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Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront, the Best Picture winner for 1954, is an astonishingly good film, mainly due to the remarkable strength of the acting. Each of the film's five top acting roles were nominated for Oscars, with Marlon Brando winning Best Actor and Eva Marie Saint winning Best Supporting Actress in her film debut. Brando is superb as simplistic former-pugilist Terry Molloy, consigned to a life working on the docks under the careful eye of mobbed-up union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his right-hand man, Terry's brother Charlie (Rod Steiger).

Friendly runs a tight ship on the docks and only the men who put up with his cruelty and capriciousness get to work. All the longshoremen are required to adhere to Friendly's "D and D" policy, meaning they must be Deaf and Dumb where the Waterfront Crime Commission is concerned. The film opens with the murder of Terry's friend Joey, who had decided to talk to the commission. Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) teams up with the local priest (Karl Malden) to investigate the crime. Malden tries to break through the dock-workers fear in order to get to the truth, but the film shows that the men have good reasons to fear Friendly. Eventually, Terry, conflicted by his own unwitting role in Joey's death and the treacherous turn that made him a bum, will attempt to take down Friendly and the corrupt union.

The film has an aura of reality and believability that make it convincing. Apparently many of the extras were real longshoremen. Brando's performance is particularly good, indeed many have claimed it is the best male performance ever. Brando really inhabits his character's simplicity and his disgrace to be what he is. The scenes where Terry flirts with Edie are incredible. In one scene Edie drops her glove and Brando picks it up and instead of giving it back fiddles with it and then puts in on. It doesn't come across in writing, but on the screen it's so perfectly natural that you wonder how anyone ever thought to put that in the script. Then you read after that Brando improvised it after Saint dropped her glove in rehearsal and you realize the talent and genius of the man.

On the Waterfront has an interesting history behind it. Director Elia Kazan had controversially testified before the House Un-American Activites committee in 1952, where unlike many Hollywood players he had actually supplied the names of other Communists. Thus the drama here of whether to "rat" on people is presented in a such a way as to make Kazan himself seem like a heroic figure. The film was structured as a response to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which obviously took the opposite approach. (Interestingly, Miller worked with Kazan on a version of this movie, called "The Hook", before Kazan's testimony. The studio refused the film at the time, because Miller refused to turn the bad guys into Communists.)

It would be injudicious to regard the film any differently because of Kazan's testimony. Brando, who turned down the film at first because he didn't want to work with the director, was won over by the script's obvious quality. It is a great film, one of the greatest films, and I can't think of a single valid reason to give it anything other than a 10 out of 10.

Next? True Grit is arriving in my mailbox this afternoon.

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