Kazan's life had been changed forever due to his controversial decision to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Not only did Kazan testify about his own prior ties to the Communist party, but he named other people in the industry who had been members at one time. Those he named were then subject to blacklisting, while Kazan was able to continue working in Hollywood. Many within the industry thought that Kazan's actions were reprehensible, and maybe to an extent they were, but Kazan believed his testimony was appropriate and was very outspoken publicly in his defense. Kazan met Budd Schulberg who had undergone a similar experience on the New Jersey docks, and had written a screenplay based on that experience. The two men's stories converged into one and served to create the dynamic cinematic conflict that allowed for rich and textured characters.
The film is gritty, dark, inspired directly by Italian Neo-realism and to a lesser extent by film noir. Kazan shows the filth of the waterfront without shame, complete with the weathered buildings, the dirty alleyways, and the brutal cold. The actors he uses as longshoremen aren't the typical smiling faces of Hollywood productions. Instead they are scraggy, gritty, coarse faces and they behave unlike actors in other Hollywood films. They are the types of people one would expect to encounter when wandering into a blue-collar working atmosphere.
Unlike the workers, the gangsters are glamorous in dress and behavior. They wear three-piece suits and have carefully groomed haircuts. Their faces may be rough, like the laborers, but they maintain the composure and polish of a Wall Street executive. The gangster's position on the waterfront is established with the opening shot that shows a colossal ship in the background, with a small, dilapidated shack in the foreground, a fraction of the ship's size. Out of the shack walks a handful of gangsters, dwarfed by the scale of the ship. This contrast communicates visually how much power they really have. They are the Davids with an army of Goliaths under their control. The contrast between the corrupted leaders compared with the helpless workers creates the ideal visual stage for the trials of Terry Malloy.
Plenty has already been said about Brando's performance, deservedly so, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest performances ever in film. The character of Terry Malloy, however, often seems to be forgotten in the praise. Malloy is a man torn in many directions. His real brother, Charlie, is in charge of the waterfront, while the other gangsters are his adopted family. He feels a tremendous amount of loyalty to them, and will often turn a blind eye to any actions he doesn't agree with. The murder that sets the films narrative into motion is the one action that he has trouble forgetting, partly because he is an ignorant participant. He is pulled by his guilt, which is further inflamed by his attraction for Edie, the victim's sister. He is torn by the conviction of the priest. played by Karl Malden, who is trying to clean up the waterfront by inciting people to do something about their situation, regardless of the cost. Malloy is hesitant and scared to act, because he knows the consequences for revealing what he knows.
Terry Malloy is not a larger-than-life character. He is the everyman, average, with the best years of his life behind him. Everyone can relate to his regret and to his longing for something better and one can't help but admire, even idolize his sensitive side. Who couldn't love a former boxer so compassionate that he tends to pigeons? He is one of the more likeable people anyone could meet.
The most memorable scene of the of the movie is without question the scene in the taxi cab between Terry and his brother Charlie, played so eloquently by Rod Steiger. The scene is powerful on its own, but it is the pivotal emotional point in the movie, the final letting go after all the conflict that precedes it, the vocalization of everything pent up between the two brothers (mostly Terry) throughout their lives. Everything that motivates Terry's apprehension and self-doubt is finally revealed. He "could have been a contender"; he "could have been somebody." He blames his brother's ambition as he repeats "it was you Charlie." The chemistry between those two actors in that cab was nothing short of magic.
The cab scene is the most well known example of Brando's performance, but he is near perfect throughout the film. His scenes with Edie are terrific, where he first shows his sensitive side, hidden underneath the hardened exterior. These scenes are not just an inspiration for actors, but human beings in general. This is the type of performance that grabs a hold of someone and challenges them to become a better person, to be more forthcoming, to express themselves, to do things they would be proud of. Brando is the most celebrated performance, but the entire ensemble is extremely powerful. Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and Lee Cobb all deliver expertly. They all seem to draw from Brando, and elevate his performance in return, creating several electrifying character moments.
The theme of the film is obvious. In fact, if On the Waterfront can be criticized for anything, it is for going overboard, for being a little too obvious and maybe a little preachy. The basic theme of the story is heroism, for standing up for what one believes, and for trying to change things for the better. Whether that is rampant communism, corruption on the docks, or unfair labor practices, the message is clear and profound. On the Waterfront is about taking a stand in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition, as Kazan did, regardless of the criticism and ridicule one will receive.
Malloy stands up for what he believes in and people hate him for it. This is most evident by the reaction of the boy who had kept up the pigeons with Terry. The boy reacts with anger and cruelty, but the look on his face when confronted by Terry is pure anguish. The boy looks scared, dejected, and he feels personally insulted by Malloy's testimony, which causes him to lash out in response. This reaction is likely very similar to how people treated Kazan after he gave up his friends. The hostility towards Kazan, embodied by the young boy, persisted even fifty years after the HUAC hearings when Kazan won an honorary Oscar. We can only imagine how intense it was during the politically sensitive time.
On the Waterfront works because it was created by people who had lived through the real thing. The ideals presented by Kazan and Schulberg were theirs alone and most likely consumed them every day for the rest of their lives. Their experience, their conviction, and their resolve became the canvas for a film that will forever be remembered as a masterpiece.
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