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On the Waterfront (1954)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A crusading indictment of corruption and those who, by keeping silent, abet such acts, On the Waterfront impresses through all-round superb performances. In the New York docks, the Union is all-powerful. A handful of crooks, led by the misnamed Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), hold workers and owners alike in a strangulation grip. If you're on the inside, like the brothers Terry (Marlon Brando) and Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger), then life is sweet. Kickbacks, bribes and cushy watches await. This edifice is, however, built upon the principle of divide-and-conquer. If someone causes Friendly trouble then his goons separate this unlucky mark from the herd, like lions hunting on the African plain.

Thus when Jimmy Doyle (Arthur Keegan) decides to co-operate with the harbour police, he's singled out for punishment, made an example for all to see. It seems that this is a depressingly familiar scenario. There's plenty of remorse for the young victim but precious few words for the investigating cop, even from the boy's father "Pop" Doyle (John Hamilton). Only his sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), fresh from an out-of-town school, declaims against the wall of silence. Distinguishing Father Barry (Karl Malden) for his complicity, Edie refuses to quieten down and accept the inevitable. In a single act of, perhaps unwary, defiance, Edie catalyses a chain of events that will threaten Johnny's empire.

As the numerous struggles (over morals, power, conscience and love) that impel On the Waterfront play themselves out, its many levels of meaning shift in and out of focus. Sometimes even within the space of a single shot, Elia Kazan's direction ensures that several bases are hit in succession. Reflecting the endlessly creeping sands of peoples' emotions and loyalties, this fluidity gives the film an enclosing sense of reality. Yet beneath this motion a single foundation persists, an argument over the pros and cons of being an informer. Without passing judgement Kazan draws out both sides of the issue, showing how both are right and both are wrong (an impressive trick!).

On the Waterfront explains how it's fundamentally right to break the group silence in a situation like this, even if you seem to be ratting on your friends. To be at peace within yourself you must tell the truth, heedless of consequence. Yet it's all very well for the harbour cops to ask someone to talk, since it's not their lives that are going to be ruined; they won't be ostracised, victimised and probably murdered for speaking out. This is where Budd Schulberg's script really impresses. It becomes painfully clear as to why someone wouldn't want to testify, simply because the cost is too high, and it wouldn't be their fault. Not everyone is cut out to be a hero. Some folk have learnt, in the spirit of self-interest, to look away and forget what they've seen. On the Waterfront has it both ways.

When On the Waterfront comes up in discussion, it's usually Brando's performance that comes to be praised above all else. This is not undeserved. Brando achieves incendiary heights, constructively interfering dialogue and character to amplify the sum. His interpretation of Terry is natural and honest. We come to see how Terry isn't a bad person, he's just misguided and confused, the outcome of falling into the wrong crowd. Without dipping into psychobabble, ever since leaving the orphanage Terry's been used, without realising it, even by his brother. Yet Brando couldn't achieve so much without Saint, who emotes wonderfully. A great conflict ignites between them, the consequence of North and South spirits; he's hardened to the docks, unshakeable in his belief that you should look after yourself, while she's receptive to the humanity in everyone and possessed of a naive belief in basic goodness. On the Waterfront conflates these two points-of-view, coming up with something that functions in the real world.

Unfortunately while the story's themes are timeless, the execution has lost relevance. In an era of Goodfellas and The Godfather, Johnny's tactics are unimpressive; while they're extremely unsubtle and quite effective, the level of violence and intimidation seems all wrong. You'd expect Terry to be snuffed out like a candle, yet he gets off lightly compared to the punishment meted out to others. Even worse, the ending of On the Waterfront grates against the remainder of the film, being overly optimistic given the herd-like behaviour prevalent elsewhere. Life isn't this straightforward and the finale is too easy, considering the power of the Mob.

Still On the Waterfront is a powerful testament to the potential within us all, the leader within the follower. As photographed by Boris Kaufman and edited by Gene Milford, the NY piers and tenements loom depressingly, pressing down on the families trapped in this dockside ghetto. Terry's love of pigeons is only too easy to comprehend. Leonard Bernstein's score is good, if occasionally a little intrusive. The moment where Brando's desperate explanation gets drowned out by a ship's horn is a masterpiece. All in all Kazan's On the Waterfront is a gripping drama, flipping one of New York's most repulsive toads onto its back.

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