Movie Name: On the Waterfront
Studio: Horizon Pictures
Release Date(s): July 28, 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Terry Mallory (Marlon Brandon) could have been a contender…instead he took a fall and now finds himself a dockworker. When Terry is used to lean on a dockworker who ends up dead, Terry decides he must turn against both his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and his boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) to make up for the death. Teaming with the dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and a priest named Father Barry (Karl Malden), Terry must talk to the Waterfront Crime Commission about what is happening…but taking a stand could be harder than taking a fall.
Directed by Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront is a drama based on the a series of New York Sun articles called “Crime on the Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson published in 1948. The film was a financial success and received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay with nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb Karl Malden and Rod Steiger), and Best Score. The movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989 and Criterion released a remastered version of the movie (Criterion #647).
On the Waterfront is a cinema classic. I first saw it while pounding out my trip through “Best Pictures” and in the world of Best Picture winners, On the Waterfront is still one of the best of the best.
Despite being a simple story of corruption, the script and the plot are rather layered. You have a guy who has always done what he was told and paid for it. He then decides to try to something right and becomes a pariah because of it. The dialogue and script is snappy, and it has a gritty realism that not every film has. The movie goes strong all the way to the dockside ending.
This is Brando at his best. Along with his “Stella” of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando’s contender speech is a classic. He manages to be angst-y and sincere at the same time. He has the benefit of a great supporting cast with almost all the players giving an Academy Award winning performance (as recognized in the nominations). The actors involved rarely rose to this level again, but it would have been hard for them to.
The movie smartly was shot in black-and-white. It gives the movie a gritty look but it also feels a bit more timeless. The movie feels urban and presents a less glamorized “waterfront” than most movie which play up the beauty and romance of the water…here it is pretty cold, stark, and mundane. The waterfront is simply a workplace.
On the Waterfront is one of those movies that is always sampled. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender” is always shown…not only in Brando compilations but in film compilations. It is a movie that people know even if you don’t know it. While that moment is a great moment, the movie itself is also great and a must for fans. The movie isn’t just a contender…it is a winner.