On the Waterfront (1954) – Film Review

The filmnomore movie blog looks back to review On The Waterfront


On the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Named Desire (1951)) working from a screenplay by Budd Schulberg.  The film became an instant classic winning (spoiler in the poster above) eight Academy Awards from its 12 nominations.  The film starred Marlon Brando as a slightly naive 20-something, Terry Malloy, working on the docks run by a shady Trade Union outfit led by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).  Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Johnny’s right-hand man who helps cons him into setting up a fellow dockworker, Joey, for an ambush.  This leads to a crisis of conscience for the young man which is complicated further when he falls for Joey’s sister Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint.

I bill this film as the tale of a young man finally having to grow up and stand on his own two feet having relied on this brother and the favour of the Union to get by.  The vehicle for this is the loss of a friend and of course the love of a good woman.  It is a shock initially to see Brando’s portrayal of Terry as I had expected to see a tour de force but the reality is he’s a lazy, cowardly,  so-and-so trying to keep his head down.  Think a wet Marty McFly’s dad from Back to the Future (1985) for a sense of what I’m talking about.  Over the course of the film we see Terry’s character and physical demeanor transform from a hunched over little boy to a grown man standing tall in the face of corruption.  Indeed it is Brando’s performance that lifts this film above the ordinary.

I can see similarities in Brando’s performance with that of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941).  Both actors demonstrate an ability to transform over the course of the film and show a level of subtlety unusual for the period.  Just look at the performance of Cobb as the villain – it’s all melodrama and cliche, a very shrill single note for the full piece.  On the downside it is a very predictable story that you can see fall in place from the moment you see Charley asking questions about what he was asked to do and the dead man’s sister appearing on the scene.  The score could also be as shrill and over-the-top as Cobb’s performance.

The more films I see from the 1950’s and 1960’s the more I can appreciate why actors such as Welles and Brando are lauded in the way they are.  They were the vanguard of a new wave of a more natural way of acting, trying to be more than a cog in the machine playing a very specific role.  I’m not blown away by On the Waterfront because I have been spoiled by years of watching the films and actors it has influenced.  That being said, my rating is a very respectable 3/5.

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