The Film: 'On the Waterfront' (1954), Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Sometimes, a film's "classic" status becomes so overwhelming that you can't help but feel immature, ridiculous and entirely indefensible feelings of resentment toward it. I'm sure it's good. Yeah, I'll see it sometime. Eight Oscars? You know what else won that many Oscars? 'Out of Freakin' Africa.' I'm aware that it's a masterpiece. You've told me that about fifty times. Okay, fine. FINE. I'll see it. Sheesh.
Even before I watch a single frame of 'On the Waterfront,' I find myself faced with a dilemma: what else is there to write about this movie?
It's only a best picture winner. It's only one of the most quoted films of all time. It only features one of Marlon Brando's most famous and iconic performances. It's only cited as one of the Best Movies Of All Time by everyone who has seen it.
You know. Little things like that.
Every film writer worth his salt with access to a pen has written something about 'On the Waterfront.' People much smarter than me. People who are better writers. People who have seen more movies, read more books, lived more life and are better human beings in general. What the hell can I add to the conversation? I'm going into this one under the assumption that I'm going to love it and if it lives up to those expectations, what can I write? That Brando gives a stellar performance? That Eva Marie Saint is lovely? That director Elia Kazan may have been a scoundrel who sold out a lot of good people to the Red Scare, but man, he sure could direct a movie? It's all been said before.
Of course, if I don't like it, the ensuing uproar amongst my friends and colleagues would surely rip my personal universe asunder. I was emotionally browbeaten for a week following my less-than-glowing assessment of 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' -- what will happen to me if 'On the Waterfront' does nothing for me? So, for my sake, I kinda' have to like this movie.
Let's backtrack and isolate this to a single simple question: what purpose does reviewing older films serve? Why do my thoughts regarding 'On the Waterfront' matter, especially since I'll be working on a borderline gut reaction after a single viewing? I want to say that it's all about perspective. If what I'm doing here has any importance whatsoever (and it doesn't, so don't think I'm getting any delusions of grandeur), it's through the examination of how we react to films not only based on their content, but on their reputations and how they've aged.
A film that's good one decade may falter the next. A film may loom so large in our collective consciousness that it just doesn't live up to your expectations once you've seen it. Surely the truly great films are the ones that maintain their impact from generation to generation and manage to fill the shadow of hype that surround them at all times. There's only room for so many masterpieces -- sadly, some art simply fades away, because it must. Because there's simply not enough room. It is the duty of each generation to examine the work and the art of their predecessors and to decide what moves on and what gets left behind. How many old films have slipped quietly into memory while 'City Lights' and 'Metropolis' continue to impress? Those two films maintain their power. They're timeless.
And I'm going to go ahead and assume in advance that the same can be said about 'On the Waterfront,' but will that mean I'll simply have to regurgitate 56 years worth of observations that have already been made by a thousand film writers? Possibly. Probably.
Eh, who am I kidding? Yes.
As expected, 'On the Waterfront' is a tremendous film that should be watched by anyone who considers themselves a film lover. It's pretty much the standard Hollywood recipe for how to make a great film: take a great screenplay, add some great actors, let a great director stir the pot any way he likes and make sure the whole thing looks really nice. This seems like an obvious combination of ingredients, but you wouldn't know it. How many truly great films are out there, really? I'm talking about unquestionable masterpieces, not just movies that you're fond of. A couple thousand, perhaps? Out of the four to eight million movies (or so a two-minute Google search estimates) produced in the past century, that's a tiny slice of the pie.
The point is that 'On the Waterfront' is a great movie because it's a great story well told. Free of gimmicks and flash, it tackles a story that's grounded in true reality while elevating it just enough to make it worthy of cinema.
Surely you know the plot: Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a former boxer who threw a fight he should've won so mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) could win big on a bet. Now, he works on the docks, which are controlled by crooked union leaders who deal with problem employees by chucking them off rooftops or arranging for them to die in accidents. When Malloy meets Edie (the oh-my-god gorgeous Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a man he set up for murder, his pesky conscience decides to kick in.
Even if you don't know the plot of 'On the Waterfront,' you must be familiar with Brando's famous mini-speech to his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) a crooked mob lawyer who is trying to convince him at gunpoint not to testify against Friendly in court: "I coulda' had class! I coulda' been a contender! I coulda' been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." Everyone knows that one.
It's a tale of redemption in the face of unbeatable odds. Classic Hollywood. On the surface, the film's message of standing up for what you believe in is about as subtle as a brick through a window, but any potential preachiness is overwhelmed by by compelling storytelling and one of the greatest ensembles ever gathered for a film.
In a film filled with great scenes, two of them stand out. One is the above-mentioned scene between Brando and his brother in the car (a classic scene for all of the right reasons). The second is a scene where Father Barry (Karl Malden) preaches over the body of a murdered man on the dock, standing firm while mobsters watch from above, pelting him with objects, cutting him and drawing blood. The scene works because Malden sells the hell out of his speech, but it draws a fascinating comparison between his work and Brando's. Malden is Acting!, meaning that we can see the process, see the performance and admire the sheer craft of what he's doing. On the other hand, Brando, a consummate method performer, is simply acting, vanishing into a character, becoming as naturalistic as possible.
Brando's work, full of slurred lines and mumbles and odd little tics couldn't be more different than Malden's stage-trained, powerful voice and delivery. The differences between method acting and technical acting have never been more clearly contrasted, making the performances in 'On the Waterfront' a must-see for aspiring actors (Not that you asked, but in terms of great performances right now, I'd argue that Colin Firth in 'The King's Speech' is Acting! while James Franco in '127 Hours' is acting).
But we all knew that, didn't we? We all know how good Brando and Malden are. We all know how powerful the film is. What else is there to say?
Well, let's just take a peek behind the curtains, shall we? It's no secret that director Elia Kazan's career has been forever tainted by his naming names to the House Un-American Activities (itself a farcical, fear-mongering reaction to the Soviet Union), so much so that his receiving an honorary Oscar in 1999 was met with a great deal of scorn (the number of people who refused to applaud at the ceremony is staggering). No discussion of Kazan seems to be complete without this being brought up, a seemingly malevolent attempt to discredit the work of one of the great American directors by any means necessary.
There is no reason to bring this up when talking about 'A Streetcar Named Desire' or 'Gentleman's Agreement' -- his activities as a human being have no bearing whatsoever on the majority of his filmography. The artist may be a scumbag (although Kazan has his defenders and I will not be making a personal judgment here), but does that mean you should avoid the marvelous work he made? We're still in the midst of this same discussion regarding Roman Polanksi and I get the feeling that if we knew more about the personal lives of many famous filmmakers, we'd be talking about this more often than we already are.
However, 'On the Waterfront' is the one film where Kazan's life decisions should be talked about because they inform the entire film. Here's the story of a good man surrounded by crooks who threaten to ruin his life if he does that right thing and "rats" them out. Although everyone around him, from family to friends to colleagues, are opposed to him talking to the authorities, he does so anyway because it's the right thing to do. 'On the Waterfront' is not just a great story well told -- it's Kazan defending his potentially deplorable actions. It's him standing up for what he's done, saying that he was right and his detractors were wrong and that everyone else can go to Hell. Terry Malloy is Elia Kazan.
The film's moving conclusion, where a beaten, half-dead Terry stumbles across the docks, inspiring his fearful peers to take a stand, takes on a strange new meaning under these circumstances. Is it possible it disapprove of Kazan's real-life actions and still find the beauty and triumph in Terry's choice to take a stand? Once you realize that Terry is an avatar for Kazan, can you support his actions? If the central conflict at the heart of 'On the Waterfront' is a metaphor for naming names (pretty much the opposite side of the coin from Arthur Miller's anti-HUAC 'The Crucible'), can the film retain its power?
Yes. Kazan's touch, however potentially wrongheaded, lends a personal, deeply wounded feeling to the film. The source of these feelings may come from a dark place, but they inform the film's tone and impact. They allow the movie to hit hard and if you're able to separate reality from fiction, the ultimate impact is incredible.
In a century, will we still remember Kazan's decisions in 1953? Maybe not. Will we still remember the pain and remorse on Brando's face and in his voice when he says "I coulda' been a contender"? Most certainly.
Next Week's Column: Next week's entry will be the weird sci-fi flick 'Altered States,' directed by Ken Russell and starring William Hurt. If you're a regular reader, you should know the drill by now. Pick a film from the selection below and let me know in the comments below (or by Twitter). The film with the most votes will be the next entry!
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'Return to Oz'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'