Saturday, August 13, 2011

#372. On the Waterfront (1954)

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 when he unwittingly assists in the murder of a dock worker set to testify against Friendly, Terry starts having second thoughts about his current "occupation" 

His inner turmoil 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. All at once, Terry starts asking question, many of which have Friendly and his gang seeing red. 

One of the greatest movies of the 1950s, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront features a number of terrific scenes, the most iconic of which is undoubtedly the exchange between Terry and his brother Charlie. Sitting in the back seat of a cab, Terry laments his failed boxing career, which ended the night he threw a fight at Charley's request. “I coulda been a contender”, Terry says to his brother, “I coulda had class. I coulda been somebody”. These are among the most famous lines uttered in cinematic history. In fact, I had seen this very sequence at least a dozen times, in film specials and retrospectives, before I ever got a chance to see the movie. It was a shining moment in Brando’s career, and you can appreciate his awesome performance from just that one scene. 

But the truth is, there's not a single sequence 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 old friend without realizing it will result in his murder. All at once, the reality of Terry's situation catches up with him, and he is struggling with it. Brando builds his character minute by minute, scene by grueling scene, until Terry's conscience finally gets the better of him. 

Sure, the ‘contender’ monologue is a classic, but the true magic is how seamlessly it folds into the rest of the film. In the end, it is no more or less important than any other in the movie. Brando is truly great in that scene, but just try and find a moment in On the Waterfront when he isn’t.


Unknown said...

Good reading! You're very right about Marlon Brando (and I'm not a Brando fan) but this is one of his best - if not THE best - roles!

The supporting cast was also quite wonderful: Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger. Didn't remember that Fred Gwynne had a bit part until I saw OTW again recently on TCM. All were excellent!

(Also appreciate the info about John Garfield being original choice for Terry Malloy, I didn't know!)

Many thanks to you!

DVD Infatuation said...

HotJava: Yeah, I good as Brando was, the supporting cast was equally strong. Malden was tremendous, and you REALLY hated Cobb by the end of the picture...he made a great villain!

I am a Brando fan, but I have to agree that he was never better than he was here (sometimes he matched it...but never better).

Glad you're enjoying the trivia, and thanks for stopping by!