More than a half-century has passed since the release of On the Waterfront, a landmark film that captured eight Oscars for its gritty look at corruption on the docks of Hoboken, N.J. But the movie is still recalled today for so much brilliance—Marlon Brando’s amazing performance as an inarticulate pug battling his union leader and his own conscience; an unparalleled supporting cast; an uncompromising screenplay; the outstanding—albeit politically motivated—direction of Elia Kazan.
Each of those facets is worth remembering. But there’s something more here than just nostalgia. All these years later, On the Waterfront continues to work as a magnificent bit of drama—and as a gangster movie. The story of a little man caught between principles and loyalties always resonates. And, last we checked, the problem of mob influence on America’s labor unions hasn’t gone away.
Watch it today—for the first time or for the 50th—and On the Waterfront still moves you. Some of the classics on our list—say, the original Scarface or Bonnie and Clyde—might seem dated, or at least products of their eras. But this script, this direction, even the musical score, could hit the box office today and still be fresher than anything out there. We just don’t know who could match the work of the original cast.
For a moment, however, let’s go back to 1954 to consider the film in the context of the times. Remember, On the Waterfront reached theaters around the tail end of the McCarthy era when the country—particularly Hollywood—was torn over the issue of people naming names to government committees. If the script is one about conscience, so is the story behind the script.
Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg became Hollywood pariahs a few years earlier for fingering former associates (some of whom ended up blacklisted) to the House Un-American Activities Committee. When On the Waterfront came out, many filmgoers watched the story of a man betraying old friends and colleagues and deemed it an attempt by its two creators to justify their actions.
Kazan didn’t disagree. “Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood,” he wrote in A Life, his 1988 autobiography. “And I was telling my critics to go and fuck themselves.”
Regardless of where anyone stands on that issue, it should not detract from the film’s brilliance—and its importance as a muckraking work of art. The screenplay is based on New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of that city’s waterfront and the influence of mob boss Albert Anastasia. Schulberg’s adapted script is essentially true to real life.
The story opens with former boxer and current flunky Terry Malloy (Brando) unwittingly serving as bait in a murder trap set for a fellow longshoreman. The young man, named Joey Doyle, is pushed off a rooftop for speaking to a Waterfront Crime Commission panel investigating the methods of crooked union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
Friendly’s got a hell of a gig. In addition to collecting dues from his own members, he forces them to kick back a further bit of their salaries for every day’s work. Plus, he takes another illegal cut from any shipper running goods through “my dockyards.” If a worker protests, he is mangled by Johnny Friendly’s goons.
“You get up in a [union] meeting,” one downtrodden longshoreman explains. “You make a motion, the lights go out, and then you go out. That’s how it’s been since Johnny and his pals took over the local.”
In a great bit of casting, three of those “pals” are played by real ex-boxers who fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight title—Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and the gargantuan Abe Simon.
Anyway, Terry’s inadvertent role in the murder has him chased by the Furies of remorse—personified by crusading waterfront priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint, in her movie debut), the sister of the man Terry set up. Of course, he falls for the girl, making things all the more complicated.
Eventually, Terry is subpoenaed to speak to that Crime Commission. Initially he blows off the investigators (look for a young Martin Balsam, also in his first movie), saying, “I’ve been on the docks and there’s one thing I’ve learned: You don’t answer no questions, you don’t ask no questions.”
The priest and the girlfriend keep talking into both of his ears, explaining things like compassion and a moral sense of right and wrong. “Conscience!” Terry screams out. “That stuff can drive you nuts.”
Those angels on one shoulder are counterbalanced by Terry’s loyalty to his own big brother, who works as a legal lieutenant to the corrupt union boss. “Charley the Gent” (Rod Steiger) apparently got all the family brains and fashion sense. He is accurately described by one lowly worker as “a butcher in a camelhair coat.”
“They’re asking me to put the finger on my own brother,” Terry protests to Father Barry. “And Johnny Friendly used to take me to ball games when I was a kid.”
“You’ve got a brother, eh?” the priest retorts. Pointing to the crowd of longshoremen, he adds, “Well you’ve got some other brothers. And they’re getting the short end while Johnny’s getting mustard on his face at the Polo Grounds.”
Ultimately, Terry is pushed into a position that demands he betray someone. We already told you how Kazan’s own McCarthy Era testimony impacted the story, so there’s no great surprise where he’s going. We can tell you that the real-life situation upon which the script was based did not have as triumphant an ending. In the movies, the good guys win. In life, well . . . not always.
In this story, the reluctant crusader topples corruption. There’s a wonderful scene—far from the grimy docks—showing the bigger bigwig, the unnamed mob higher-up behind the seat of power (and listed in the credits as “Mr. Upstairs”) viewing Terry’s televised testimony to the Crime Commission. He is seen only from behind, sitting in a cushy chair, cigar in hand, as he angrily orders a butler to turn off the TV in his mansion.
“Anything else, sir?” the butler asks.
“Yes, Sidney. If Mr. John Friendly calls, I’m out.”
“Anytime today, sir?”
“If he calls ever, I’m out.”
That cuts to the final scene, in which Terry—ostracized after his testimony—heads back to the docks to demand his rights. He is brutally beaten by Friendly’s henchmen, but the workers who witness it rally behind him. He becomes a working-class hero, Friendly gets tossed off the pier and we fade to black as Terry leads them all back to work and, presumably, a corruption-free union.
Brando was 29 when On the Waterfront was shot, and his character ranges from cocky to tortured to brutishly sexual. “Brando completely inhabits the role of a man trapped by his own life,” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “The play of emotions on his face are as memorable as the iconic red and black plaid wool jacket he wears.” Similarly, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “During the course of his career (especially the early portion of it), Brando gave some amazing performances, but nothing he did before or after rivals his depiction of Terry Malloy.”
Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, giving a mumbling 16-second speech when Bette Davis handed him the Oscar. (On a side note, call up that moment on YouTube, and you’ll be treated to seeing Davis in an outfit that would make Lady Gaga envious.)
Overall, On the Waterfront was one of Hollywood’s most-honored movies ever, garnering awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint), as well as art direction, cinematography, editing and screenplay.
Steiger, Cobb and Malden were all nominated for the Best Supporting Actor. They split the vote, allowing the Oscar to go to Edmond O’Brien for The Barefoot Contessa. Given a ballot, we’d have gone with Malden.
HIT: Boris Kaufman’s Oscar-winning black-and-white camera work is perfect for the story. Filmed on location in hardscrabble Hoboken, it colors the tenements, the piers and the puny little parks in bleak shades of gray. And watch how Kaufman films the faces of the workers—most of them actual longshoreman hired as extras. There’s a genuineness that cannot be faked.
MISS: Not much to dislike here. If forced to criticize, we’d suggest that the ending gets a little too pat, as the “D and D” (deaf and dumb) longshoremen suddenly rally behind Terry and literally throw Johnny Friendly out of power. But, hey, that’s a minor quibble and we’re already 107 minutes in.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Kazan succeeds in producing a shrewd piece of screen journalism, a melodrama in the grand manner of Public Enemy and Little Caesar. But he fails to do anything more serious—largely because he tries too hard. In searching for the general meaning in little lives, Kazan watches his characters through the magnifying glass of the old sentimental prejudice that ordinary people are wonderful no matter what they do.”—Brad Darrach, Time
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Tremendously high. This richly textured masterpiece reveals fresh nuances upon every viewing.
PIVOTAL SCENE: One of the cinema’s classic moments occurs when Johnny Friendly dispatches Charley to ascertain whether his younger brother is going to turn against the gang and testify after being subpoenaed.
The two men meet in a cab, shrouded by venetian blinds. Charley tries to cajole Terry, to bribe him with a cushy union job, to bully him into keeping his mouth closed. But Terry isn’t sure what he’s going to do. Finally, frustrated, Charley impulsively pulls a gun on his kid brother. “Do you think,” Charley shouts, “that Johnny’s going to jeopardize his whole thing for one rubber-lipped ex-tanker who’s walking on his heels?” And then, pleading, “Take this job, Terry.”
Rather than being scared or angered by the gun, Terry pities his older brother. He pushes the gun away with, as Kazan put it, “the gentleness of a caress.” Charley, embarrassed, tries to pull the conversation back to Terry’s derailed boxing career, blaming his failures on “the skunk we got you for a manager (who) brought you along too fast.”
But Terry reproaches his older, smarter brother for selling him out.
“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you,” Terry retorts. “Remember that night in the Garden? You came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night.’ My night? I coulda taken Wilson apart. So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.”
In that five-minute scene of lost love between the brothers, Brando’s character—until then an inarticulate oaf—realizes his capacity for decency. Now, there is no doubt what he is going to do.
BEST LINE: That cab scene ends with Charley suggesting that even though he forced his brother to take a dive in the ring, Terry got his payoff. “We had bets down for you,” Charley says. “You saw some money.”
“You don’t understand,” says Terry. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”
Those final lines were selected by the American Film Institute in 2005 as the third-best movie quote ever, behind only, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” (from Gone with the Wind) and, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” (from The Godfather).
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Sometimes great art comes about by accident. Much has been made of the intimate mood created by those blinds in the taxi’s rear window. Brilliant. Except that it was never planned. The camera department neglected to bring rear-projection equipment to the set that day (which would have allowed for a typical street-scene background), so the blinds were quickly rigged to keep the production moving.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: There’s no mistaking the skinny stooge named Slim following around Johnny Friendly. That’s Fred Gwynne, the actor who would later play TV’s Herman Munster, here making his film debut. That dumb look is merely a ruse—Gwynne graduated from Harvard as an English major and supported himself as a musician and book illustrator before becoming an actor.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: During his testimony at the Crime Commission hearing, Slim states his name as “Mladen Sekulovich.” That happens to be the given name of Karl Malden, who, like many actors of his era, changed it for Hollywood. Malden always rued giving up his Serbian name, and persuaded Kazan to insert it into the film as a nod to his ethnic heritage.
CASTING CALL: Lots of back story here. Grace Kelly was first offered the role of Edie, but turned it down to film Rear Window. Newcomer Elizabeth Montgomery (later of Bewitched) was also considered, but Kazan deemed her too sophisticated for the character.
The role of Terry was written for John Garfield, but he died in 1952 at the age of 39. Producer Sam Spiegel then petitioned Brando, who returned the script with a terse refusal. Meanwhile, Kazan approached Frank Sinatra, who eagerly accepted.
Spiegel, however, was adamant, in large part because he knew Brando would be better box office than Old Blue Eyes. So he and Kazan concocted a ploy to persuade Brando. They sent Malden—who had already signed on—to the Actors Studio (where Brando was learning his craft) and had Malden direct a scene from the movie with the role of Terry played by another young up-and-comer . . . named Paul Newman. Brando watched the exercise and immediately changed his mind. It’s debatable whether he was swayed by love for the script or potential envy over Newman landing the role.
GOOF: Watch the body as Joey Doyle is hurled from the tenement roof to his death. It’s clearly a stuffed dummy.
BODY COUNT: Three—one tossed from a building, one crushed by a falling load of whiskey bottles and one shot and hung on a meathook. Given the choice, we suppose, we’d pick the second option.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Force of Evil, a 1948 potboiler starring the aforementioned John Garfield as a crooked lawyer who wants to take over New York City’s numbers rackets—putting him into direct conflict with the brother he loves.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”