In 1953, when Elia Kazan, the director of the previous hit films A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), and GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947) pitched his new project depicting corruption in the harbor unions of New York, it was rejected by every single Hollywood studio. Wiley and Bona’s book Inside Oscar recounts that then 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck screamed at Kazan, “Who the hell gives a s*** about a labor union?” By the summer of 1954, ON THE WATERFRONT starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb opened to critical acclaim and set box office records. It would go on to rack up twelve Academy Award nominations, winning eight and nearly running the table of all four acting categories, but for Grace Kelly’s Best Actress win for THE COUNTRY GIRL (1954). It was the first time that the Academy nominated three actors, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden as Best Supporting Actors in any acting category for the same film. So, the answer to Zanuck’s question is, “LOTS of people.”
The plot centers on Marlon Brando’s ex-prize fighter turned mob enforcer, Terry Malloy, who is duped into luring his friend Joey to a hit ordered by Lee J. Cobb’s union boss, Johnny Friendly. When Terry hears of Joey’s death, he swallows his anguish and sticks to the street code of silence. When the criminal investigation into the union’s dealings heats up because of the suspected murder, Joey’s sister Edie, played by newcomer Eva Marie Saint begs Terry to testify. Terry slowly falls in love with Edie. [SPOILER] Talks with Father Brady, played by Karl Malden, and Edie’s love awaken Terry’s conscious and he testifies against the Johnny Friendly and the union. As a result, the waterfront community shuns Terry and submits him to cruel retaliation. In a climactic wharf battle scene with Friendly and his mugs, Terry finally redeems himself.
America in the early ‘50s had recovered from the horrors of WWII but faced a resurgence of an insidious enemy in Communism then dubbed “The Red Scare.” Like Johnny Friendly’s harbor union, investigators came after the Hollywood’s rank and file for their role in perpetuating Communism in films. These investigators of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (the Committee) implored and sometimes coerced producers, directors, writers, and actors to testify as ‘friendly witnesses’ against people they had known and worked with for years about their age old affiliations with the Communism party. The testimony scenes from ON THE WATERFRONT eerily mirror news reels of the Committee’s infamous proceedings.
Eliz Kazan felt he was a ‘Terry Malloy.’ In 1952 he testified before the Committee as a ‘friendly witness’ and was criticized and ostracized by the industry. Playwright Arthur Miller originally signed on to write the screenplay based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of newspaper articles “Crime on the Waterfront,” by New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson, but dropped out after Kazan testified. Longtime screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who also testified, took on the task. After Hollywood rejected the script, producer Sam Spiegel saved the film by raising the $850,000 budget ($8 million in today dollars) and cutting a distribution deal with Columbia. ON THE WATERFRONT is regarded as Elia Kazan’s and Budd Schulberg’s heartfelt apology or rationalization for their roles in the blacklisting of their Hollywood contemporaries, but their reputations would remain permanently damaged.
The film ushers in a new cinematic genre dubbed ‘social realism’ that draws attention to working-class conditions and examines the power and system behind those conditions. ON THE WATERFRONT captures the world of longshoremen with the supporting cast’s raw performances, the stripped-down budget, and the undeniable performance of Marlon Brando at the height of his acting prowess and physical attraction.
Brando, already nominated in each of the three proceeding years as Best Actor for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), VIVA ZAPATA (1952), and JULIUS CAESAR (1953), gives the performance of a lifetime. Brando was from the Actors Studio which taught a style of acting called the Method which was naturalistic and emotional. Robert Osborne states in Jeremy Arnold’s book The Essentials: 52 Films You Must See and Why They Matter, “I don’t think anybody in film, ever portrayed angst, confusion, and torment more honestly, without grandstanding than Marlon Brando.” In his memoir, Elia Kazan writes, “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.”
Eva Marie Saint, another alum of the Actors Studio, makes her screen debut opposite Brando and goes toe to toe with him. From the tender scene where Brando plays with her dropped glove to the torrid slide-down-the-door kiss, Saint makes sure we never forget that this is also a passionate love story. Spiegel insured Saint’s Oscar win by steering her nomination out of the Best Actress category and into the Best Supporting category instead.
The iconic “I could have been a contender” taxicab scene with yet another Actors Studio alum Rod Steiger, as Terry’s older brother and union lawyer, Charley, is certified cinematic gold. But, look for the sequence where Terry tells Edie about his part in Joey’s death. It starts from a high vantage point where Karl Malden as Father Barry watches the confession unfold. Kazan then cuts to close-ups with just pieces of Terry’s and Edie’s dialogue audible the blast tugboat whistles. As Edie runs away from a devastated Terry, dissonant chords from Leonard Bernstein’s powerful score take over.
Leonard Bernstein, the renowned composer of WEST SIDE STORY (1961), conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, and a brilliant concert pianist, was as comfortable with jazz as he was with concertos. Bernstein brings this talent combo to ON THE WATERFRONT, his only score for a non-musical film. It is a stark and disturbing score that matches the performances and the location. In Reel Music, author Roger Hickman describes the opening film sequence, “… which starts with a solo French horn, an instrument representing a hero, adding the crescendoing flute, a sax, then the percussion section. The music ends abruptly with timpani suggesting Joey’s body [tossed off the roof and] hitting the ground.”
ON THE WATERFRONT trumpets the beginning of a new type of film and a new kind of acting. It was lightning in a bottle, capturing Kazan’s very personal drama, the influence of the new Method acting style on Hollywood, and the Anti-Communism zeitgeist of 1954. Decades later, watch as Terry Malloy listens to his conscience and does the right thing; watch as he suffers the tragic consequences; and watch as this film goes beyond being a classic movie and becomes a part of American culture. It’s a timeless masterpiece that shows an example of American resilience we sorely need to remember these days.