Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront: Suicide In The Trenches

The Waterfront Crime Commission is imminently about to start public hearings on union crime and the illicit activities of the underworld. As the working class starts to cave in on itself, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unintentionally takes part in a mob hit. Corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) engineers the killing, aided by Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger). When the deceased’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) sees Terry as more than just a mob enforcer, but a man, Father Barry (Karl Malden) pushes him to do the right thing. With his morality as his guide, Terry begins to take accountability for his actions and regain some of the dignity he lost to the mob.

“I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody” is probably the film’s most-famous line, said by Terry (Brando) in that famous car scene to his brother, a scene in which Terry is unknowingly being driven to his own graveyard patch. Along Rhett Butler of the 30s and Cary Grant, and James Stewart of the 60s, Marlon Brando could be argued to be the ultimate male of the 50s. He’s a method actor, through and through. He went inside of himself and pulled a performance of epic proportions. In this film and many others, Brando is a megatalent that kicks everyone’s ass. He’s Zeus, but born in a storm of lightning. Powerful, brilliant and tragic.

“I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody”, epic lines from an epic screenplay
(On The Waterfront, Columbia Pictures)

This picture is the story of Terry Malloy, a dock worker with a little experience as a boxer but not much intelligence. He has no purpose in life, but to exist, milling from one job to another. He wastes his time at the docks, always unhappy about his life exposing a chink in his hypermasculine armour. He’s a man with feelings, I know I was shocked too. He tends to pigeons on the roof, caged up and all. In a way, I felt that this was symbolic. Much alike how Terry feeds the caged birds on the roof, the corrupt union bosses feed him. Though, not so generously. The pigeons and Terry are caged, one in a physical cage and one in which is taken wherever Terry goes.

Much akin to All The King’s Men, this flick is a critique of how those with power use their advantage to crush the little man. George Orwell said “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” and as long as humanity is humanity, we will never be content with what we have, in our quest for more, even if that is on the backs of those who have nothing. Yet, unlike All The King’s Men, our symbols of morality (Terry and Father Barry) don’t become part of the system they try to destroy. Despite having nothing but their driving spirit, Malloy and Barry fight the good fight without selling themselves out for cushty life.

Father Barry (Karl Malden), Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint)
(On The Waterfront, Columbia Pictures)

Charley (Steiger) is an intelligent opportunistic lawyer, a man who works for the dockers’ union headed by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), an arrogant and egotistical mob boss. He takes an interest in Terry trying to make his life as comfortable as possible if Terry does certain things for him, things that’d make people like you and I sleep uneasily at night. For example, making Terry set a trap for a man he didn’t know the mob were going to kill by tossing him from a rooftop. It just so happens this man was interviewed by a commission looking at the shadiness of the docks. It was no secret that the union was corrupt, all they had to do was prove it, AKA getting people talk.

Terry’s alienation from the corrupt union bosses begins when he meets Edie Doyle (Saint), and realises how much torment he has brought into the life of her family. When he’s asked to help in bringing Johnny Friendly (Cobb) and his ilk to justice by her and Father Barry (Malden), a story of righteousness ensues in one man’s actions to help the establishment get rid of one more band of hoodlums. That’s how hoodlums are, disguised as your friends, hence the humorously-named Johnny Friendly, and they’re murderers who come with smiles. And to society, they’re the ones who pay them. To the every man, they’re ‘good fellas’ regardless of the killer instincts.

Johnny Friendly (Cobb) does not care about the union, he’s a money-making pure-blooded gangster
(On The Waterfront, Columbia Pictures)

Brando’s performance is brilliant. But to me, it’s Karl Malden’s Father Barry that stole the show. His speech to the workers is really on point, and the same things could be said of people today in 2017. As the film’s villain, Cobb is really something. Johnny ‘not-so’ Friendly intimidates the workers into a piercing silence. Even when he has been found guilty of countless crimes by both law enforcement and the Press, the workers’ fear holds up, as they leave Terry for dead when the union boss and his goons beat him within an inch of his life. If you watch that scene until the end, it shows big men fall just as easily as little men.

Rod Steiger gives a fine performance as the clever lawyer in the pocket of the union. Saint’s performance as Edie is great and improves Brando’s as they interact with another really well. It makes Brando branch out beyond the ‘hard man’ persona that he is famous for. He’s not just a hard man in black leather, but he’s also an actor who can portray raw emotion as well. Malden as Father Barry has now made it into my list of ‘Greatest Acting Performances of All Time.’ As the human rights activist and Catholic priest, he incites Brando to stand up for himself and fight for his rights rather than be a pawn in the someone else’s chess match, a ruthless game of bribes and murder.

On The Waterfront could not be made in Technicolor, it’d ruin the whole feel to the film
(On The Waterfront, Columbia Pictures)

This is one of the great American films, and a brilliant piece of cinema too. In the time of Hollywood Ten and workers unions making their voices heard, On The Waterfront is a call to action telling American that being heard is not a crime, even if the fat cats in Washington brand it one. It shows that violations of justice are on our very doorstep and as people, it is our duty to do what’s right but it’s also our human responsibility to help our fellow citizens in their times of crisis.

That said, we’d often rather shoot ourselves in the foot than crawl under the wire and help the other guy