From a purely cinematic point of view, On the Waterfront might very well be one of the most revolutionary films of the ‘50s, because it took great advantage of documentary style techniques and used them to highlight the rawness of Lee Strasberg’s “method” acting; however, despite its undeniable greatness as a motion picture, the film will forever be remembered as a quasi-apologetical essay, its director washing his hands from the event that would forever mark his career and personal life.
In the year 1952, director Elia Kazan, who was coming from the success of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Oscar winning A Gentleman’s Agreement, testified in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s, House Un-American Activities Committee, which was then conducting a witch hunt trying to find communists working and living in the United States. Kazan identified eight former communists who were working in Hollywood and as such became both a hero for the radical political movement and a villain to the industry that had welcomed and nurtured him.
He became the object of heavy criticism and even now, his entire oeuvre is covered by this dark shadow, which somehow didn’t affect the quality of his work. On the Waterfront is Kazan’s greatest achievement as a visual artist, and yet it can’t help but feel like an act of cowardice, making it one of the most fascinating films ever made in terms of how its personal effects somehow always seem to overshadow its artistic achievements.
Shot in realistic, gritty black and white, the film opens in the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey where Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) works under the terrifying reign of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) a union boss/mobster who controls the workers and exploits them. Terry unknowingly aids Friendly and his fiends murder Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) a dockworker who was about to testify against Friendly in front of the Crime Commission. But the law of the docks is to be “D and D” (dumb and deaf) and Terry follows this advice until he meets Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) who falls in love with him and urges him to testify against the mobsters.
Very straightforward in its storytelling and filled with moments of brutal dialogue, On the Waterfront makes great use of words to convey a sense of despair the likes of which was rarely seen in films of the era. Kazan, as usual, has his actors deliver stunning work, which tap on the essence of what it’s like to fight against a corrupt system. Brando’s performance as Maloy is almost painful to watch because of the sadness and conflict the actor evokes. Sometimes it seems as if he’s about to burst out of his skin and he’s wonderful in his scenes with Saint, who balances the violent nature of his work.
Many scenes have become legendary for their groundbreaking thespian work, including the famous moment when Brando grabs a glove Saint dropped and plays with it, adding an extra sense of tenderness to a moment that could’ve been awkward and uncomfortable. Then there’s of course the “contender” scene where Brando has a one on one with his onscreen brother (the magnificent Rod Steiger) in which he recites a speech that has become parodied as many times as it’s been studied by acting students. How Kazan captured the sorrows of living in the underworld and humanized a battle that until then had only been featured in newspapers, remains one of the most affecting motion pictures ever made.
The Criterion Collection has done a truly outstanding job with this release (putting it in high competition for becoming the best DVD release of the year). The movie is presented in not one, but three different aspect ratios, all of which represent versions that were screened over the years. One of them is fullscreen, and they all contribute slightly different readings to the way in which we perceive the movie. The set consists of three discs, which not only feature the movies but include an endless array of bonus features and extras.
Among the best are a documentary about Kazan’s work made in 1982, a conversation between Kazan’s loyal apprentice Martin Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones (listening to Marty talk about Kazan’s work deserves a disc all its own, and in fact Scorsese did make a documentary about him a few years ago.). Also included is a superb new documentary on the making of the film, interviews with Saint, Kazan and longshoreman Thomas Hanley who acted in the movie. One of the best extras is a documentary dedicated to the contender scene, which highlights the way in which Kazan’s movies revolutionized screen acting.
Also included are a visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score (one of the few he made for movies) and a booklet with great essays from Michael Almereyda, as well as the original news articles that inspired the movie. This set is absolutely spectacular.