You have to pick the right moment to enjoy a classic for the first
time. Every generation lives in its own moment, and we fill so much of
our time by reading and watching and listening to creative works that
are being created now, that it’s hard to make room in our schedules for
other, perhaps better, work that was done long before we were born.
Sometimes you save a film for the exact moment, and it doesn’t live up to your hopes. For me, it was Lawrence of Arabia
I’d missed it in its theatrical revivals, but read all the stories, all
the accolades ranking it as one of the best motion pictures of all
time. And then… it didn’t really do it for me. Maybe it was because I
saw it on heavily letter-boxed TV rather than in a theatre, and maybe
now that I have a wide-screen in my living room I should give it another
chance. Probably will. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion. But, when all
was said and done, it just wasn’t the right time or place.
I’ve always had On The Waterfront
on my “must eventually see”
list, but for various reasons, never got around to it. In the meantime,
I’d seen hundreds of recent movies that I’d rather not even bring to
mind, let alone list here. But reading director Elia Kazan’s exhaustive
(800+ page!) autobiography A Life
, compelled me to move the film
into a more prominent place on my list. I was prepared to be
disappointed. Other than his role as Don Vito Corleone, I’ve never been
a huge fan of Marlon Brando. I admired his portrayal of Stanley
Kowalsky in A Streetcar Named Desire
, but found his character so irredeemably brutal and the play so profoundly depressing that his performance in Streetcar
for me, is something I admire rather than something that I like. And
Brando was certainly an odd Fletcher Christian in the second remake of Mutiny on the Bounty
. Last Tango in Paris
… wow, all I remember is not looking at a butter stick the same way afterward. But his performance as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront
is something else altogether. I admit. Now I get Brando. He’s
phenomenal in this role – certainly a career best. More on him later.
On The Waterfront
is about union corruption on the loading docks
of Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s about one guy, a little guy, a not so
bright guy even, standing up to powerful corrupt forces and not backing
down – not because it’s easy, but because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s about telling the truth when the consequences of telling the truth
can cost you your livelihood or your life. It’s about making the really
tough choices in life when it’s so much easier to go along with the
flow, as everybody else is doing. And, in this way, it’s one of the
most admirable films I’ve ever seen. In short, it lived up to the
hype. And then some.
But let’s go back to the genesis of the project. Though it’s set on the
docks of Hoboken, it’s really a metaphor for a completely different
issue. In the early 1950s, both director Elia Kazan, and writer Budd
Schulberg testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities
about the relations between the Communist Party and Hollywood. Both
men endured the decades-long scorn of their friends and co-workers as a
result. You’re not supposed to “rat out” your friends. You’re not
supposed to “snitch.” But if you see wrongdoing, why should you remain
silent about it? This movie is about the pain suffered by both men. It
is the answer to the question of why they chose to testify before the
Both Shulberg and Kazan had belonged to the Communist Party USA in the
1930s. Each had decided individually to leave the party after they had
been called before kangaroo courts and berated for the choices they were
making in their creative work. For Kazan, it was because of the
choices he was making as a theatrical director. Specifically, he
disagreed with a directive from the party commissar and was berated for
his attitude by a visiting member of the Detroit UAW before all the
members of his theatrical cell. He resigned from the party that night.
For Schulberg, it was for a novel he was writing called What Makes Sammy Run?
After presenting an outline for his novel, Schulberg was told by the
Communist cell in Hollywood that he should not write it. He left
Hollywood, moved to Vermont and wrote the novel which became a success,
although, due to pressure exerted by the CP at the Hollywood studios, Sammy
would never be made into a motion picture. Both Schulberg and Kazan
felt that others had no right to tell them what they could and could not
create, and then each subsequently left the Communist Party, years
later, testifying as to their involvement, as well as that of others.
So, this is what On The Waterfront
is really about. It’s about
an individual standing up to collective forces and doing the thing he
believes in as opposed to the expedient thing that everybody else is
doing. It’s about the pain that is suffered by those who choose not to
compromise their character.
Father Barry, played by Karl Malden expands upon this concept during a
meeting he calls at his church to confront the practices of the mob
thugs who control the dockworkers union.
Father Barry: Now listen, you know who the pistols are. Are you going
to keep still until they cut you down one by one? Are ya? (He
challenges one of the men) Dugan, how about you?
Dugan: One thing you gotta understand, Father… on the docks we’ve always been “D and D.”
Father Barry: “D and D” what’s that?
Dugan: Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat.
Father Barry: Rat? Now boys get smart. I know you’re getting pushed
around, but there’s one thing we’ve got in this country and that’s ways
of fighting back. Getting the facts to the public, testifying for what
you know is right against what you know is wrong. What is ratting to
them is telling the truth to you. Can’t you see that? Can’t you see
His message falls on deaf ears to the dockworkers in the church (at
least at this point in the story), but the point is made to the
audience. And made even more strongly when the meeting is broken up a
few moments later by union thugs. This is a movie that’s not afraid of
There are some interesting back stories about Waterfront
film had been developed for over a year by Kazan, Schulberg and Darryl
Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. No contracts were signed, it was a
handshake deal confirmed by Zanuck and Spyros Skouras at Fox. And then,
weeks before they were about to start production, Zanuck got cold feet
and dropped the picture, claiming it didn’t fit in with the studio’s
plans to release pictures in Cinemascope format. This convenient excuse
for Zanuck sounded the death knell for the production. Since it had
already been rejected by every other studio in town, some more than
once, it seemed like there was little chance Waterfront
was going to be made by anybody.
Kazan and Schulberg were despondent, and retreated back to their hotel
suite to drown their sorrows. They kept the door open for room
service. But there was a party going on across the hall, thrown by
producer Sam Spiegel (known then as S.P. Eagle). Invited to join the
party, Schulberg later pitched the waterfront story to Spiegel who was,
at the time, in bed with the covers pulled up to his nose. To their
surprise, Spiegel liked the pitch and agreed to do the picture.
Then there was casting. Kazan and Schulberg were thrilled that the part
of Terry Malloy would be played by Frank Sinatra. But then, Spiegel
managed to get the script to Marlon Brando, who agreed to play the part,
even though he was not fond of Kazan because of his HUAC testimony.
Spiegel decided to switch to Brando because he was able to raise twice
as much money for the production with Brando in the lead than he was
able to raise with Sinatra, who, at the time, was not as big of a name
in the pictures.
The production funds for Waterfront
came from Harry Cohn, whose
Columbia Pictures eventually released the film. Columbia had previously
rejected the script, twice. It eventually went on to great success at
the box office, although when Harry Cohn viewed it for the first time in
his screening room, he fell asleep halfway through.
The picture went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best
Director (Kazan), Best Actor (Brando). Best Screenplay (Schulberg), Best
Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction,
Cinematography and Editing. It also had three nominees for Best
Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden) and a
nomination for Best Score (Leonard Bernstein).
Kazan wrote in A Life
that with the script, he felt Schulberg had
“struck a deep human craving: redemption for a sinner… that a man can,
no matter what he’s done, be redeemed – particularly if he has a
sympathetic young woman there as his confessor.” When Terry Malloy
(Brando) confronts union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) about his
“ratting out” and says, “I’m glad what I done,” he’s speaking the words
of both Kazan and Schulberg. And as Kazan put it: “On The Waterfront”
was my own story; every day I worked on that film, I was telling the
world where I stood and my critics to go f**k themselves.”
This film is now, belatedly, on my list of Essential Films. Sorry it
took me so long. But you have to choose your moments with a classic. 04.05.12