After watching the Criterion print of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), I was surprised to discover that Kazan made the film as a quasi-mea culpa for having testified against eight supposed Hollywood Communists at Senator McCarthy’s Congressional witch hunt. Kazan greatly loathed Communism, apparently, and believed he was doing something for the greater good by ratting on his friends, although he later regretted his testimony after receiving much dire criticism. I don’t have much of an opinion on Kazan’s politics some 60 years after the movie’s release and, frankly, I don’t think this bit of learned information does anything to change my feelings about the film, but I do believe it gives a little more insight into the behavior of its central hero, Terry Malloy. Regardless of Kazan’s intentions, On the Waterfront is one of the great moviegoing experiences. At its core is a subtly powerful and oft-imitated performance by Marlon Brando as Terry, a weary ex-boxer turned longshoreman who finds himself on the horns of a dilemma when he’s asked to give testimony against the mob that’s taken over his local union. This is widely considered Brando’s greatest screen performance, although I’d posit that his brutish and sensual Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is better; Kowalski is a more dynamic character, I think, a little deeper and more richly textured. But that’s all about splitting hairs: by the time Brando utters his famous “I coulda been a contender” line, you understand why Martin Scorcese once said there was acting before Brando, and acting after him.
About that line, it comes late in the film, and is steeped in regret and despair, as Terry realizes that his brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), has reached the end of a very short length of rope. Charlie has attained the status of right-hand-man and confidante to mob boss Johnny Friendly (the late Lee J. Cobb, in a fierce performance), whose gang has taken over a number of unions on the New York shipping waterfront. In return for steady work, the longshoremen pay a monthly “due.” Resistance is met first with the threat of not having food on the table, and last with the threat of having your face caved in. Terry is the shiftless up-and-comer who’s protected by Charlie and liked by Johnny, despite his bitter resentment for having to take a series of dives that ended his boxing career and lined Johnny’s pockets. After the “accidental” death of shoreman Joey, who was preparing to turn against the mob, Terry falls in love with the Joey’s grieving sister, Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint in her screen debut. She’s investigating her brother’s death, fully unaware that Terry played a key but unwitting role in the crime, and Terry does everything he can to get her to leave things alone — both because he’s afraid she’ll hate him if she finds out, and because he genuinely fears for her safety.
The Feds complicate matters more when they hand Terry a subpoena to testify against Johnny. Terry’s conflict is agony: if he testifies, he not only puts himself in danger, but jeopardizes the regular pay for a lot of guys willing to pay their monthly dues; if he doesn’t, Johnny continues to rule the docks with an iron fist. The voice of reason comes in the form of Father Barry, a local priest dead set on undoing the mob from their current position. He wants Terry to testify, of course, largely because he believes Terry is a good man (which he is). As played by Karl Malden, Barry is a booming voice of authority, as if God himself were doling out advise. He has a terrific scene mid-way through the film, as he stands over the body of a worker who has just been crushed to death intentionally by a pallet of Irish whiskey because he’s been talking to the Feds. The death is a crucifixion, Barry reasons, because Jesus himself was killed for speaking the truth. So, any man who stands idly by as even one more brother dies for standing up for what he believes is guilty of crucifixion.
Does Terry finally testify? That’s an important decision for him to make that shouldn’t be shared, so I’ll let you find out for yourself if you haven’t seen the film. Another fateful decision is put in Charlie’s hands late in the film, as Johnny gives him an ultimatum to either shut Terry up or let the mob do it for him. In the back of a cab, entrenched in shadows, Charlie tries to convince Johnny to take a cake job at the docks and lay low for a while. Terry still doesn’t know what to do. Charlie pulls a gun on him. Watch Brando’s sublime reaction to this information, as he gently pushes the gun away, appalled that his own brother would stoop to such a great low. No shock, no jump, no sudden scream — just a simple, delicate movement that passes a kind of electricity between the two of them. Terry knows, of course, that Charlie would never shoot him. How did they manage to get to this point in their young lives? Charlie claims that the mob all but turned Terry into a bum, but Terry knows better, and tells him so in a heartbreaking monologue about what it means to have your youth stolen by the person you love most in the world.
I will say that the last few minutes of On the Waterfront don’t necessarily work today, but I can understand how they may have been effective in 1954, as Terry lets Johnny know that he intends to proceed with his life on his own terms, and not any else’s — least of all the mob’s. There’s genuine tension in their showdown, and while Brando is spectacular, Lee J. Cobb whips himself into a froth of apoplectic rage that has to be seen to be believed. It’s quite a performance.
Thinking back on the opening paragraph of this essay, I wonder what Elia Kazan would say about his film today, and it’s notable ties to anti-union propaganda. Would he still feel the same justification that he did 60 years ago, when his testimony helped to ruin the careers and lives of eight people? Would he still regard Terry Malloy as a hero? It’s difficult to believe that Kazan thought a longshoreman giving testimony about the mob could be analogous to fear-mongering over a phantom menace, but there you have it. He did, and because of it, we have this watershed film with a remarkable central performance by one of the greatest actors in the history of the cinema. I just hope Kazan thought it was all worth it.