November 10, 2014
On the Waterfront (1954)
Grade: 86/100

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden

What it's about. The longshoreman's union is led by despotic Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and fellow murderous thugs such as Charley (Rod Steiger). Dense former prizefighter Terry (Marlon Brando), Charley's brother, is used as a heavy by the union.

Terry inadvertently precipitates the murder of a potential Federal witness against the union. The Feds focus on Terry, and so does heroic priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) and hottie Eva Marie Saint. The latter inevitably becomes Terry's love interest while she pursues justice for those who murdered her brother.

How others will see it. On the Waterfront was the high water mark for Kazan's career. The movie won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and, perhaps undeservedly, Best Supporting Actress for peroxide beauty Eva Marie Saint.

Also nominated, for the same Supporting Actor Oscar, were Cobb, Malden, and Steiger, but they apparently split the vote. In 1989, On the Waterfront was part of the inaugural cluster of films added to the National Film Registry, along with even more famous movies such as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Gone With the Wind.

Today at, On the Waterfront has a lofty user rating of 8.3 and an impressive 80K user votes. Women over 45 grade it a slightly lower 7.5 out of 10, perhaps suspicious of the scene where Terry breaks down Edie's door and grabs her. In 1954, apparently, No Means Yes.

A small minority dislikes the movie because its director, Elia Kazan, testified at the Congressional Communist witch hunt hearings, and named names, albeit only those already known to the committee. Those who believe Kazan should have been blacklisted instead invariably seem willing to the major studios a pass, even though they implemented the blacklist. If you boycott Kazan movies, then you should boycott every 1950s film distributed by a major Hollywood studio.

How I felt about it. The characters are blatantly divided into good and evil. By 1954, cinema had progressed beyond black clothing for villains, and white garb for heroes. But there is no doubt who falls into which category. The union leaders are corrupt, cynical, and murderous, with Johnny Friendly the worst in the bunch because he is the top man. Essentially, they are gangsters.

In contrast, the heroes (the priest and Edie) are completely courageous and virtuous. There are only a few characters that straddle the fence between good and evil. Terry transitions from the latter into the former, but we know he is a good guy all along. He just has bad company. Perhaps the same can be said for Charley, who doesn't flinch when evil impacts others, but sacrifices himself once it comes close to home.

In particular, the characters of Father Barry and Johnny Friendly are exaggerated. Eva Marie Saint is also too good to be true. Kazan gets away with this due to expert casting: Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb are perfect for their roles, and we enjoy them hamming it up so much that we don't care that real-life counterparts could not exist.

In fact, the secret of Kazan's success is in the casting. Not just the major roles either, small roles are filled with future famous actors, making their feature debut here: Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, Pat Hingle, and Michael V. Gazzo (The Godfather, Part II. They had the "look" for their parts, and the same can be said for two dozen other minor roles filled by actors who never crossed over to stardom.

Acting and casting are the film's two biggest strengths. The drab sets, such as the rooftop coop and the waterfront, are also very good. But the score is sometimes intrusive, and the story can be difficult to believe.

For example, there was no need to murder Charley. Their car should have been followed, or the cabbie armed, to kill Terry. But murders, in general, are a truly bad idea. They are certain to bring the heat on to the union, and turn a ten-year prison stint for paybacks into a date with the electric chair.