Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Waterfront

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is driven by the strength of its iconic performances and its crisp, clear, direct imagery. It's a story of black-and-white morality, told with all the punchy aesthetics and acting fireworks it demands. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker in a city where the dock union is as corrupt as they come, presided over by mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his right-hand man, Terry's own brother Charley (Rod Steiger). Terry knows that they're corrupt, and that they've even killed a few workers who threatened to talk to the cops about the operation, but Terry, despite his reservations about what he's seen, knows enough to keep quiet. He lives his life by a simple code, that he comes first and he just has to look out for his own interests. This code is only challenged by Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a man who Terry helped lure to his death for squealing, and the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is inspired to aid in the fight against the mob-run union by Edie's principled words.

There's a reason this film is so iconic: it's packed with grand speeches, with opportunities for the actors to showboat, to emote to the rafters, not just Terry's justifiably famous "I coulda been a contenda" speech but several of Father Barry's impassioned oratories on standing up for what's right, and Edie's similarly intense pleas with Terry to live up to the goodness she sees in him. Even Johnny Friendly gets a chance to speak his mind, in an early scene where he defends his crooked business dealings by referring to his own tough childhood, and his lifetime of work, clawing his way up from the bottom of the heap as a dockworker to be the boss of his own gang. This is a real actor's movie, and Kazan is a real actor's director, building the film around these powerful monologues and wisely allowing the words to do much of the work. The cinematography is often striking, of course, as in the bird's eye views of the docks at night, shrouded in shadows, the streets lonely and empty except for the various thugs doing their shady work. More often, Kazan simply stands back and lets the actors deliver their potent words, and that's mostly enough.

One of the most striking scenes, though, is one in which the words are obscured. When Terry finally admits to Edie that he was the one who convinced her brother to go to the roof where he was pushed to his death by Johnny's thugs, the scene is staged on the rocks by the waterfront, and most of the words exchanged are blotted out by the loud whistling of a ship nearby. Kazan cuts back and forth between Edie, in tears, her hands over her mouth, and Terry, desperately trying to justify himself, his face scrunched up in psychological pain as he tries to explain to this woman he cares about why he got her brother killed. All the while, the ship's whistle makes it impossible to make out more than a few words of Terry's speech, though his words are familiar, just recycling the same justifications he's been using throughout the movie: he didn't know they'd kill him, he can't speak out about it, he needs to look out for himself. By obscuring the words, Kazan does two important things: he keeps the focus on the faces of the actors, wordlessly communicating their anguish and heartbreak, and he emphasizes how hollow Terry's words actually are, how meaningless they are in the face of Edie's wordless but eloquent grief. For a director of words and speeches to realize this is no small thing, and it's why, for all the film's eminently quotable dialogue, this scene where the words mostly aren't heard is the film's most powerful, its most cinematically beautiful and perfect moment.

There's a subtext to this story, of course, one that's hard to ignore. Kazan infamously testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming names of some of his former associates who were or had been members of the Communist Party. Kazan made On the Waterfront just two years later, with a screenplay by his fellow "friendly witness" Budd Schulberg, and it's obvious that it's a work intended to defend Kazan's decision. The film's passionate defense of those who turn "stool pigeon" when they know something is wrong was Kazan's way of justifying his own actions. Terry Malloy, the man torn apart by his conscience, split between a desire to stick by the dockworkers' code and stand by his friends and the desire to do what's right, is an obvious stand-in for Kazan himself. It's not a perfect analogy, of course; it's not even really a good analogy, even if Kazan himself doesn't seem to realize it. Malloy's conscience demands that he testify against the mob, standing up to those who have killed people and bullied the rest of the dockworkers into silence. Kazan's situation, needless to say, was much different, since he wasn't testifying against killers or thugs but against ordinary people who had simply attended meetings of the Communist Party. In some ways, the situation in the film is even the reverse of Kazan's. The temptation not to testify, for Malloy, is rooted in the desire to keep his job, to maintain his cushy position as the brother of well-positioned mob man. If he testifies, he risks losing all that. It was exactly the opposite for Kazan, who testified largely so he could keep his job, so he could keep working. Kazan, convinced he was Terry Malloy, seemed somewhat blind to the ironies of this reversal.

The political subtext isn't the only hard-to-swallow aspect of the film. There's also the disturbing scene where Terry forces himself on Edie, grabbing her and kissing her, the two of them falling off camera behind a door, at which point her struggles stop and her body goes limp in his arms, and Kazan switches to a glossy closeup of the lovers kissing. The romance is arguably the most contrived aspect of the film, even more than the occasionally heavy-handed dialogue that feels ripped right out of Kazan's autobiography. Even without the unfortunate rape-like implications of that forced kiss, this love affair never really feels believable: the tension and anger between the pair hits a lot harder than the sappy clenches and declarations of love. Saint is much better in her righteous anger, her desire to earn justice for her brother, to fight the abuses and violence that ended his life. Brando, for his part, delivers a remarkably consistent performance, his brow always knotted, his eyes constantly threatening to disappear within his scrunched-up expression of worry and confusion. Playing a former boxer, he really seems as punch-drunk as everyone says he is, his head scrambled, not by too many blows but by the sudden development of ideas he'd never had before. The dockworkers live by a code of remaining "deaf and dumb" to the crime and violence around them, but Brando's Terry is a different kind of dumb, and in his earnestly dopey performance he conveys the struggle to come to grips with a morality that had previously been foreign to him.

The complications of its political subtext aside, On the Waterfront well deserves its classic status. Brando is in peak form, manically chewing gum and scowling, copping the tough guy attitude that defined his youthful screen presence. Kazan surrounds this performance with similarly showy, dramatic supporting roles, and even when the film threatens to become an over-the-top acting showcase, it's never less than enthralling in its wordy directness. Its political entanglements even arguably make it a more interesting film, as the numerous contradictions in Kazan's perspective on this material rub up against one another uncomfortably within the film. The film's perspective on the working class certainly flirts with condescension, especially to the extent that Terry — uneducated and slow, visibly struggling when he's forced to think something through, his confusion perpetually written on his face — represents the working class. It's a film about morality and conscience, from a director who had obviously dealt with these issues in a dramatic fashion in his own life, and translated these experiences into a potent screen drama.


Jason Bellamy said...

When someone who knows I like movies but isn't a movie diehard/geek/etc asks me what I think the best movie of all time is, I often answer that it's On the Waterfront. It's not that I think it is now or that I ever did. But when talking to the non-diehard crowd it's an answer that no one argues with, and one that keeps me from seeming elitist or tied to a specific genre.

But that's just an aside.

By obscuring the words, Kazan does two important things: he keeps the focus on the faces of the actors, wordlessly communicating their anguish and heartbreak, and he emphasizes how hollow Terry's words actually are, how meaningless they are in the face of Edie's wordless but eloquent grief. For a director of words and speeches to realize this is no small thing, and it's why, for all the film's eminently quotable dialogue, this scene where the words mostly aren't heard is the film's most powerful, its most cinematically beautiful and perfect moment.

That really is a terrific moment. The other element that folds into that is this: by using that technique, Kazan allows us to observe the emotional impact of Terry's confession (hugely important) without boring us with the confession itself, which, as you noted, we're already familiar with. It's a shorthand way to get to an important, big emotion.

This is, for sure, a film for actors, and maybe that's why my favorite moment in the movie is a small one, near the beginning, when the investigators come to the docks, and one of them asks Terry a question, and Brando turns 'away' from the investigator to answer the question over the 'wrong' shoulder. You have to see it to understand it -- how it looks and how remarkably striking it is. Brando had it then.

Ed Howard said...

I know the moment you're talking about, Jason, it's definitely great. Brando is just so much fun to watch in this: all those small gestures, the little idiosyncracies of his movement, his way of carrying himself, his control over his face. It's a master class, not only in acting, but in attitude.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The book to read about why Kazan named names to HUAC is Mike Connolly and The Manly Art of Hollywood Gossip by Val Holley (McFraland and Company). It's a very important book about a little known but key figure in Old Hollywood -- Mike Connolly of the "Hollywood Reporter." While everyone knows about Hedd and Louella this gossip columnist was far more inside Hollywood -- and read religously by the studio ciefs. His word could make or break a project. He was a deeply-closeted gay man striking out at all and sundry especially anyone on the left. In short he was Hollywood's own Roy Cohn. Kazan had originally planned to give fairly bland testimony. He had been a party memebr and was going to admit to that fact -- and that was all. But Connolly got wind of the fact that On the Waterfront was in the works and made it known that unless Kazan named names the project would be cancelled.

And so Gadge Squealed.

It's a good movie, but not as good as Abe Polonsky's Force of Evil -- a much more knowing examination of the underside of American life in the immediate postwar period. Much less cartoonish tool. Lee J. Cobb's "Johnny Friendly" is like Bluto in the Popeye cartoon strips.
I much prefer his performance in Party Girl.

Jason Bellamy said...

Lee J. Cobb's "Johnny Friendly" is like Bluto in the Popeye cartoon strips.

Ha! That nails it!

Ed Howard said...

Sounds like a very interesting book, David. The whole period is fascinating, in a nausea-inducing way, and it's interesting to see all the justifications and reasons that people give for getting swept up in the whole mess.

There's no comparison, really, to Force of Evil, an absolutely great film from a director whose career was sadly truncated by HUAC.

And yes, that Bluto comparison is dead-on, though Cobb wouldn't be doing his job here if he wasn't chewing the scenery like Popeye chews spinach: this is a film that really calls for oversized performances, showy and bold.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Abe Polansky was quite a guy. I got to know him a bit in his last years, and visited him once at his condo in Beverly Hills. "It's on McCarty drive. That's not MaCarthy Drive you know!"

During the blacklist he wrote through "fronts." Before his passing he saw his credit for the screenplay of Odds Against Tomorrow restored (Nelson Gidding was his front on that Robert Wise classic.)

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave Abe our "Career Achievement" award the same year Kazan got his special Oscar. When he mounted the podium Abe said "Well was it worth it? Was it worth it to put up with the shit you're going to get for giving me this award? Cause on the other side of town another film organization is giving an award to a RAT!!!!"

Warren Beatty, who was there with Annette Bening (we were honoring him for Bulworth -- a masterful political film far too few have seen) roared with laughter. Yes Kazan gave him his start with Splendor in the Grass but Warren knows the score.
Anyway at the end of his speech Abe deliver the coup de grace. "Everyone say 'forgive and forget.' Well I NEVER forgive because I NEVER forget!"

As you can imagine that's become my motto.

Oh and BTW, Abe's last film Romance of a Horse Thief is very much deserving of "Only the Cinema" examination. What a cast! Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Lanie Kazan, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.

Shubhajit said...

What a superb analysis of the film!!!

There are portions in your review where you've mentioned certain pointers about the film, like the over-reliance on "filmy" dialogues & larger-than-life performances by the actors.

Yet, these very facets, that could have easily backfired, ensured a classic status in this case - and it was great reading how you brought out this facet about On the Waterfront.

It was also nice reading about your brief on the political context of the film. The analogy between Kazan's testifying at the House of Un-American Activities, and Terry's conflicts with conscience, as you mentioned, wasn't just uncalled for, but also added a disturbing thread to this otherwise classic American film.

By the way, the film was adapted as a Hindi film called Ghulaam (which translates to "Slave") a few years back, starring Aamir Khan, a very respected actor of Hindi cinema.

DavidEhrenstein said...

What do you mean "uncalled for"? It's been talked about by critics since Day One -- most memorably by the great Lindsay Anderson in his seminal essay "Stand Up! Stand Up!"

Ed Howard said...

David, I've been meaning to examine later Polonsky for a while. Maybe soon I'll finally get to that one.

Shubhajit, thanks for the comments. It's an interesting, conflicted film for such a classic, and the political subtext is a big part of that - and David, Shubhajit can answer this, but by "uncalled for" I think he just means that the film's parallels to Kazan's real life testimony are disturbing.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Remarkable review, as ever, Ed, especially the part where you contrast the plot with Kazan's biography.

I just saw A LETTER TO ELIA, which discusses this dimension to be a part of all his subsequent films. A film that would make a great companion to this review.


P.S: Thanks David. That's a lot of great stuff in just those two comments here. Will keep an eye out for the book. I also want to see RED HOLLYWOOD soon.


Ed Howard said...

Thanks, JAFB. I'll have to keep an eye out for A Letter To Elia. Kazan is such an interesting figure.