Director Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT is a monumental drama with standout performances from Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Steiger.
I was so happy to see ON THE WATERFRONT pop up in the TV schedule recently. I hadn’t seen this absolute classic film for a number of years but watching it again, all my memories of its wealth of outstanding scenes and standout performances came flooding back. I found myself being gripped anew with this 1954 multi-Oscar-winning story of an ex-boxer fighting against the corruption he sees on the New York docks.
Terry Malloy (surely the great Marlon Brando‘s finest Oscar-winning performance) still dreams of getting back in the ring and making a name for himself as a prize-fighter. But he currently spends his days tending his racing pigeons and running errands for Johnny Friendly (a brilliantly smooth and chilling Lee J. Cobb), the boss of a local dockers union in New York. One of those errands involves setting up a meeting with one of the dockers, Joey Doyle, on the roof of his tenement building. But when Terry arrives, he sees from below that two of Friendly’s thugs are already there and suddenly Joey falls to his death.
Although people initially seem to believe that Joey slipped and fell, Terry and a number of people from the neighbourhood know he was murdered on Friendly’s orders because Joey was about to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission about the conditions in Friendly’s union. The connection that Terry had to Joey’s death weighs heavily on him and he starts to find the methods used by Friendly and his gang – which includes his older brother Charley (a wonderfully conflicted Rod Steiger) – to be hard to stomach.
That connection also brings Terry into contact with Doyle’s sister, the beautiful Edie (one of the best feature film debuts ever by Eva Marie Saint and rightly the winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and the local priest Father Barry (the terrific Karl Malden). And so Terry’s path to redemption – and hero status – begins and it will have you mesmerised until the movie’s wonderful final frames.
Everything in this movie is perfect though, from Kazan’s understated direction to Budd Schulberg’s beautifully sharp script from his own story, which was inspired by the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Sun expose of the killings and extortion on the New York waterfront. Both Kazan and Schulberg, of course, won Oscars – part of the 8 the film was rightly awarded. I must also mention Boris Kaufman’s exquisite and Academy award-winning black and white cinematography which give a kind of raw, documentary feel to proceedings.
And there are those classic scenes – Terry and Edie walking in the park where she drops her glove, and the tense back of the taxi cab scene between brothers Charley and Terry which contains the now-iconic lines,
“You don’t understand. 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.”
Wow. But really there are so many other scenes in the movie that dazzle and move you.
‘It walked away with just about every award there was – and it still could!’
How true one of the taglines to the film is even today. ON THE WATERFRONT is a timeless drama with acting to match. You just have to see it.