Elia Kazan’s highly acclaimed multi-award winning On the Waterfront eludes easy classification. An early example of social realism, it is also deeply felt. The director presents the gritty reality of the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, but at the same time he is battling his own demons. When Marlon Brando’s character says “I was rattin’ on myself all these years and didn’t even know it,” he speaks as much for Kazan as he does Terry Malloy. The film comes as a poetic justification, a poignant apologia for the director, after he had agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming names and becoming a pariah among his former colleagues and friends. Just as the world of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) temporarily seduced the character, so did communism seem appealing to Kazan for a while, but in the end he was convinced it was an evil that needed to be opposed. The screenplay fuses realism with the more stylized gangster film, and ultimately transcends both genres and stands on its own as one of the best film of its decade, and one of the best American films ever made. Its message is just as powerful, and the acting just as stirring and convincing today, as it was more than half a century ago.
Terry is intelligent, but uneducated, and the only thing he’s ever known has been the mean and dirty environment he grew up in. His world is that of petty gangsters, lone sharks, and lowlifes. His motto: “Don’t say nothin’; you’ll live longer.” Living and working on the docks is a test of endurance and survival skills. Tony Camonte said it in Scarface: “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it,” and Brando’s character restates it: “Do it to him before he does it to you.” The men who want to find work on the waterfront are supposed to be “d&d,” deaf and dumb. If “Uncle Johnny” wants a favor, you “don’t think about it, you do it,” plain and simple. Johnny has acted as a father figure for the main character, who grew up in a children’s home, ever since he was a prize fighter and Johnny “bought a piece” of him. The docks of Hoboken are built on corruption, dishonesty, and the “love of a lousy buck.” The city is “full of hawks,” but Terry more closely resembles the Jimmy Doyle’s (Arthur Keegan) pigeons, which he cares for after Joey’s death. He seems more at peace in the bird coup than anywhere else. The way some of these shots are filmed and framed suggest his confinement; in many early scenes there is a fence in the foreground of the shot, suggesting Terry’s imprisonment in his own life.
Probably the most famous scene in the film, between Terry and his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), gets at the heart of the main character. When his own brother pulls a gun on him to get him to do something that goes against his conscience, Terry responds not with violence or anger, but in a tone of tender reproach and melancholy. He pushes the gun aside and his “Oh, Charley…” suggests nothing more than love and disappointment at the loss of that love. He mourns squandered possibilities and the life he’s led “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” This scene has been copied, parodied, and imitated countless times, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull, but nothing ever came close to the original. The actor makes us feel Terry’s pain as if we’re hearing these words for the first time. Brando cut through decades of Hollywood mannerisms and completely embodied the character; we look at Terry and see not the great actor on the screen, but the ordinary, uneducated, working class “bum,” a New Jersey dock worker who playfully picks up a woman’s white glove on the street and puts it on, who mumbles and chokes on his words, and whose face, gestures, and tone express so much more than those words ever could.
Today, the happy ending might seem unrealistically upbeat, but anything else would have crushed any semblance of hope. Terry Malloy needed to succeed in order for the film to resonate as strongly as it did. An individual pitted against a larger community, one man being the only one willing to stand up for what’s right and fight the ills and corruption of society, bettering himself by falling in love with a good and honest woman… This is by no means an original thought, but rarely has it been presented more powerfully or poignantly than in Kazan’s On the Waterfront. These ideas no longer seem fresh, but the impact of the movie itself has not been dimmed.