Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - On the Waterfront (#21)

The Favorites - On the Waterfront (#21)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. On the Waterfront (1954/USA/dir. Elia Kazan) appeared at #21 on my original list.

What it is • Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has it...okay. A former boxer whose potential was short-circuited by his loyalty to his mobbed-up brother Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry now "works" on the New Jersey docks but he's given cushy gigs by the grateful Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), boss of the crooked local. Johnny is grateful because when the film begins Terry is already a snitch and a stooge - but he's a snitch and stooge for the hoodlums who already run the docks, not those who want to clean it up. It's the latter possibility many find unpalatable; they are hard-wired to view informing as transgression only when it hurts the powerful. After his collusion results in the death of a friend (Ben Wagner), a guilty Terry begins to fall for the young man's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Both she and the hardbitten Father Barry (Karl Malden) prod Terry to "rat" on his protectors for the good of the workers, even though many of them will turn their back on him for his "betrayal." On the Waterfront is in many ways a small, focused film whose gargantuan reputation looms large over movie history. There are two major reasons for the film's notoriety. The first reason is the acting, particularly Brando's (though Steiger deservedly comes in for high praise too), which culminates and has come to define an era of shifting values in screen performance - tilting toward a kind of stylized authenticity rather than the polished sheen of the studio system's Golden Age: New York Method vs. L.A. star power. The second reason is that Kazan, so respected for his sensitivity in crafting believable performance, is slammed for articulating a generalized "defense of the informant" immediately after he himself identified eight Communists before HUAC. Skeptics duly noted the yawning gap between the powerful villains of the film and the beleagured leftists whom Kazan had actually betrayed. I can remember watching the Academy Awards broadcast in 1999 when a nearly 90-year-old Kazan received a lifetime achievement award and a huge swath of the audience refused to applaud - or even booed. The wound still felt fresh a half-century later.

Why I like it •
It would be interesting to organize this list chronologically not in the order that these films were released, but in the order I saw them (or maybe the order in which they became favorites, not necessarily the same thing). On the Waterfront very much belongs to my teenage years in the late nineties, when I was viewing a lot of American classics for the first time and was enamored of brooding antiheroes like Marlon Brando or Al Pacino. I was particularly taken with the texture of postwar black-and-white cinema, retaining some of the classicism of old Hollywood while breathing with a new, more naturalistic feeling (the film's real Hoboken locations are a palpable presence on the screen). Whenever I needed a monologue for some sort of acting exercise, I adopted the infamous "contender" monologue but I also paid attention to the film's quieter moments. Like everyone who's seen this movie, I noticed Terry's playful, absent-minded maneuver with Edie's glove, and thought that I had found a hidden moment! This sense of intimate discovery, making every viewer feel that his universal appeal is meant only for them, was something Brando specialized in. I was also aware the movie wasn't perfect, and that its explicit messaging alienated some critics who praised other aspects. One of my favorite film books of the time, The Great Movies by William Bayer, pointed out the stridency of some of the monologues and how Kazan, so sensitive when handling two characters, could fall into artificiality when herding large crowds of extras. Fair enough, though the film's tough-edged moralism and occasionally melodramatic grandiosity appealed to my adolescent Catholic ethos. Underlying any criticism, of course, was the complaint that the film was a thinly-veiled apologia for anticommunist informing. Now more than ever I find Kazan's self-righteous justification for his actions to be blinkered and wrongheaded. But I also think the film stands on its own, despite the dubious backstory (screenwriter Budd Schulberg named names as well, and the filmmakers saw this as an explicit response to their critics). On the Waterfront is a collection of memorable moments that ring true, in the service of a message that remains powerful whatever its misapplication.

More from me • Surprisingly, I don't seem to have ever written about the film before for this blog (except fleetingly, in reviews of other films) - not even when I covered "The Big Ones" in 2011. A clip is featured at 2:24 in "The Restless Fifties", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".

How you can see it • On the Waterfront streams on Hulu. It is available on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix and for digital rental/purchase from these sites.

What do you think? • Is this Brando's greatest performance - if not, what is? Does Kazan's history color the film at all for you? Do you find the ending plausible (the novel ends quite differently)?

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