On the Waterfront is best known for Marlon Brando’s performance and the “Contender” scene in particular; his work here is widely seen as an exemplar of method acting. But whilst the praise heaped on Brando is deserved, he isn’t the only thing that makes this a great film.
The story is a crime drama about mobster Johnny Friendly’s dockside operations and Father Barry’s quest to bring him to justice, for which he requires Terry Molloy’s testimony. The plot however is Terry’s, as he goes from pigeon keeping dockworker and occasional mob stooge to a man seeking redemption once he falls in love with Edie, whose brother he helped lure to his death. On the Waterfront has been described as a melodrama, and in the sense that it focuses on plot at the expense of character, that is arguably true. Karl Malden’s Father Barry, convincingly acted though he is, remains little more than a priest with a strong sense of morality. Johnny Friendly is a one-dimensional mob boss. And so on. These characters are barely sketched and come alive purely because of the actors. Terry – with his past as a prize fighter, his work for Friendly and his fondness for his pigeons – is the only real exception. But as in any good melodrama, these characters serve the story perfectly, and it’s easy to see why Budd Schulberg won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
The story is also not as simple as it seems, or at least it isn’t as predictable as one might expect. It often confounds audience expectations, themselves conditioned by years of crime dramas. For example, Terry does not shoot Friendly (Father Barry talks him out of it), but defeats him by other means, first by testifying against him in court and then by furiously defying him at the docks, taking a beating and still getting back to his feet; the result is that the dockworkers turn on Friendly and throw him into the river. The film’s climax has notoriously been seen as director Eliz Kazan’s justification of his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (Lindsay Anderson described the ending as “fascist”) but it provides a fitting end to the narrative. Indeed the final scene is a triumph, as the camera follows a battered and bloody Terry proudly leading his fellow workers into the warehouse, whilst Barry and Edie look on and the dishevelled Friendly rants impotently.
Marlon Brando is indeed impressive here. He brings his famously naturalistic acting style to the role of Terry and makes it his own. If Brando’s acting seems visible, it’s only because generations of cinema fans have spent years examining what he’s actually doing. That shouldn’t distract us from the fact that he is entirely believable as Terry from his first scene, and he’s electrifying in the scenes that everybody tends to wax lyrical about, including the Contender scene. He’s notable too when Terry is gradually getting to know Edie, showing her his pigeons and almost shyly opening up to her about his past. Later, when he tells Edie that he’d like to help her but can’t, the audience believes him. Terry’s scenes with Edie as they gradually become closer are crucial to the plot – they have to convince us, since they relationship is the catalyst for his decision to betray Friendly, despite the risk he faces in doing so. This is particularly important because Terry is very much an anti-hero in a film from a time when these weren’t common in mainstream Hollywood cinema – he’s basically a small time crook convinced to do the right thing as much as by his attraction to Edie and revenge for his brother’s murder as by Father Barry’s appeals to his conscience.
Whilst Brando is undoubtedly the star, there are excellent performances too from Karl Malden as Father Barry, Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle, Lee J. Cobb as Friendly, and Rod Steiger as Charley. Steiger was just as much of a method actor than Brando and arguably more versatile, whilst Malden’s impassioned performance as Father Barry is no less impressive than Brando’s as Terry. All of the bit players convince, the likelihood being that Kazan wouldn’t have accepted anything else; indeed, in search of naturalism, he cast former professional boxers as some of Friendly’s heavies.
Lots of factors make On the Waterfront deserving of its classic status. They include Leonard Bernstein’s economically used, often discordant, deliberately jarring score, which becomes increasingly prominent after the taxi cab scene as the film starts to build to a climax. Then there’s Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, with his use of the low- and high-angle shots that help Kazan to exploit the often claustrophobic locations to maximum effect. It’s a very visual film, with creative camerawork and almost noir-ish lighting. The use of sound is masterful: there’s a fascinating scene in which Terry confesses his part in Joey’s murder to Edie, but we don’t hear it because the dialogue is drowned out by a ship’s horn; the meaning of the scene is conveyed by Brando and Saint’s facial and physical expressions. There are innumerable other small details – the costumes are one, the clothing worn by Friendly and his men emphasising their opulent, crime-funded lifestyle and contrasting with the rough working clothes of the dockworkers, including Terry.
A film as extensively written about and as frequently lauded as On the Waterfront can struggle to live up expectations. It’s not the only Eliza Kazan film worth watching, and it isn’t the only Marlon Brando vehicle worth watching; nevertheless, it is every bit the classic people say it is. Whilst cinema techniques have changed dramatically since 1954, it remains a masterful example of the film-makers art and – perhaps more importantly – it remains a gripping slice of melodrama.