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USA 1954
Directed by
Elia Kazan
108 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

On The Waterfront

Everybody knows Marlon Brando’s famous lines; “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Well, this is the movie from which it comes.

Brando plays Terry Malloy, a waterfront worker (a longshoreman in US terminology) on the Mafia-controlled docks of New Jersey. His brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) is the lawyer to the Mob’s union stand-over man, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Years earlier Terry had been an up-and-coming young boxer but Charley arranged for him to take a dive so that Friendly could clean up at the bookies, in the process destroying Terry’s only chance to escape a life of poverty and back-breaking work. But, this is after all Hollywood and so not all is lost for Terry. When he falls for Edie (Eva Marie Saint) whose brother was killed by the Mob to stop him testifying to the Waterfront Crime Commission he begins to realize that he has a second chance to “be somebody” and, encouraged by the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), he decides to stand up against the union. And so his famous lines to Charley who is trying to persuade him not to rock the boat.

Aside from performances by the top drawer cast with Brando (Frank Sinatra was originally considered for the part), Steiger, Cobb and Malden some of the biggest names of the period, what makes the film effective is Kazan's commitment to authenticity. The screenplay by Budd Schulberg was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning series of investigative articles on waterfront corruption, with both Brando's and Malden's characters being based on real-life people. Kazan shot the film on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, and using in part, real life waterfront workers, whilst the black-and-white photography is by Boris Kaufmann brother of Dziga Vertov, a leading figure of the Russian Revolution's artistic avant-garde (there is a shot of Saint that looks as if it could have be taken from one such film of the period) .

Kazan was one of the leading American theatre and film directors of the 1940s and '50s but his reputation had suffered because he had testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. On The Waterfront was clearly Kazan’s attempt to.silence his critics. It started life as a screenplay by Arthur Miller, who fell out with Kazan over the latter’s attempts to use it for his own purposes. Schulberg (who also "named names" to HUAC) took over the job but even here Kazan changed Schulberg’s ending which had Terry being beaten to death, instead depicting him as a bruised and battered hero. 

At the Academy Awards that year Kazan won (sceptics would say 'was rewarded with') Best Picture and Best Director, two of eight Oscars given to the film. This was a stark contrast with 1951, at which time he was resisting HUAC, when his A Streetcar Named Desire was passed over despite its huge critical and financial success.

Although Kazan was given a lifetime achievement award by the Academy in 1999 his reputation still remains tarnished in some quarters. On The Waterfront was the peak of his career and despite at times being overly tendentious, it remains a classic of the era. The prominent score is by Leonard Bernstein.




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