With Elia Kazan as director and Marlon Brando playing the leading role, it’s easy to accept On the Waterfront as one of the greatest American classics, as this film already has a lot going for it with those two names alone. However, this film doesn’t just stand on the shoulders of one of the most influential filmmakers and one of the greatest actors of all time, as it so easily could’ve done. Instead, it succeeds with an engaging story, well written dialogue, talented supporting characters who help drive the plot, and a timeless message that is just as powerful today as it was back then.
On the Waterfront is a story about union corruption, as the union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), controls the waterfront, and in turn, is the main factor in whether or not regular men can find work on any given day. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is one of those workers. His brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is close to Friendly, and therefore, Terry has no problem finding work. However, it is also because of Charley and Friendly that Terry ruined his chance at becoming a championed boxer, as he threw a fight so that Friendly could win a bet he placed against him, an incident that Terry still resents.
Terry finds himself amongst a large group of workers who have accepted that they must play “deaf and dumb” when it comes to the immoral and violent actions of the union boss. Terry unwillingly becomes a plot device in the murder of Joey Doyle, a man who Friendly has killed so that he won’t testify against him in front of the Waterfront Crime Commission, an agency that suspects Friendly of being responsible for a number of murders. When Terry becomes close with Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and upon the ever growing influence that a priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), has on him, he finds himself becoming more aware of his conscience and begins to consider testifying against Johnny Friendly, even though being a “rat,” or a “canary,” as they call it, is not only frowned upon by the general community, but could also get him killed.
Marlon Brando’s Oscar-winning performance is undeniably one of the things that makes this film so great. Being the talented actor that he was, Brando lost himself in the character of Terry Malloy. His scenes with the lovely Eva Marie Saint, who had her film acting debut in this and also won an Oscar for the role, are emotional and very important to understanding the transition that Brando’s character goes through during the film. She is his conscience. Even though he knows he should keep his mouth shut, his growing compassion for a woman whose bravery and persistence in trying to bring the men who killed her brother to justice is the driving force for Terry in coming to terms with what’s right and wrong. Terry is a man who rarely vocalizes what he feels, and so his actions, facial expressions and body movements are what guide the audience in understanding Brando’s character and his transformation. Leave it to Brando’s superb acting skills to be able to say something without having to really say it.
Terry also has a dynamic relationship with his brother, Charley. In an equally convincing performance by Rod Steiger, it’s clear that Charley is trying to look out for him, but he’s also the force which has held Terry back from becoming something more than a pawn in a corrupt blue collar world. Charley also has to come to terms with the idea that his brother is becoming a threat, as he catches wind of the possibility that Terry might testify against the union boss. He tries to brush it off, claiming that Terry is just a confused kid, but when Friendly orders Charley to either convince him or kill him, he becomes torn between his loyalty to his boss and his love for his brother. There is an iconic scene in the back of a cab where Charley pulls a gun on his brother while trying to talk him into silence. Terry reminds Charley of the effect he had on his future, thinking back to the day when Charley ruined Terry’s chances of becoming a successful boxer, claiming, “You don’t understand. 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.” It’s a great scene with some wonderful dialogue and two emotional performances.
There’s also a couple of great performances by Lee J. Cobb as the heartless and corrupt union boss, especially in some of the end scenes when he gets into a physical brawl with Terry as his impending indictment leaves him crazed and violent. Karl Malden as Father Barry is the ultimate symbol of goodness, as he tries to gather the union workers together to stand up to evil and corruption, but he’s also not afraid to have a few beers or punch a guy in the face if he has to.
The ending is testament to the film’s message of standing up to evil. All that it takes is one brave man to face and share the truth in order to bring corrupt forces to their knees and rally the people to stand behind him. At first, it didn’t seem as though it was going to go in that direction, as people ignored Terry after his testimony and even a young boy who helped Terry take care of Joey’s pigeon coop took sad revenge out on him by killing the pigeons. Terry was also the only one not hired that day on the docks. However, the people gained respect for him once he confronted Johnny Friendly and is almost beaten to death by his thugs, declaring that they won’t work unless he does too.
This story parallels that of director Elia Kazan’s personal controversial experiences with the House Committee on Un-American activities, where he acted as a witness and named eight former Communists in the film industry during a time when artists in Hollywood were being blacklisted for their alleged involvement in this party. This is an action of which a lot of people hadn’t forgiven him for almost 50 years later. When Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented him with an Honorary Academy Award in 1999 for his film achievements, there were some film industry professionals in the crowd who refused to applaud. So I think it’s safe to say that there are definitely a lot of cons to being a “canary,” and some of this is shown to us in Kazan’s film.
Controversial politics aside, Elia Kazan was a great filmmaker who introduced a few big names into Hollywood and influenced many others. On the Waterfront is one of his greatest achievements. With a strong story, memorable characters and some amazing performances, I think this film has earned its place as an American classic.