Directed By: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
Tag line: "The Man Lived by the Jungle Law of the Docks!"
Trivia: The part of Terry Malloy was originally written for John Garfield, who died before the film was made.
Corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) rules the waterfront with an iron fist. Cross him, and you won’t live long enough to brag about it. Former boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) does odd jobs for Friendly from time to time, and his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), Friendly’s right hand man, watches out for Terry as best he can. But Terry starts having second thoughts about his current line of work when he unwittingly assists in the murder of a dock worker set to testify against Friendly. His confusion over what to do only intensifies when he meets both Father Barry (Karl Malden), a crusader trying to rid the waterfront of Friendly's brand of corruption, and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the man who was killed. Suddenly, Terry is asking some questions of his own, many of which have Friendly and his gang seeing red.
The most famous scene in On the Waterfront is undoubtedly the one in which Brando's Terry, sitting in the back seat of a cab with his brother, Charley, laments about his shattered boxing career, which ended the night he threw a fight at Charley's request. “I coulda been a contender”, he says to his brother, “I coulda had class. I coulda been somebody”. These are arguably among the most famous lines ever uttered in the history of the cinema. In fact, I saw this very sequence at least a dozen times, in film specials and retrospectives, before I ever got a chance to see the entire movie. It’s a shining moment in Brando’s career, and you can appreciate his awesome performance from just that one clip. But the truth is, I couldn’t find a single moment in On The Waterfront where Brando doesn’t shine. His Terry Malloy is like an innocent child in a den of thieves, a guy who sets up an acquaintance to take a fall without realizing that "fall" would result in his murder. All at once, the reality of Terry's current situation has caught up with him, and he’s genuinely struggling with it. Brando builds this character moment by moment, scene by grueling scene, until his conscience has finally gotten the best of him.
Sure, the ‘contender’ monologue is a classic, but the true magic is how seamlessly this iconic moment folds into the rest of the film. In the end, it’s no more or less important than any other. Brando is truly great in that scene, but just try and find one in On the Waterfront where he isn’t.