Not rated, but this one gets pretty darned violent for a movie from 1954. There's gun violence, but a dude gets crushed. Marlon Brando puts his hand through a pane glass window and oozes all of the chocolate syrup he can. There's also a really rapey vibe that the protagonist gives off. It's that old time ideology where taking a woman by force is just allowing her to express her true repressed feelings for you. It's icky by today's standards and should have been icky then.
DIRECTOR: Elia Kazan
I didn't appreciate this movie when I first saw it. I just knew it from "I coulda been a contenda." I mean, that's something, I suppose. I mean, it was a solid movie the first time I saw it. I don't know why people lost their minds about it. It has strong performances and it is well shot. I loved all of Elia Kazan's movies up to that point in time, so it just seemed like another of his strong movies. Man alive, now that I know the story, there's just so much to dissect. Now, I know that I'm going to make some people mad. I guess all political conversation gets under someone's skin. I watched this movie a long time ago and since then, I've been mildly obsessed with McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting. Honestly, the Cold War is fascinating to me and this is such a piece of history when viewed in context of what was going on.
I'll tell you right now that I've always fell on The Crucible side of the great debate rather than On the Waterfront. It's so weird because, as I mentioned, I've always been a huge Kazan fan. I don't know if there is a Kazan movie that I dislike. But I also love Arthur Miller. See, the great Hollywood blacklisting? I think it probably affected me than anyone else. I'm the real victim here. The one thing that On the Waterfront really does is that it actually kind of garners sympathy for Kazan. I may be jumping ahead of myself. If you didn't know why On the Waterfront kind of matters outside of its story and presentation, it is an allegory for something real going on with Elia Kazan. I highly encourage people to study McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings that were going on in the '50s. It's really interesting / disturbing. I didn't know that people still sympathized with Joseph McCarthy. I think he's scum. You could argue that there were spies in America. Fine. But he destroyed lots of innocent lives in the process of self-promotion. Anyway, everyone who has even been remotely famous or connected to someone famous was dragged in front of HUAC and asked if they have ever been a communist or if they know anyone who was a communist. Some people played extremely coy. Some people gave as little as they possibly could to get HUAC off their backs. Some people, like the Hollywood 10, embarrassed their accusers and shamed them publicly. Then there's the story of Elia Kazan. My old perspective was that Kazan was a coward and pointed to as many people as he possibly could because he was afraid. It wasn't as simple as that. From a reading of Kazan's statement to the media in conjunction with his message in On the Waterfront, Kazan honestly believed Communism to be an evil threat and wanted to squash it out. Apparently, Kazan had joined a communist organization as a young man, was mortified by the message that they spread, and was convinced that the world was going to be destroyed by these people. Fine, that's his right. I'm no big fan of communism either. But this is where my thoughts on the movie kind of go all over the place.
Arthur Miller criticized McCarthy and HUAC with The Crucible. Kazan responded by making On the Waterfront an allegory for his actions in front of the the committee. It's actually a pretty compelling argument. It's just that it doesn't work as well as The Crucible. The Crucible mirrored a real historic event, tailored it to mirror the events of the Hollywood Blacklisting and really changes lives. On the Waterfront tells a great story about standing up to criminal organizations. From Kazan's perspective, he saw people who were sympathetic to Communism as criminals. Mind you, and I should stress this, people who were punished by HUAC weren't necessarily communists. They just thought that the entire process of putting people on trial for their beliefs was unconstitutional. Remember all of this as I break down the On the Waterfront allegory. On the Waterfront follows Terry Malloy, the brother of a local union mobster, as he starts to realize that he's on the wrong side of justice. He accidentally assists in the death of one of his co-workers and falls in loves with the guy's sister. It becomes this rallying cry for the importance of allowing justice to be dispensed in the proper method. I'm a guy who loves rules. If On the Waterfront wasn't an allegory, I'd think it was this great message that puts the Catholic Church in the proper light. But Kazan kind of messes with the important details, making himself out to be this martyr. First of all, Terry / Kazan is fighting against gangsters in the mob. These are people who kill their opposition. When Terry rats on the mob, he no longer has a job or friends. It might be accurate that Kazan lost a lot of his friends in the process of testifying. I imagine that he was alone in his decision to trust the government over his peers and that has to be a lonely place. But notice that this movie exists. Kazan can't say that he couldn't get work because he definitely could get work because of his choice. It was the people who stood up to the government who couldn't get work. It's already pretty flawed there. Also, as far as I understand it, I don't think that Dalton Trumbo was threatening to murder Elia Kazan or his family. They simply vocalized that what he was doing was wrong and immoral. There is a wide gap between people not liking you for your decision and people actually doing something evil and threatening you. There's a scene where Terry's brother, the original antagonist, makes the choice to back Terry despite the fact that it would have gotten him killed. No one killed Kazan's brother. He wasn't taking this risk. Kazan paints himself out to be a saint. It's also a little different with Miller. Miller fought HUAC tooth and nail, but he was hardly the martyr of the Hollywood Ten. Miller was writing about his solidarity with others. When Kazan makes a movie about his own heroism, it's a little bit weird. I do like that Terry isn't a perfect character. Terry is a guy who makes mistake after mistake and that's at least something interesting. But the important details in On the Waterfront is what takes me from agreeing to only sympathetic to a guy who really wanted to be right.
But as a movie, what can I say? I mentioned that this movie didn't have the impact on me that I thought it would the first time I watched it. I thought it was actually one of Kazan's weaker films. As a movie, the movie is way better. I was treating it as a checklist movie last time. It is so odd to see Marlon Brando in his heyday. This entire commentary is just going to be backstories about things that should be observed before watching this movie. Brando kind of became a crazy person because of his fame. It's like Elvis and Fat Elvis. There's Brando and Fat Brando. Young Brando was this method actor who gave his all. Fat Brando wanted Jor-El to look like a jelly doughnut. This is Young Brando in his prime. He gives this amazing performance that almost rivals A Streetcar Named Desire. He's so good in this. Okay, there's one moment that rings kind of false and I've seen it in a lot of other movie, especially when it comes to boxing movies. Sure, I don't know a lot of boxers. I can safely say that I know zero boxers. But there's a time where someone is asking him about this fight that he threw back in the day. (After all, "He coulda been a contenda.") Every time a boxer in a film is asked what happened back then, they are suddenly transported back to the fight and they start shadow boxing the story as they tell it. It's an odd choice because I imagine, at best, the boxer would mime these motions just to get the story across. Brando has Terry become a method actor as well and gets fully engrossed in the story he's telling. He's huffing and puffing the story all the way through. But the rest of the movie is just perfect for Brando. I'm not spoiling the end, but the final confrontation with Johnny Friendly is awesome. I'm not even on Kazan's side, but I can appreciate a good "stick it to the man" ending. I don't know if I quite get the message at the end. I thought it would just make a bigger deal to Johnny Friendly if everyone just up and left, but maybe that would read as people running away from their problems. Karl Malden as Fr. Barry might be my favorite part of the movie though. He's so good. Like, he's the Catholic character we want in all of our Catholic movies. He's so intense. I have to stress that I'm in the world of the story. If Blacklisting went the way that Kazan implied it did, Fr. Barry is the guy you want on your side. There's this awesome scene with Fr. Barry at the docks. Let's establish that Malden gets a lot of good speeches in this movie, but his scene at the docks immediately after someone is killed is just perfection. If you watch this movie for no other reason except for the docks scene, you are doing yourself a service. He's just perfect casting and I absolutely love it. I sympathize with Eva Marie Saint's performance. Her character is a bit over the place. She's great. Don't get me wrong. She really crushes what she is given. But Edie has this major conflict that is almost impossible to play. She is in love with a man who helped murder her brother. Like, on a dime she is in love with him. Oddly, she seems to suspect this the whole movie, but is then mortified when she gets this confirmed. There's too much there. She's this force of nature when dealing with gangsters and then cowers in the corner during much smaller conflicts. It's a bit odd.
I love this movie. I do. I know that I'm not winning any new friends standing against Kazan and company, but On the Waterfront is problematic only when it is viewed as the allegory it is meant to be. As a movie on its own, it is brilliant. But when it is an excuse for behavior that is untoward, the best it can do is illicit a little sympathy.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.