On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront is a heavyweight production.  That's not even supposed to be a veiled tie-in to this classic-of-all-classic's boxing theme, but merely a request for pause and consdieration of the combined power of Brando, Kazan and Bernstein

These three artist are herein a lethal combination, and wonders arise.  Leonard Bernstein’s contribution to On the Waterfront is particularly powerful, and even if you didn’t like the story or the acting, or anything else concerning any visual or theatrical aspect of the picture you could still enjoy listening to his music for nearly two hours, because that’s what you are doing.

Music from ON THE WATERFRONT by Leonard Bernstein:

Born in Istanbul, Elia Kazan was one of the most honoured and respected stage directors in American history.  He was one of the founders of the Actors Studio, and in cinema he introduced the world to Marlon Brando and James Dean, among others, and directed a few films I like such as Panic in the Streets (1950) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).  Although like Waterfront, Streetcar received and amazing 12 Oscar nominations, Waterfront would have to be the jewel in Kazan’s crown, as it won no less than 8 of these.

On The Waterfront is a tough film, and very much of its day.  It’s a film noir, despite the metaphors and politics that creep in, and Brando is really in top gear playing this dope of an ex-boxer, who doesn’t have much to redeem himself as a character.  On the Waterfront however is like the stations in Marlon Brando’s character (Terry Molloy)’s cross; he starts as a mobbed-up punk, whose only real pals are the pigeons on his Hoboken roof, and is finally transformed through emotional crises and finally a physical beating into the much transfigured working man’s leader who has done the right thing at great cost.

There are plenty of immortal lines in On The Waterfront, and there are plenty of strange ones too: ‘I don’t like the country, the crickets make me nervous,’ seeming to open up another oddly sensitive avenue into Marlon Brando’s portraying of Terry Molloy.

And then there is the big one, when Steiger as Brando’s borther blames the brevity of Terry’s boxing career on his manager (‘he brought you along too fast’):

It wasn’t him Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, Kid this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson. You remember that?  This ain’t your night.  My night!  I coulda taken Wilson apart!  So what happens?  He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get?  A one way ticket to Palookaville.  You was my brother Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit.  You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short end money.  I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.  I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.  Let’s face it.  It was you Charley.

The legends are unanimous - by which I mean that every legend agrees on the salient points concerning this miracle of a speech. During the ride that Charley and Terry make together, the script said that Steiger offered Brando a choice - - cancel the testimony he is planning to give - - or die. 

Marlon Brando argued that the audience would never believe that Charley would never suddenly turn on his brother and threaten to kill him, and after playing it a couple of times, Brando and Steiger were given permission to wing a take.

The supposedly great lines that Brando has are often overshadowed however by Karl Malden’s world-ending performance as the priest.  These two guys would pair up again, but here the contrast between them is stark, physical and in every way pointing to themes of redemption via religion, or at least the idea that Terry Molly is awakening to newer and powerful realities, realising some kind of messianic status through his suffering and toil.

It was as far back as 1949 that scenarist Budd Schulberg came across the Pulitzer Prize winning story ‘Crime on the Waterfront’ and began his adaptation, but when serious moves came about to put the piece into production, there were some obvious pitfalls, many to do with the vile activities of the HUAC. 

These backstage batttles in Washington and Hollwood benefitted On The Waterfront in the end because the studios assumed that the villains of the piece would be Communists, and so they let it go ahead with relish - - although this was not a view not shared by Elia Kazan, and neither was it shared by Arthur Miller who was also working on his own waterfront drama at the time. 

The HUAC hearings had ensured that 1953 was going to be the most pitiful year in movie history: the blacklist was in full sway, but this far from satisfied the real rabid red-hunters out there, who flyspecked scripts for any subversive content whatsoever, and even looked through casting lists for activists they may have missed.  This may have been one of the reasons that movie audiences were falling dramatically, but Communism wasn’t their real enemy - - it was in fact television.

On the Waterfront did get made however, but it was a close thing, and it was Sam Spiegel who came to the rescue.  Frank Sinatra had been signed up early for the part, and was stung by the re-casting of Brando, and sued Sam Spiegel (later settling out of court), and he never quite forgave Brando, whom he referred to thereafter as ‘Mumbles’.

Marlon Brando was of course the face of On the Waterfront; but film is so collaborative, and American film even more so.  In fact, in American film, producers and all sorts of other people, including test audiences have a say on what comes out in the end.  Although Sam Spiegel came across as a relaxed money man, he was actually a great, ruthless and instinctive editor, and because he was paying, he was able to reshape scene after scene. 

And then there is the story of the boxers, including Roger Donoghue, who were hired to had a bit of verisimilitude on set, and in Donoghue’s case, show Brando a few moves and postures. 

When they were getting to know each other, Budd Schulberg asked Roger Donoghue if he could have ever been a champion, and  Donoghue answered: ‘I could have been a contender’. The phrase went straight into the script. So legend says at any rate, and we cannot argue with that.

No matter how badly things were to go wrong for Brando on screen at any point in the future, we have and will always have On The Waterfront, one of the true gems of the cinematic world, and without any doubt one of the most compelling, crazy, modernistic performances of the century.