Gangster Movie Month: "On the Waterfront" Review

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An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses
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Gangster Movie Month: "On the Waterfront" Review

-- Rating: Approved
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: June 24, 1954
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Genre: Crime/Drama

Marlon Brando gives the performance of his career in "On the Waterfront" as Terry Malloy, a failed boxer who now does errands for a corrupt union boss named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). He spends his days and nights doing exactly as he is told by Johnny and his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), both of whom convinced him to lose the high-profile boxing match that effectively ended his career. He trusts them, even though they have never had his best interests at heart, so he continues to run menial errands for them, barely scraping by and leading a largely lonely existence.

One day, he unwittingly lures a man to what would be his eventual death at the behest of Johnny and Charley. When he finds out that he was duped into doing something so sinister, he finally begins to see just how toxic and dangerous his brother and boss are. Unfortunately, the realization comes at a time when Johnny and the union are being investigated for corruption. Terry is questioned by the cops but steadfastly refuses to say anything for fear that Johnny will order his goons to kill him. It is around this time that he meets Edie Doyle (Eve Marie Saint), the sister of the man whom Terry unwittingly helped murder.

His guilt increases as he begins to fall in love with Edie, which forces him to make some big decisions about his life. He doesn't want to confess his accidental role in her brother's murder for fear of losing her, and he's afraid she would likely tell the police. This would lead to his having to testify against the union, if he isn't murdered before the trial begins. He is also scared to do so because his testimony would lead to his brother's incarceration. He begins to question everything he once knew, including his love and loyalty to Charley. He is an emotional mess and a psychological time bomb of sorts, but he finally has a goal in life after years of drifting and aimlessness. In putting his life into so much danger with his decisions, Terry has never looked so alive.

"On the Waterfront" is loosely based on a true story of real waterfront corruption that journalist Malcolm Johnson wrote about in 1949 in an epic twenty-four-part series in the "New York Sun." He won a Pulitzer for his work, while screenwriter Bud Schulberg won the Oscar that year for the script, which many critics deemed as the most perfect screenplay ever written outside of the ending. Due to expectations in filmmaking in the era, the ending for "On the Waterfront" had to be changed from the grittier real-life ending in Johnson's series to a decidedly more triumphant ending for the film. A more realistic or unhappy ending simply would not have been acceptable in 1954. Had the film been made a decade or two later, it likely would have had a much different result.

The small controversy over the changed ending was actually not a big deal in comparison to the much larger issue over one particular scene. The scene in question has Malloy giving an impassioned speech in front of a government committee about why he tattled on his friends in order to assuage his conscience. It hearkens back to just a few years earlier, when Kazan handed over names of colleagues he thought had ties to the Communist party when McCarthyism was at its peak. In doing so, he destroyed several lives and careers, while he was allowed to carry one with his own career unsullied. This didn't go down well with some in Hollywood, so the scene in "On the Waterfront" was seen as Kazan's way of explaining why he did what he did. No matter whether viewers support or got offended by Kazan's actions, the scene does not take away from the greatness of the film one bit.

The fact that the film is seen as controversial actually adds a bit of mystique to what is already a fabled film. Add the nearly flawless screenplay, Brando's best acting ever, and a series of supporting performances for the ages, and the result is one of the best movies of all time. Even half a century after its initial release, "On the Waterfront" still stands as a powerful, moving film that might have been one of the earliest films to have a true catchphrase: "I coulda been a contender." The film was a definite contender, walking away with eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Brando, Best Picture, and Best Director for Kazan.

Rating 4 out of 5