Monday, December 6, 2010

Film #41: On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice (last time = about 3 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Slightly dense young dock worker takes on union-controlling mob on the Jersey shore; raises pigeons while being one.

Uncut Summary (The full plot, spoilers included. Fair warning)

On the shores of northern New Jersey, young former prizefighter and current longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) wants to keep his life simple. He just wants to keep his head down, not cause trouble, and continue getting cushy jobs at the dock through his brother's connections to dirty union boss, John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). This is all upended when Terry semi-unwittingly takes part in the murder of Joey Doyle, a beloved young local who was about to turn state's evidence against the rampant corruption surrounding the docks.

Terry (middle) meets with the crooked & powerful John "Friendly" (left), while his brother listens in.

The local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden) implores the workers to muster their courage and testify against the rotten dealings that they all know are wrong, but are too afraid to stand up against. Terry is among those who will not only refuse to testify, but feels obliged to back his crooked brother, Charlie “The Gent” (Rod Steiger), who is one of Friendly's lieutenants. Terry's method is the same as the other longshoremen – to be steadfastly “D and D” - “Deaf and Dumb”.

Terry sticks to these guns until he reunites with Joey Doyle's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who is home on a break from school and is now desperately trying to find someone who can uncover her brother's killers and put a stop to their brutality. Though rather callous at first, Terry's guilt mounts at seeing the anguish that Edie suffers. Urged by his conscience and Father Barry, Terry eventually confesses to Edie his part in her brother's murder. He then swears to a devastated Edie that he will testify against John Friendly and his crew of thugs.

Word of Terry's relationship with Edie reaches John Friendly, who gives Charlie “The Gent” an ultimatum: convince his brother not to testify or force him into permanent silence by killing him. Charlie meets Terry and tries to sell him on remaining quiet, but Terry refuses. Charlie comes within a trigger pull of killing his brother, but relents. The younger Terry then lets loose all of his pain and disappointment at how his older brother never looked out for him, chasing instead the short-term gains offered by mobsters like Johnny Friendly. A repentant Charlie allows Terry to escape, thus putting himself directly in the line of fire.

Later that same night, Terry meets with Edie, but is lured outside and nearly killed by some of Friendly's goons. They fail to kill Terry, but they leave him a clear message – Charlie's dead body hung up on a fence. Terry becomes enraged, finds a gun, and goes hunting for John Friendly at the local bar. Fortunately, Friendly is not there, forcing Terry to wait for him and giving Father Barry and Edie enough time to come and convince Terry not to try and kill Friendly. Instead, he agrees to bury Friendly in court, which is exactly what he does the following day. An enraged John Friendly erupts and swears that Terry will never work a shore on the eastern seaboard as long as he lives.

After testifying against Friendly, Terry's life becomes far from easy. Quite the contrary, he has now been labeled a rat and stool pigeon by most of the longshoremen who have for decades adhered to the gospel of “D and D”. With Terry's name being sullied seemingly beyond repair, Edie urges him to leave with her to some other part of the country. Terry refuses and heads down to the dock to receive his “rights” - a regular job.

At the shore, Terry stands in a crowd, though is clearly a pariah. While John Friendly may be under indictment and unable to openly muscle anybody at the dock, he still holds sway. Jobs are offered to every longshoreman but him. Terry stalks towards Friendly's headquarters just off of the main pier, in order to confront him. Terry pummels Friendly in a fistfight, only to be beaten unmercifully by Friendly's entourage of goons.

Father Barry & Edie try to get the battered Terry back on his feet.

All of the dockworkers are called back to their jobs. Now, however, they are greatly heartened by Terry's willingness to go toe to toe with John Friendly. They all refuse to work unless Terry is given a job first. Terry must overcome his physical pain and get on his feet. With extreme effort, he does so, and leads the dock workers to their day's work, now seemingly out from underneath the crushing thumb of John Friendly and his gang.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

Great movie, though one that had a few blemishes that only five-plus decades reveal and that I didn't recall from past viewings. Basically, though, the things that irked me were either in the first half of the movie, or were easily overlooked. By the end, they were nearly forgotten.

Right away, the music bothers me. It's a score by the famous Leonard Bernstein, and I found it way too bombastic and intrusive. I realize that this is simply the way dramatic effect was achieved in a lot of films of the day, but I found it jarring at times. No sooner are the opening credits finished than an assault of typanies, cymbals, and strings are shattering any attempt at gradual tone-building. It's about as subtle as getting smacked with a mallet.

There is also a lingering silliness to some of the melodrama in the film, something that ties to the music and is, of course, par for the course in a 1950s movie. Really, though, the semi-hokey emotional outbursts and humor are relegated to the already two-dimensional supporting characters. The primary characters are blessedly free of the cliched.

Aside from these, On the Waterfront is outstanding to me. The tale itself is something that has been redone in lesser forms many times over (think The Insider and others), but stands out as being one of the best character development stories I can think of. Terry Malloy is such a well-conceived, plausible and fully formed character that I completely buy the stunning metamorphosis from self-interested layabout to righteously indignant revolutionary. The four characters that lead him on this journey are equally well-constructed: Friendly, Father Barry, Edie and Charlie. Each one, sympathetic or otherwise, is part of the stuff that transformations are made of, and each one awakens a different part of Terry that he didn't seem to know he had in him. Edie inspires compassion, Father Barry courage, Charlie disappointment, and Friendly wrath. It's a wonderfully composed positioning of characters that culminates in a truly satisfying story arc.

Here's the single most famous scene in the film. If you've seen the movie before, it's well worth another watch. If not, you may not want to spoil the impact by watching it by itself. Either way, you're witnessing film acting evolve right before your eyes:

Of course, even the most carefully crafted characters on paper can fall flat if not performed well. No such problem here. Marlon Brando is so incredible as Terry that it's hard to imagine anyone else doing the part. For an actor to be convincingly brutish, callow, remorseful, playful, charming, forlorn, and enraged in turns is an amazing feat. It's even more amazing when you compare this role to others that he played, notably A Streetcar Named Desire, in which his Kowalski was far less charming and much more of a true lout.

As mentioned, the supporting cast is equally strong, especially Karl Malden. Here again it helps to compare his role as the smoldering Father Barry with his role in Steetcar, in which he played a sad, lonely bachelor who invited little more than sympathy. The contrast is marked and impressive.

As he did with Streetcar, director Elia Kazan displays incredible skill in choice of cinematographers. The play of light and shadows throughout the movie give On the Waterfront just the right feel. The night scenes convey such a palpable sense of darkness and danger that a viewer understand that these Jersey docks are no place for outsiders, and it is not in one's best interest to go poking into its darkest corners. On the opposite side, the daylight scenes on the shores, either on the docks or especially when Terry is with Edie, offer those moments of hope and freedom that Terry aspires to, perhaps unconsciously at first, but with growing awareness as the story progresses.

Worth mentioning is something that might not seem as obvious but my girlfriend pointed out – the extras in the movie, even all those without a single line of dialogue, add a great aesthetic element to the whole film. In her words, she had, “never seen so many faces with so much character in one movie.” Too true. I have to think that most of those guys were the real deal: honest-to-God dockworkers whose back-breaking work and arduous lives were obvious in the lines and scars running across their weathered faces.

On the Waterfront has now spent over five decades among the pantheon of “greatest American movies” with good reason. This recent viewing of mine tells me that there's no reason that it shouldn't spend many more decades in exactly the same place.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Plenty of storylines emerge as one digs into the film just a bit further.

One is the political context. On the Waterfront was, as director Kazan openly admitted, his response to those who criticized his testimony to the House Un-American Committee two years before the release of Waterfront, in which he “named names” of associates with ties to the Communist Party. Many would never forgive Kazan for this, but he used the story of Terry Malloy to present his position in a sympathetic light. Whether one wants to see Kazan and Malloy's stories as analogous is up to the viewer.

The story of the movie was taken from very real occurrences on the Hoboken docks in the 1940s, particularly the latter part of the decade. It all came to a head when a whistle-blower named Anthony DiVincenzo dropped dime on the rampant corruption and was somewhat ostracized, the condition dramatized at the end of On the Waterfront.

I found it interesting that, despite being roundly lauded by nearly all critics and raking in 11 Oscar nomination and winning 8, the original TIME review is a bit lukewarm. However, even the harshest critiques I came across could not ignore the power of the acting and the masterful cinematography by Boris Kaufman. I find it also of note that more than a few critics, both past and present, point to Marlon Brando as ringing in the modern style of “realistic” acting. This is rather clear when you compare his performance to nearly any other actors' in his 1950s movies. Current day film critic royalty Roger Ebert covers a lot of ground on this and nearly everything else in the film in this essay.

Less important but equally curious trivia about the film: the extras in the movie were, as a viewer would expect, authentic dock workers; the men who played John Friendly's tough-guy bodyguards and goons were, in fact, former heavyweight boxers. The stunner piece of trivia to me was the original choice for the role of Terry Malloy: Frank Sinatra. That's right. The Jersey native Ol' Blue Eyes had been given the thumbs up, and the ball was rolling on getting him outfitted when Kazan and the studios decided to go for Brando, whose prestige and higher price tag would allow them to ask for a larger budget. The studio agreed and Sinatra was out. Imagine that – Mr. “New York, New York” himself in that same role. I guess it could have worked, but it's tough to picture.

Here's the grande finale, in which Terry delivers a beat-down, receives an even bigger beat-down, and then heroically recovers from said latter beat-down. As with the previous clip, you may not want to watch if you've never seen, and have intentions of watching, the movie:

So there it is. Just a few of the interesting footnotes on a film that any cinema fan needs to see. One can certainly debate the relevance of the political themes and the artistic credibility of using a movie to defend one's real-life political actions, but I don't see that one can question the clear merits of this movie. If you haven't seen it, it's more than just worth your time – it's all but required viewing.

That's a wrap. 41 shows down. 64 to go.

Coming Soon: Pather Panchali (1955)

And our first entry from India! I have seen this once, and it's widely considered one of, if not the, titan of Indian film. We'll see how it comes off.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.