Cine-East Film Club Presents #63: 1954, On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan)

by George_East on April 2, 2015

Charlie Malloy: ‘Look kid, how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty eight pounds you were beautiful. You could have 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, Charlie, it was you…’

After a three month hiatus the Cine-East Film Club is back. Bringing you the best in cult, classic and just damn right interesting films in all genres, from all periods and from all places. This week’s film is one inspired by the news that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez has been indicted on corruption charges. You can always rely on Joisey.

Thinking back to February’s Oscar night brings to mind previous Best Picture winners.   Very often the Best Picture Oscar goes to the worthy over the great, the epic and demonstrative over the subtle, the historical over the personal. Very often the Academy gets it wrong (Forrest Gump), sometimes disastrously so (Crash? And sadly not the Cronenberg film of that title).     This year it didn’t get it disastrously wrong – the best picture winner, Birdman,is an excellent film, with a knowingness about Hollywood (something the narcissists of the film industry always value) with two superb central performances in Michael Keaton and even more especially Ed Norton. But that said, there is little doubt that of the nominees, it was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that should have won – innovative in form, humanist in content. Grown up cinema about growing up was though perhaps too much for the permanent adolescents of Los Angeles.

There are though years when there can be no cause for complaint at all.   In 1954 On The Waterfront shared the nominee list with the perfectly watchable The Caine Mutiny, the fun musical Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, the saccharine Three Coins In The Fountain and the now almost completely forgotten The Country Girl. It must have been one of the easiest decisions of all.   As well as Best Picture, this week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation picked up 7 other Oscars, including Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie-Saint, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Screenplay for Budd Schulberg. Amazingly although Edmund O’Brien bagged the Best Supporting Actor Award for the great The Barefoot Contessa (very much a possible future presentation), no fewer than three of the five nominees for that Award were from On The Waterfront (Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and Lee J Cobb – any of whom would have been a worthy winner).   It is a monument of American cinema – and was one of the first batch of films to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress on its foundation in 1989.

It is, of course, a film that is virtually impossible to watch without reading it through the prism of McCarthyism and the investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.   Notoriously Elia Kazan had named names to HUAC in 1952. And On The Waterfront’s connections with that shameful episode do not end there. So had writer Budd Schulburg and indeed actor Lee J Cobb.   The continued reverberations of Kazan’s collaboration with the HUAC’s witch hunt remained controversial for the rest of his life, as was demonstrated in 1999, when Kazan’s award of an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement (book ended on stage by Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese), actors such as Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and Michael Douglas (whose Dad, the great Kirk Douglas, was responsible for using his star power to rehabilitate Hollywood Ten writer, Dalton Trumbo as screenplay writer for Spartacus) pointedly refused to join in with the applause.

On this self-justificatory view of On The Waterfront Terry Malloy (Brando) represents Elia Kazan defying institutional pressure in order to testify in the name of truth and justice and indeed God (given Malloy’s alliance ultimately with Karl Malden’s good priest, Father Barry). The corrupt mob-led union under Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) with its principles of omerta (or ‘d and d’, deaf and dumb as it is called in the film) enforced by violence, on this view, represents the Hollywood leftist elite. The extent of the peer pressure exerted is such that it is not just brothers in a fraternal sense but actual brothers, in the shape of Terry’s big brother, Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) who have to be stood up to. The film as an apologia for Kazan’s actions, if you will.

Although this is a superficially attractive reading (and indeed critique) of the film, it is I think reductive and risks missing its very real qualities. This may be a cultural product of McCarthyism but it is so much more than that too.   The film is, after all, based on a series of news reports from the late 1940s on real life corruption in docks unions in New Jersey.   Anyone who has seen gangster movies or The Sopranos will recognise the basic modus operandi here – by controlling the union, the companies importing and exporting through the docks can be the subject to extortion. Nothing goes in or out without the mob taking a piece. But the mob is as unforgiving and controlling of the union members as it is of the companies who it extorts. If you don’t toe the line or show due respect, then in the still casualised dockyards you aren’t going to get any work at all. Putting bread on the family table depends upon it. As Francis Ford Coppola would show in the first two Godfather films two decades later, the mob represent American capitalism at its purest – everything is sacrificed to the profit motive.  Nothing will  be permitted to get in the way.

Brando’s Molloy, all pent up rage and self-pity for a life that might have been had he stood up to his brother and the money men and not thrown the fight that ended his promising boxing career, in standing up to the mob, will himself become a leader of men. The final shot of the film, with Johnny Friendly dead, and the men returning to work, there is if anything then a vindication of the collective. This is not an individualist film or an attack on collective action, but rather an expose of how the leaders of the collectives have themselves become as corrupt and all controlling as the bosses.

The targeting of the weakest – from Molloy’s racing pigeons to the non-compliant worker who is thrown from a building to his death, is indicative of the mob’s methods.   It takes a man like Molloy in the end to stand up to them – not out of political necessity, but out of personal necessity – the need to restore a self-respect taken away from him by his older smarter brother, an older smarter brother who will choose the mob over his younger brother’s life when push comes to shove.

And yes On The Waterfront is justly famous for its acting. It is one of those films that changed how screen acting was done and it still mesmerises with its quality. Brando is at his very peak here – perhaps only matched by his performance in The Godfather. But it is not just Brando – the whole Actor’s Studio cast – Steiger, Malden, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J Cobb are electric when they are on screen.

I leave you with the most famous scene in the film (and one of the most famous scenes in film). In a cab that is possibly taking Terry Malloy to his death, he sits and talks about his past and his future with his older brother. Just watch how Brando pushes away the gun when it is drawn on him – he is disappointed not threatened. However good the ‘coulda been a contender’ scene is though (like the Bogart and Bergman scene on the runway in Casablanca) there is a risk it loses its power from repetition out of context. So once you have viewed it watch the film as a whole, and wonder how Hollywood lost the ability to make films as complex, compelling and powerful as this.


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