By: Cole Henry
American cinema, for over a hundred years, has become home to some of the finest masterpieces in the world of film, and none of them are as absolute and well deserved as Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece, On the Waterfront. The movie came out at the perfect time as America was still coping with the effects of World War Two, and the idea of consumerism/the nuclear family was becoming a modern American reality. This film is about coping with the effects that one’s past has on them, battling greed, and the ultimate truth of good defeating evil no matter what it takes. The film itself is about a young man, Terry, who seems to be lost in life for he is torn between right and wrong, and always wondering at what could have been (he had the chance to become a prize fighter). His brother, Charley, works for the mob boss, Johnny Friendly, who controls the shipping and union at the waterfront. Terry, due to certain circumstances I will not spoil, falls for a woman, turns on the mob, and therein lies the key dramatic elements of the movie. That is not what makes it perfect though. Yes, it is a compelling narrative that can move anyone emotionally but what truly elevates this film to perfection is the acting, cinematography, and sense of place that this film offers.
First, the acting must be discussed. Marlon Brando, a lifelong student and maestro of method acting, brings everything the brilliant actor has to offer into the role of Terry Malloy. It is also a treat to see a young Brando acting because he was in a class of his own, only got better with age, and yet this is still my favorite performance by him. He is incredible in this role, he brings such a sly coolness, distant sorrow, and childlike innocence to the character that we can’t help but like him despite his ties to the mob early on the film. Every facial expression, hand motion, and use of body language just feels so raw, so natural, that Brando just becomes Terry. Some of the most powerful acting scenes in the film from Brando are those without dialogue where his body, face, and eyes tell the viewer all they need to know. The viewer truly feels like they are experiencing the story through Terry’s eyes, and that he is a real character. He feels all the more real whenever there is an emotional scene and Brando just lets loose with raw emotion that will floor the most jaded of audience members. I dare you not to tear up at the dead pigeon scene, Brando’s monologue about being called a bum, or the famous speech to Johnny Friendly on the waterfront docks. Yet, Brando is not the only actor giving an incredible performance in the film, it is full of them! Rod Steiger as Terry Malloy’s brother, Charley Malloy, is an amazing performance. He is not given much screen time but his character is full of love and a sense of protection for his brother whilst also wanting to please his mob boss, and Steiger sells this so well. His eyes say more than his mouth ever does. Lee Cobb as the mob boss Johnny Friendly is the opposite of Steiger’s subdued performance. Cobb as Johnny Friendly is centered on bombast, explosions of anger, and yelling with a deliciously evil touch guy accent. Cobb creates a villain that is easy to hate, that the viewer loses to hate, and a villain that the viewer wants to see get his comeuppance. Lastly, Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle is a brilliant female performance especially for the time. She is independent and strong and she only falls for Terry once he does the right thing, and it is truly a breath of fresh air to see such a well portrayed female character during that era of film-making. It does not feel exploitative at all, and Saint takes this in strides and just owns her character with such confidence, sadness, and shy innocence. The acting elevates a conventional narrative into one of the most gripping and heartfelt tales ever to be put on the silver screen.
The cinematography and directing on display in On the Waterfront seems to elevate the artistic medium of film to a whole new level. Elia Kazan’s directing emphasizes characters over anything else and allows them to fill the frame; he follows the characters in such a natural way where each cut feels warranted and never out of place. His sense of direction feels so deliberate and purposeful in that every shot, every cut, and every type of framing he uses feels as important as what is going on in front of the camera. His direction, along with cinematography by Boris Kaufman, creates such a palpable sense of place. The setting feels so real, so rundown, and so hopeless that it is almost oppressive. This is not a negative though for the oppressive setting adds to the melancholy tone of the film which, in turn, provides a bigger payoff to the viewer when good triumphs against evil in the film’s final act (spoiler, I guess, but it is over 50 years old). Kaufman’s cinematography gives this film the look of a classic noir picture whilst I’d argue that it is more of a drama with some noir elements. The use of low key lighting, reliance on shadows, and the abundance of smoke/industrial imagery gives this film a stark and ominous look. The world that these characters inhabit is not a good world nor is it a just world, and it only becomes just when a mildly bad man finally gives into the light of goodness. Kaufman’s cinematography highlights all of that to a tee whilst also giving the film such an apparent sense of realism (cinematographic realism before French New Wave, crazy!!). Film is, after all, a visual art form and On the Waterfront is one of the best arguments as to why film is one of the most important and rewarding forms of art.
In the end, what makes On the Waterfront a perfect film is an amalgamation of all of its smaller parts from acting to mise en scene to lighting. One cannot be had without the other. Film-making is puzzle where the director decides where to place each piece in the best way possible in order to create the perfect vision of the art in his mind, and if one of the pieces is given less emphasis or care than the artist will never be able to finish his puzzle. Thus, he/she would never be able to achieve their artistic vision. Elia Kazan achieved his artistic vision in such a bold and confident way thus making a movie that will be forever timeless, constantly studied, and endlessly copied. Thank you for reading, and please watch this film. The Criterion release of the film is the best option as it features the best restoration of the film, and some great special features.