so he’s caught between his loyalty to Charlie and Friendly and doing what he knows is the right thing. Concerned that Terry is going to rat on them, Friendly gives Charlie an impossible choice. Charlie picks Terry up and even pulls a gun on him to try and scare him into doing the right thing by Friendly. That’s when Terry has his iconic moment with Charlie, and Charlie, to his credit, does right by Terry for the first time in his life by letting Terry go and giving him his gun. Unfortunately that act of mercy costs Terry his life.
After seeing his dead brother, Terry is bent on avenging Charlie’s death the only way he knows how. But Father Barry has a better way. He tells Terry not to sink to Friendly’s level and to get him where it will really hurt, in the court room. This is where the conflict and the thematic elements of this movie come to a head. Terry does the right thing and testifies in open court about the corruption in the union. This is something that will make the lives of all the dockworkers better. But none of them see it that way. Their world is simple and it has simple, childlike rules. One of those rules is not to tattle, and Terry breaks it and is ostracized by everyone. Friendly tells him that he’ll never get another job on the docks from Boston to New Orleans, and none of the other longshoremen seem to have his back. Edie tries to get him to move away and get work on a farm or somewhere that Friendly can’t touch them, but Terry is going to make things right. He goes to the dock to confront Friendly, and Friendly’s men beat him to a pulp. This is where the other longshoremen finally see who is really on their side. They form a union against Friendly and stand up with Terry. Terry shows what real strength is and he goes from bum to leader of men.
There is so much going on in this film, it’s hard to imagine how directory Elia Kazan and screenwriter Bud Schulberg kept it all straight. They did a wonderful job of weaving an intricate and well developed story with multiple thematic elements and stirring and dramatic cinematography. This was a black and white film but the use of lighting in critical scenes was expertly used to heighten the drama and the suspense of what was going on in the story at that moment. What was most important, however, and what they did most effectively was to give Terry in inner need and an outer need that were in conflict with each other. As Terry becomes more involved with Edie and as he listens more and more to Father Barry, Terry knows that he has to testify against Friendly. In his heart of hearts, he knows he has to do that. The problem is that Friendly is his meal ticket, or so he thinks. Friendly makes sure that Terry gets the best assignments on the docks and his brother is Friendly’s right hand man. How can he possibly be disloyal to them? Add to that the culture of looking down on stool pigeons and it’s easy to see how anyone could become conflicted.
One of the things that makes it work so well is the Hero’s Journey motif that they used. Now, The Writer’s Journey was still 40 years away from being written, and I don’t know how much Kazan studied Joseph Campbell, but there are motifs at play in On the Waterfront that fit in well with the Hero’s Journey. First off is the structure of the story. Terry is the typical hero, as mentioned above, with a strong inner conflict. Terry’s Ordinary World is shown quite clearly that he’s not only a longshoreman, but also hired muscle for the union. He gets is Call To Adventure early on in the story when he’s asked by detectives from the crime commission to testify. He Refuses the Call by telling them that he doesn’t know anything and that he won’t talk to them. He Meets the Mentor who turns out to be Father Barry, who holds the archetype of mentor throughout the story. Terry Crosses the First Threshold when he starts to hang around with Edie, the sister of the man for whose death he is partially responsible. The Tests, Allies and Enemies phase of the story occurs as Terry starts to feel the inner conflict of whether or not to testify. The Approach has Terry in the car with his brother, which leads to the Supreme Ordeal of his brother’s murder. The Reward phase shows Terry drinking in Friendly’s bar with a gun, waiting for Friendly to show up so that he can have his revenge. The Road Back section of the story is Terry testifying in court against Friendly. The old Terry dies in this scene and the new Terry shows up in the Resurrection when he goes to see Friendly and he receives the vicious beating at the hands of Friendly’s thugs. The Return with the Elixir is when Terry survives the beating and earns the respect of the other longshoremen and leads them back to the job over the protestations of Friendly.
When you have a strong hero’s journey like this one, then you have the elements to make your story timeless, and that’s what happened here. Kazan was able to create a story that had strong structure, and from that structure he was able to effectively hang the subplots and thematic elements that made this film so great. It also didn’t hurt that he had Marlon Brando at the height of his acting prowess, despite the fact that Brando was dealing with the recent death of his mother. But Brando was just the tip of the iceberg that was the cast of On the Waterfront. This was a veritable who’s who of 1950’s character actors. All of them gave among the best performances of their respective careers and the great acting helped develop the great drama and tension the filled this film. All in all, the great storytelling, beautiful cinematography, inspired acting, and magnificent direction, combined to make On the Waterfront the movie of 1954 and one of the great American cinematic experiences of the 20th Century.
Did the Academy get it right?
Certainly a case could be made for The Caine Mutiny, but for whatever reason courtroom dramas are quite often bridesmaids and rarely brides with the Academy. They are often nominated, but rarely if ever win. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the type of show-stopping, big-budget musical that the Academy usually loves to reward, and is considered to be one of the great and most recognizable musicals of all time. However, the Academy went bestowed the award for Best Motion Picture to On the Waterfront, and it was the correct result. This is a film that ranks #19 on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies of all time and it was not only a great film for its day, but an important one as well. The Caine Mutiny and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are both fine films in their respective ways, but On the Waterfront went after social issues of economics and political corruption and presented them in a way that was dramatic and entertaining and riveting. It was an entertaining film and an important film and deserved to win Best Motion Picture for 1954.