An Appreciation – On the Waterfront
While Brando’s performance is famous in every way, it would be unfair to say that the success of the film rested solely on him. Overall, the film is a master class from nearly every other actor that was a part of it; each person enhances the other and vice versa. Even in the aforementioned scene in the cab, it would not have been as moving if Rod Steiger were not sitting across from Brando. Charley is a heartbreaking character; he’s loyal to the union but clearly loves his brother. He knows that he was responsible for Terry’s fall from grace, and eventually takes responsibility for it. Watch as Brando finishes his speech, and look at how Steiger reacts—dejected, exhausted, but understanding every word that was said and accepting what that eventually means. Karl Malden is essential as Father Barry, the one man who initiates the movement towards justice against the corruption in the community. Malden previously worked with Brando and Kazan in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and his Father Barry could not be more different than his character in that film. Father Barry knows that he’s alone; the very act of investigating the docks for what they really are could lead to his own endangerment. It requires a tremendous amount of courage, and during his key speech on the boat while food and other junk are thrown at him, Malden gives off every amount of that. And Lee J. Cobb is perfect as Johnny Friendly, the corrupt union boss Terry goes head-to-head with. Cobb is tough and intimidating in his role, and he makes it easy to see how people would be anxious to try to speak out against him. It’s that very element that made Cobb so memorable in his other classic film, 12 Angry Men (1957).
And then there’s Eva Marie Saint as Edie. On the Waterfront was her first big screen role, and she made such an impression that she would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Edie is key to the entire structure of the film; it is through her determination that Johnny Friendly’s hold on the docks begins to unravel. When her brother is killed for trying to do the right thing, Edie resumes the effort by (in a way) taking his place. For her first major movie role, Saint’s performance is one of tremendous weight and believability—it doesn’t feel like this is her first time on screen. It says a lot about Saint’s ability to be a presence within the world of the film, a world that is so dominated by crooks and criminals. One can only wonder what could possibly be going through her mind as she walks amongst the longshoremen trying to find answers to her brother’s murder, knowing full well that she could end up much like him, maybe even worse. But Saint gives resolve to Edie in a way that makes us believe that that is only place where she could possibly be, that she won’t stop unless she gets the answers and the justice that her brother rightly deserves.
Elia Kazan was a director who got the best performances from his actors. He directed twenty-one different actors in Oscar-nominated performances, nine of whom would win. Coming from a theater background, Kazan was known for creative stage direction and a respect for an actor’s creative process. Because he gave that kind of respect to actors, he received it from them as well. Not many directors could have verbally directed Marlon Brando to stop with overdone improvisation without losing his respect and dedication, and that goes to show what kind of director he was. His camera was not flashy in this film; instead, it was routinely kept on spot with very little movement or exaggeration, allowing the effect of the scene to come directly from those being photographed. I would guess that from all of his work, this film might be the closest to Kazan’s own personality. The Cold War and McCarthyism were well underway at the time of filming, and it was only two years earlier that Kazan had cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), naming names that resulted in a number of ruined careers from Hollywood’s blacklisting. In 1999 when Kazan was selected for an honorary lifetime Oscar, many in attendance refused to stand and applaud during his acceptance for that very reason. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to stand for something you believe in despite ridicule and criticism amongst your colleagues, and while something can be said for his specific decisions, Kazan’s political beliefs don’t hinder the power that this film gives off.
The best kind of films are the ones that come from the heart, and although Kazan’s previous actions were controversial, there’s no denying that On the Waterfront is one that came from his. It is one of the greatest of all films, containing one of the most electrifying performances ever captured on film. It’s a performance that has been studied and mimicked for decades, and for good reason. Brando was an enigma in his own right, with eccentricities and behaviors that were difficult to understand. He would start his career off red hot, nearly waste the middle portion with forgettable films, and then come back in a big way with his role in The Godfather (1972). But maybe those personal issues were what fueled him to make such an interesting and memorable character in this film. All Terry Malloy wanted to do was what he believed was right; it hung on his shoulders while everyone else tried to force him to do otherwise. His own desire for redemption started him on the right path, and we watched him intently as he took step by arduous step towards it.