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Here's an acknowledged classic with a reputation that has always gotten a free ride from the performance of its superstar leading actor, Marlon Brando. Savant is a big fan of Elia Kazan's work overall but thinks this entertaining indictment of racketeering has some serious drawbacks. Also, Columbia Tristar has made a formatting choice Savant didn't expect from the Home Video company with the best record for fidelity to original theatrical presentations.
First off, let me make it clear that On the Waterfront is no slacker when it comes to being a good movie. The acting is superb, with Brando of course dazzling generations of would-be thespians with his evocative Terry Malloy. Eva Marie Saint is heartbreakingly appealing in an unglamorous role. Rod Steiger brings up the method rear with a much quieter performance sublimated to Brando's, but no less accomplished.
Elia Kazan captures the gritty naturalism of clammy NYC docksides and carries on the tradition of earlier postwar noirs, shot in real locations with non-actors in many roles. Kazan's earlier Panic in the Streets is a key film of this movement, setting its story in an exciting, real New Orleans among interesting ethnic characters who'd never translate properly on a Hollywood set.
On the Waterfront takes place in lower working-class neigborhoods where the goons and thugs of the Union mobs routinely threaten and murder to keep their stranglehold on the docks. Federal organized crime investigations were big news in the early '50s and their influence started to be felt in the movies even earlier, in pictures like The Captive City.
Schulberg, Spiegel and Kazan oversimplify their tale and make it reach for higher meanings which would be ridiculously pretentious in any other hands. Under their expert guidance, the story comes to a dynamic, if confusing conclusion.
The mob that runs the docks appears to be a self-contained little racket run with no sophistication whatsoever by the loutish Johnny Friendly and his pack of hoods, who behave like a street gang that has cornered the trade on kids' lunch money. The movie focuses narrowly on Terry Malloy and doesn't seem to realize that the rotten system he's betraying is an extremely limited and vulnerable pack of jackals. Their headquarters is on a little barge that looks like a clubhouse for the Hardy Boys. We're given hints that ominous forces are at work behind the crooked Union but what we see doesn't look too tough to knock over, frankly. With a moron like the goon played by a young Fred Gwynne on his team, it's a wonder that Friendly's little racket doesn't self-destruct.
The point is not that the docks couldn't have been run by bums like this; I've personally been alone in the middle of a room of Hollywood Union thugs who certainly intimidated me. Terry seems to be up against his 'local pals' and particularly his misplaced loyalty to his brother, and that's it. Admittedly this one neighborhood is Terry's whole world, but On the Waterfront must present him as exceedingly stupid to make his predicament work. It's credible that Terry's horizons could be so limited, but there's something easy and manipulative about making us identify with such an illiterate ignoramus.
An even weaker arrangement is the crusading priest character played by Karl Malden, who tries to fill Terry with the spirit of The Lord. Kazan is a master at breathing life and art into mawkish or borderline agit-prop material. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Viva Zapata! are two cases in point. But Father Barry's exhortations to the phony little groups of cowed & undertrodden Union workers come off like a bad college play. Worse, his sermon-on-the-mount in the cargo bay, with the workers and the bosses watching, functions like the WPA theater of the thirties, something Barton Fink might write. And finally, by cloaking their position with the sanctity of the church, Kazan & company put God on the side of their arguments, a really cheap gambit that Kazan doesn't utilize in his other pictures.
Finally, the resolution of the story is a big puzzle. Terry Malloy's rebellion against the Friendly mob is totally personal, as he doesn't seem capable of understanding an issue bigger than, 'You dirty rat, you killed my brother.' This makes for terrific drama but the idea that an individual like Malloy could crush an entire organization with his testimony didn't work as cleanly in real life. The real Malloys hauled in front of the Kefaufer Crime Commission, being Goodfella thugs themselves, made lousy witnesses with limited credibility.
The ending has undeniable physical power. Brando's walk to the hiring line after sustaining a terrible beating is treated like Christ's agony on the via Dolorosa, an image that Brando would return to repeatedly (The Chase, for one). Terry Malloy = Christ, an equation that robs On the Waterfront of Kazan's best quality, his naturalistic approach to real-life situations. Drenched in serious Big Meanings, the movie hits like an emotional sledge hammer but then falls apart when we try and make sense of it. Are they seriously trying to tell us that Terry is a martyr who got beaten to save the souls of the Union workers, that a snitch has that much power? The real message we get is that Unions are no damn good and you have to face the bosses as an individual. The idea that Unions = corruption is one that movie studios have historically been happy to promote, which makes the goings-on here all the more suspicious.
So what we end up with is a successfully filmed story of personal redemption that doesn't connect with the larger story of crime and power and social righteousness. The show screams 'message' but the message is confusing. The personal angle gums up the bigger statement: Terry Malloy isn't capable of acting for the larger group, just for himself. His defeat of the Friendly clubhouse ends with his defiant walk into the warehouse, but what has he won besides his personal dignity? The final image of the giant doors closing on the workers isn't an optimistic one. You can't tell if this is a giant victory against the mobs, or just a changing of the thugs on top.
In the light of the controversy around Elia Kazan, who in the last few years has taken extra heat for the Blacklisting witchhunts of the '50s, On the Waterfront became a key picture that critics frequently interpret as his personal apology, or non-apology, for testifying and naming names before the House Un-American committee. For those who like to pretend that director's movies are hard evidence of their personal lives, this picture indeed plays like an overweighted defense for a squealer. The evil Union commits murders, laughs at virture, sneers at the American Way of Life, makes brothers betray brothers and is blamed for the miserable working conditions of its stevedores. 1 God, the Church, love and Eva Marie Saint are all on the side of the informer.All he must do to redeem himself and come clean before Uncle Sam is to overcome his inhibitions against informing on his brother and the Mafia-ish world..
Elia Kazan was a grateful son of immigrants who knew very well the glory of the American dream, as evidenced strongly in his movie America, America. Equating Kazan = Malloy = Christ requires one to believe that Communist influence in Hollywood was everything that HUAAC said it was. It also requires a restructuring of reality, inventing a Hollywood fatally compromised by nefarious Communists in total control, where nobody dares speak out against the evil Red bosses. In this conservative reading, Kazan's testimony was a heroic act that few people would understand, a weight he bravely bore to stay true to the flag and his principles. Unfortunately, Informers in Biblical terms are more in line with the Judas character than with Christ. I don't believe that the intelligent and dramatically sophisticated Elia Kazan would purposely, or even unconsciously try to make On the Waterfront some kind of personal defense. I think this is a Budd Schulberg story that Kazan just tried to direct as well as he could.
Yep, Kazan, in retrospect, made a big mistake re: testifying before the committees. Savant thinks it's ridiculous to reach into the darkness of those years, when the issues were clouded by media noise and public hysteria, 2 and pluck out individuals for censure. Put me in front of a bunch of FBI men and threaten my economic survival if I don't give information, and I don't know what I'd do. If I were a second-generation immigrant whose old-country heritage was mass murder, I think I'd probably do whatever the representatives of the flag told me to do. Savant's not suggesting that Kazan is guiltless, but he was in a situation where it was extremely difficult to do right. If every moral, ethical and legal transgressor in Hollywood were prevented from making pictures, there wouldn't be a Hollywood. Some pretty compromised and sometimes hateful people have made some very wonderful movies. The answer isn't, "Forget it, Jake, it's Hollywood," but neither is it time for a lynch mob.
On the Waterfront (did I remember to emphasize that it is a very entertaining movie?) on DVD is a miss for Columbia Tristar, one studio that in Savant's eyes rarely even stumbles. The film looks fine but the chosen aspect ratio is 1:37 flat. I've seen the picture at festivals, at the very formal Academy and at UCLA, and it's always projected at 1:85 widescreen. The titles are composed in horizontal blocks of text. In 16mm flat prints, microphones frequently intruded into the upper frame, especially in the scene of the interrupted meeting in the church. Those shots must have been slightly blown up here. The movie looks much better when matted to widescreen, with tighter compositions. This is odd coming from the studio that recalled thousands of copies of Silverado for a much more minor formatting error.
The extras are a mixed bag. The commentary track by Richard Shickel and author Jeff Young is informative but comes off as analysis instead of testimony. These oral documents have tremendous historical value (even more so when they're done by principals), but sometimes they're better off read in print.
The featurette is the most frustrating extra. The famous taxicab scene between Rod Steiger and Brando is analyzed by the filmmakers and critics in an endless repetition of the same information. That fellow who interviews movie greats on the Bravo channel says the same thing at least three times, and the overkill is numbing. Much better is a rambling interview with Kazan himself, who comes off as both spry and sharp-mindedmind. Kazan talks about the wild relationships between the main creatives on the picture. Half the time, Kazan and Schulberg wanted to kill the exasperating wildcat producer Sam Spiegel!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Like, with the mob hiring bosses kicked out, there will magically be more work
to distribute among the day laborers huddled in the cold on the docks?
2. Not like now, no sir. Everything's clear as glass now.