(director: Elia Kazan; screenwriters: Budd Schulberg/from the original story by Schulberg/suggested by the series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by Malcolm Johnson; cinematographer: Boris Kaufman; editor: Gene Milford; music: Leonard Bernstein; cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley Malloy), Pat Henning (“Kayo” Dugan), Leif Erickson (Glover), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), Martin Balsam (Gillette); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sam Spiegel; Columbia Pictures; 1954)

“A hard-hitting but pretentious melodrama about union corruption on the New York docks.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

On the Waterfront is a hard-hitting but pretentious melodrama about union corruption on the New York docks. It is directed by Elia Kazan (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) and penned by Budd Schulberg. This colorful story of Mob informers was based on a number of true stories by Malcolm Johnson and was filmed on location in and around the docks of New York and Hoboken, New Jersey. Boris Kaufman’s sharp black-and-white cinematography does wonders in building up the tension around the docks. Unfortunately Leonard Bernstein’s musical score is too schmaltzy to help matters.

The film remained controversial because Marlon Brando as the informer is turned into a Christlike martyr figure, most likely deriving from the fact that Kazan and Schulberg named names during the McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s. The anti-Communist film is more meaningful and enjoyable if you can separate it from Kazan’s more personal aim to tell the story in a self-serving and defiant manner. Kazan after his less than heroic appearance before the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) was ostracized by his former liberal friends (for one, Arthur Miller stopped talking to him).

“Waterfront” won eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor for Brando, and Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint. In 1999 Elia Kazan was controversially presented an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to cinema, which didn’t please everyone in Hollywood.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a washed-up ex-prize fighter corrupted along with brother Charley (Rod Steiger) at an early age by a ruthless Mob-connected union boss named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who tightly runs things on the waterfront. Malloy is now an errand-boy for the crooked dock union, while Charley received a college education and is now a crooked lawyer for the same union mobsters. When Malloy witnesses the contract killing of a longshoreman who was talking to the crime commission, he remains silent. He soon meets the dockworker’s attractive sister, Edie Doyle (Eve Marie Saint in her debut), and has a change of mind. Father Barry (Karl Malden) is the activist Catholic priest who wants to reform the waterfront and talks with Malloy about his moral responsibilities to do the right thing. Eventually both Malloy’s guilt-pangs because of not intervening when he had a chance to prevent the killing and his romantic feelings for Edie weigh heavily on his conscience. But when Father Barry receives a beating from Friendly’s goons, this overwhelms him and he turns informer.

The film is noted for Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contendah” speech, as he asks his brother how he could have let the mob fix his fights while his promising career is thrown away so that they can profit by betting against him.

In retrospect much of On the Waterfront seems outdated and contrived. But the fiery perfomances by the entire cast and the realistic underlining tensions remain intact, allowing this classic film to still pack a wallop. The pain in Brando’s voice, expressions and body language hauntingly echoes throughout the film, and are just as chilling when viewed today. His Method Acting performance influenced actors of that generation and for years to come, as the gifted actor received acclaim as one of the greatest after that memorable performance.

On the Waterfront (1954)