On the Waterfront

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is driven by the strength of its iconic performances and its crisp, clear, direct imagery. It's a story of black-and-white morality, told with all the punchy aesthetics and acting fireworks it demands. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker in a city where the dock union is as corrupt as they come, presided over by mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his right-hand man, Terry's own brother Charley (Rod Steiger). Terry knows that they're corrupt, and that they've even killed a few workers who threatened to talk to the cops about the operation, but Terry, despite his reservations about what he's seen, knows enough to keep quiet. He lives his life by a simple code, that he comes first and he just has to look out for his own interests. This code is only challenged by Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a man who Terry helped lure to his death for squealing, and the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is inspired to aid in the fight against the mob-run union by Edie's principled words.

There's a reason this film is so iconic: it's packed with grand speeches, with opportunities for the actors to showboat, to emote to the rafters, not just Terry's justifiably famous "I coulda been a contenda" speech but several of Father Barry's impassioned oratories on standing up for what's right, and Edie's similarly intense pleas with Terry to live up to the goodness she sees in him. Even Johnny Friendly gets a chance to speak his mind, in an early scene where he defends his crooked business dealings by referring to his own tough childhood, and his lifetime of work, clawing his way up from the bottom of the heap as a dockworker to be the boss of his own gang. This is a real actor's movie, and Kazan is a real actor's director, building the film around these powerful monologues and wisely allowing the words to do much of the work. The cinematography is often striking, of course, as in the bird's eye views of the docks at night, shrouded in shadows, the streets lonely and empty except for the various thugs doing their shady work. More often, Kazan simply stands back and lets the actors deliver their potent words, and that's mostly enough.

One of the most striking scenes, though, is one in which the words are obscured. When Terry finally admits to Edie that he was the one who convinced her brother to go to the roof where he was pushed to his death by Johnny's thugs, the scene is staged on the rocks by the waterfront, and most of the words exchanged are blotted out by the loud whistling of a ship nearby. Kazan cuts back and forth between Edie, in tears, her hands over her mouth, and Terry, desperately trying to justify himself, his face scrunched up in psychological pain as he tries to explain to this woman he cares about why he got her brother killed. All the while, the ship's whistle makes it impossible to make out more than a few words of Terry's speech, though his words are familiar, just recycling the same justifications he's been using throughout the movie: he didn't know they'd kill him, he can't speak out about it, he needs to look out for himself. By obscuring the words, Kazan does two important things: he keeps the focus on the faces of the actors, wordlessly communicating their anguish and heartbreak, and he emphasizes how hollow Terry's words actually are, how meaningless they are in the face of Edie's wordless but eloquent grief. For a director of words and speeches to realize this is no small thing, and it's why, for all the film's eminently quotable dialogue, this scene where the words mostly aren't heard is the film's most powerful, its most cinematically beautiful and perfect moment.

There's a subtext to this story, of course, one that's hard to ignore. Kazan infamously testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming names of some of his former associates who were or had been members of the Communist Party. Kazan made On the Waterfront just two years later, with a screenplay by his fellow "friendly witness" Budd Schulberg, and it's obvious that it's a work intended to defend Kazan's decision. The film's passionate defense of those who turn "stool pigeon" when they know something is wrong was Kazan's way of justifying his own actions. Terry Malloy, the man torn apart by his conscience, split between a desire to stick by the dockworkers' code and stand by his friends and the desire to do what's right, is an obvious stand-in for Kazan himself. It's not a perfect analogy, of course; it's not even really a good analogy, even if Kazan himself doesn't seem to realize it. Malloy's conscience demands that he testify against the mob, standing up to those who have killed people and bullied the rest of the dockworkers into silence. Kazan's situation, needless to say, was much different, since he wasn't testifying against killers or thugs but against ordinary people who had simply attended meetings of the Communist Party. In some ways, the situation in the film is even the reverse of Kazan's. The temptation not to testify, for Malloy, is rooted in the desire to keep his job, to maintain his cushy position as the brother of well-positioned mob man. If he testifies, he risks losing all that. It was exactly the opposite for Kazan, who testified largely so he could keep his job, so he could keep working. Kazan, convinced he was Terry Malloy, seemed somewhat blind to the ironies of this reversal.

The political subtext isn't the only hard-to-swallow aspect of the film. There's also the disturbing scene where Terry forces himself on Edie, grabbing her and kissing her, the two of them falling off camera behind a door, at which point her struggles stop and her body goes limp in his arms, and Kazan switches to a glossy closeup of the lovers kissing. The romance is arguably the most contrived aspect of the film, even more than the occasionally heavy-handed dialogue that feels ripped right out of Kazan's autobiography. Even without the unfortunate rape-like implications of that forced kiss, this love affair never really feels believable: the tension and anger between the pair hits a lot harder than the sappy clenches and declarations of love. Saint is much better in her righteous anger, her desire to earn justice for her brother, to fight the abuses and violence that ended his life. Brando, for his part, delivers a remarkably consistent performance, his brow always knotted, his eyes constantly threatening to disappear within his scrunched-up expression of worry and confusion. Playing a former boxer, he really seems as punch-drunk as everyone says he is, his head scrambled, not by too many blows but by the sudden development of ideas he'd never had before. The dockworkers live by a code of remaining "deaf and dumb" to the crime and violence around them, but Brando's Terry is a different kind of dumb, and in his earnestly dopey performance he conveys the struggle to come to grips with a morality that had previously been foreign to him.

The complications of its political subtext aside, On the Waterfront well deserves its classic status. Brando is in peak form, manically chewing gum and scowling, copping the tough guy attitude that defined his youthful screen presence. Kazan surrounds this performance with similarly showy, dramatic supporting roles, and even when the film threatens to become an over-the-top acting showcase, it's never less than enthralling in its wordy directness. Its political entanglements even arguably make it a more interesting film, as the numerous contradictions in Kazan's perspective on this material rub up against one another uncomfortably within the film. The film's perspective on the working class certainly flirts with condescension, especially to the extent that Terry — uneducated and slow, visibly struggling when he's forced to think something through, his confusion perpetually written on his face — represents the working class. It's a film about morality and conscience, from a director who had obviously dealt with these issues in a dramatic fashion in his own life, and translated these experiences into a potent screen drama.