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Friday, January 23, 2015

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront

While the film was the same (except for dubbing into various language), the poster designs varied considerably.

A 1954 movie poster. Brando's
troubled face graced every
poster regardless of country.
I've never seen Elia Kazan's 1954 masterpiece, On the Waterfront. My rather lame excuse is that, like The Godfather series, gangster movies are, after horror movies, my least favorite genre of motion pictures. It just occurred to me that both types have a lot in common. They're both ugly. However in perusing the American Film Institute's (AFI) list of top one-hundred movies of all time, On the Waterfront was the only one of the top ten I'd never written about. It's number eight on the list, which is reissued each year. (The rankings change somewhat from year to year). I decided that any film nominated for twelve Academy Awards, and winning eight deserved to be reviewed. Strangely enough, despite the title, I had always been under the impression that the movie was about boxing. Of course there's an element of ignorance on my part associated with this misconception. But then too, when the most famous line from the movie involves Marlon Brando, as Terry Malloy, telling his older brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), in the iconic taxi cab scene: “I could’a had class, I could’a been a contenda, I could’a been somebody,” I can claim some degree of innocence in my ignorance (the line has really very little to do with the plot).

So-called "lobby cards" are an art form unto themselves,
here retouched in color even though the movie was in black and white.
On the Waterfront was released in July, 1954. If ever a film reflected the era in which it was made, this movie be a prime example. For lack of a better name, this period in American history has been termed the "McCarthy Era" after the "red under every bed" "commie catcher" Senator Joseph McCarthy. Although this film has nothing to do with spies and politics, it has everything to do with crime...the bailiwick of yet another famous senator of the time, Estes Kefauver. The two are related though. In 1952, the film's director, Elia Kazan, had testified before McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee at a time when several screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and other U.S. entertainment professionals were barred from working based on their alleged membership or sympathy with the Communist Party, or for their involvement in progressive political causes associated with communism. Hollywood never forgave him for that. On the Waterfront was Kazan's attempt to reclaim his reputation by bringing to light the "mob" (before the days it became known as the Mafia) based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on longshoremen and union corruption, “Crime on the Waterfront,” which ran in the latter months of 1948 in The New York Sun.

Brando and Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle) play with the pigeons.
Actually, the newspaper expose' was merely the basis for the movie script by Bud Schulberg, who further researched the organized crime involvement on the waterfronts of Manhattan and Brooklyn (the movie was shot in just 36 days "on the waterfront" of Hoboken, New Jersey). Schulberg took his script to Kazan and together they "shopped" it to various Hollywood studios and producers, each of whom turned it down for various reasons both artistic and financial. Daryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox turned down the project because Schulberg and Kazan insisted the movie be shot in black and white, while also eschewing the new industry infatuation with CinemaScope. Other studios simply considered the script too controversial. Finally, in mid-1953, Sam Spiegel of United Artists agreed to produce the film.

Eva Marie Saint (her brother, Joey, is murdered early in the film).
Three actors were considered for the lead role of Terry Malloy--Brando, Frank Sinatra, and a very young and inexperienced Paul Newman. Brando rejected the script (twice) before being cajoled into the role. Sinatra (who grew up in Hoboken) wanted the part but wasn't deemed a big enough box office draw to merit the film's $900,000 budget. Kazan considered Newman, but at the time, the actor had yet to make his first film. The rest of the cast Kazan drew from the his Actor's Studio "method acting" alumni--Karl Malden as Father Barry, Rod Steiger as Charley, and Lee J. Cobb as mob boss, Michael J. "Johnny Friendly" Skelly. All three were later nominated for Oscars in the Supporting Actor category. Eva Marie Saint (who did win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress) was cast as Terry's love interest shortly before production began--her first movie role.

Scenes from On the Waterfront
"They Got Charley."
Though the film is relatively short (107 minutes) the plot isn't. It's rather long and convoluted, murder and mayhem spurting up all over the place every few minutes. Terry's brother ends up hanging from a grappling hook (featured prominently in foreign distribution posters). Without exception, Kazan wrings from his cast flawless performances in an era when the line, "go to hell" needed special dispensation from the Motion Picture Production Code Authority. Besides winning eight out of twelve Oscar nominations, the film has today grossed in excess of $9.6-million. Kazan went on to direct John Steinbeck's East of Eden the following year and over the course of his career introduced to movie audience names and faces such as Warren Beatty, Carroll Baker, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle (to name just a few).

The cast: Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Henning, Karl Malden, Marlon Brando.
Although On the Waterfront has earned lots of money, lots of awards, most of all it has earned lots of praise. Virtually every critic from Roger Ebert to those at Rotten Tomatoes have praised it lavishly. Though Brando had made a name for himself in Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire (winning Best Supporting Actor)the year before, On the Waterfront (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar) made him a household name. The movie won the Oscar for Best picture, Kazan won as Best Director, and Schulberg won for Best Screenplay. The other four Oscars went to Eva Marie Saint as Best Supporting Actress and Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Editing. However, I've come to feel that Karl Malden was slighted in not also winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Click on the film clip below in which he eulogizes a dockworker named Kayo, murdered to prevent him from testifying before the New York State Crime Commission regarding waterfront mob activities. See if you don't agree:


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