Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Waterfront

Year: 1954
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 19
Writer: Budd Schulberg
Director: Elia Kazan
Star: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb

We’ve seen uplifting sagas like “On the Waterfront” hundreds of time before in the movies—there’s something so encouraging about seeing a flawed individual overcome tremendous odds in order to restore justice that it has become part of our consciousness. The AFI top 100 is filled with them, from “To Kill A Mockingbird” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and probably a dozen others. Stories like these are especially important today, where headlines like “Corporate Corruption” or “Bail-Out” are seen more often than sunny days in Los Angeles. We desperately want these greedy men and women, with their endless pockets and swarmy lawyers, held accountable for their actions, and the thought that an average joe like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) could overcome such vast odds gives us hope. Fleeting hope, but hope nonetheless.

“On the Waterfront” is a very good example of this type of film, with Terry beginning the film an enforcer for a corrupt union boss named (seriously) Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and ending the film a mouthpiece for the hardworking men and women of the union. There’s a dame who helps open his eyes to how wrong he has been (Eva Marie Saint), a priest who only wants to help (Karl Malden) and a familiar connection to the corrupt bosses in Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) being Johnny’s lawyer.

All of this reeks of cliché and, to a point, it can’t escape it. And yet writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan succeed in creating more depth here than other films of its type. Brando gets all the attention for his fascinating, multi-layered performance and he certainly creates a wonderful emotional anchor for the film. Terry, a former boxer, has always communicated best with his fists but, in this circumstance, is powerless to stop Johnny Friendly unless he uses his voice to indict him. He’s certainly not stupid, but he’s simple. He hates emotions and hates it even more when they begin to affect him. But he’s emotionally (there’s that word again) stronger than he seems, and his final, torturous walk that closes the film is rescued from eye-rolling because of how involved we are in Terry’s character.

With Brando so obviously shining, it’s easier to forget about the hugely talented ensemble who make the film more multi-layered than you expect. Kazan always filled his films with really interesting character actors, and “On the Waterfront” is no exception. Look at what Malden does with Father Barry, a thankless role that could have come across as one-dimensional dreck. Malden gives Father Barry an inner-strength and makes us know he is thinking, even in the scenes where he does not speak, and his savage indictment of the union bosses while standing over the body of his friend (and having eggs thrown at him!) is one of the high-points of the film.

Ditto for Steiger. When we first see Charley in the film we suspect we know what kind of character we’ll see, but then Steiger surprises us by veering away from cliché whenever possible. Everyone remembers Brando’s “I coulda been a contenda!” speech in the taxi, but that’s not the heart of the scene: It’s when Charley pulls the gun on his brother and then chooses to let Terry go even though he knows it is damning him.

Schulberg has a field-day with the dialogue here, which has all the zingers we’d expect from the best gangster villains, especially some early business about a canary, but the best line comes from Saint’s Edie to Father Barry: “What kind of saint hides in a church?” Much of Saint’s performance has sadly aged worse than the rest of the film, but her resilience in this early scene after the death of her brother still strikes precisely the right note. Most spectacularly, Schulberg gives Terry a voice that is never too slow and yet never too all-knowing. His final speech to Johnny isn’t an exquisitely thought out barn burner—it’s just a few simple lines screamed at Johnny that feel true to Terry’s character. That Schulberg didn’t feel the need to indulge what could have been a very dangerous ploy writers often concede to makes his script all the more successful.

If only Leonard Bernstein’s score for the film were as successful. For such an accomplished composer, the score here telegraphs every emotion far too much and is cranked up way too loud on the soundtrack of the film. In fact, the first five minutes of the film is almost torturous, with the music distracting almost completely from the dialogue and visuals.

Kazan made a career out of films that were about “something.” It never seemed to be enough for him to settle for a simple character drama or flashy thriller—there always had to be deep underlying morality plays or “big” questions that haunt viewers long after the film was over. He only has one other film on the AFI Top 100, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but has several other films that could or should be. To me, the biggest oversight is the lack of the masterpiece “East of Eden,” but also there’s “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Panic in the Streets,” “Splendor in the Grass” and the unfortunately-mostly-forgotten “Gentleman’s Agreement.” I’ve always felt that, at his best, Kazan represented the perfect meshing of attention to acting and visual pizzazz, instead of tipping toward one or the other.

“On the Waterfront” is, understandably, his most raw film, and because of that he allows the tone of the film to sometimes feel out of place. Most of the movie is a perfect meshing of gangster dramas and character ensemble, but at times (I’m thinking particularly here of the assault on the church) it tips over into unnecessary melodrama, especially considering how tonally reserved most of the movie is. But there are many moments here that a lesser filmmaker could have botched. Look at Terry’s final, bittersweet-yet-triumphant walk across the dock. A lesser film would just show him walking, but Kazan cuts to his warped point-of-view, showing just how difficult the walk is for him and just how triumphant the moment really is. Terry is, after all, a hero, but the magic of this film is that his heroism sneaks up on you.

My Score (out of 5): ****