Thursday, January 1, 2015
ON THE WATERFRONT
(July 1954, U.S.)
Ironically, despite my overwhelming love and knowledge of classic black and white movies, it's notable how many of them I discovered (or at the very least first heard about) through other movies, i.e. watching scenes of NOW VOYAGER in the 1971 film SUMMER OF '42. I first caught (or heard, I should say) glimpses of Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT during a monologue by Robert DeNiro in front of a mirror in Martin Scorsese's RAGING BULL (1980). That's all it takes sometimes. You hear a little, you see a little and then suddenly you're standing at the checkout counter at Blockbuster Video with videotape in hand (how '80s does that sound??).
For its era, ON THE WATERFRONT may have been one of considerable social and political relevance, as it depicts the corruption and inner city violence amongst the waterfront longshoremen of New Jersey. One of its dock workers Terry Malloy (played by the once great Marlon Brando) enjoys the privilege of a very cushy job for no other reason that being the younger brother of the mob boss' Johnny Friendly (played by Lee J. Cobb) right-hand man Charley (played by Rod Steiger) while the rest of his co-workers struggle daily just to be able to work and put food on their family's table. Some years earlier, Terry Malloy had been a promising boxer, until Friendly had Charley instruct him to deliberately throw a fight he could have easily won, so that Friendly could win a lot of money betting against him, and it appears that he still feels the sting of that act today as he considers himself no more worthy than a waterfront bum. Most recently, he's overwhelmed with guilt in having been used by his mob bosses to lure a good man of the neighborhood to his death atop a building roof. But like all corrupt neighborhood situations, there are always those who want to and try to do good; in this case the local waterfront priest (played by Karl Malden) and the young sister of the rooftop victim Edie (played by Eva Marie Saint in her film debut). Cliché, no doubt, takes over for this film as the protagonist's awakening heart and conscience gives into the acts of righteousness and the tenderness of smitten love. Despite his somewhat lack of intelligence and dim-wittedness, we can count on Terry Malloy in the end to do the right thing and stand up against the crime bosses who have taken over the good people of a decent community with its fear and its corruption. Like the first ROCKY film (for which this film would later be of mild influence), a final brawl takes place between the evil crime boss and the once-potentially great boxer. It won't end with a traditional knockdown of sorts, but rather with the pride and strength of one man who can stand alone and stand tall amongst his peers and face the enemy with his own bloody (literally) dignity.
Despite its violence and final message of righteous victory, the part of ON THE WATERFRONT that I really want to focus on is what has become the most defining moment of the film in which Terry and Charley share a taxi ride together and the nature of their entire relationship comes full circle and becomes very clear. Many would consider the love story element of this film to be the obvious choice of Terry and Edie, and why not? Man and woman are the traditional features of any classic love story. However, look closer and you'll see the real love story here is between two brothers. Terry, in his innocence, is just like any other young man who needs his older brother to look up to and to guide him through life, and it's areal tragedy when that model figure lets you down. Recall earlier when I mentioned that it was his own brother Charley who instructed him to throw the fight that he could have easily won and would have made the difference between him being a success and being a bum. Face to face now in the taxi, the two brothers are forced to confront the nature of their relationship and how it's managed to all go to Hell. In an unforgettable moment when Charley is trying to determine if Terry will "rat" out the crime bosses to the Waterfront Commission, he pulls a gun on his own younger brother. Any other scene in any other film by any other actor would have likely shown Terry to react in a typically defensive manner or even start a brawl right there in the cab. Brando, however, in what I've come to understand was an act of pure ad libbing and improvising, merely pushes the gun away with a gentle gesture, almost as if he was tenderly taking a woman's hand, and bestows a look of shame and regret to his own brother, saying only, "Charley...Charley." Charley's face, as a reaction to that gun gesture, is one of shame and regret, as well. In the end, despite a history of disappointment and betrayal, brothers remain brothers and cannot hurt each other, even if it means that one of them will die as a result of not following through with orders from the crime boss.
This in one of those film stories that I love to hear - in 1952, director Kazan identified a number of Communists before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the era of "McCarthyism" and he was heavily criticized for that act. ON THE WATERFRONT was considered a true answer in return and retaliation to those criticisms in outlying its political context. As for Brando, it's one of his defining film roles and displays human endurance and triumph at its best by an actor who could always find the enduring and triumphant part of himself in any of his film roles, from Terry Malloy to Vito Corleone in THE GODFATHER (1972) to Jor-El in SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE (1978) to Col. Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).
ON THE WATERFRONT won the Oscar for best picture of 1954.
Favorite line or dialogue"
Charlie Malloy: "Look, kid, I...how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast."
Terry Malloy: "It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money."
Charlie: "Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money."
Terry: "You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it. It was you, Charley."