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Re-released on the occasion of its golden anniversary, On the Waterfront is the supreme success story of ’50s Hollywood—eighth on the AFI poll of the “greatest American movies,” ahead of Schindler’s List but behind The Graduate. And like many cult films, it is also less than the sum of its parts.
To whom does this triumph belong? Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning direction? Marlon Brando’s career performance as the ex-boxer, longshoreman bum Terry Malloy? The three Stanislavskians who support him, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger? Screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s pungent dialogue and didactic speechifying? Producer Sam Spiegel’s willingness to bankroll a project turned down, per Schulberg, by “every studio in town”? Leonard Bernstein’s moody clarion-call score? The polished grit of Boris Kaufman’s open-air Hoboken cinematography? The historical moment that was the summer of 1954?
In karmic terms, On the Waterfront had the enormous good fortune to open only weeks after the nation’s leading anti-Communist and reigning demagogue went down for the count in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. But it is thanks to Brando that this posthumous Popular Front classic is a heart-clutcher from beginning to end. The greatest and most influential actor of post-war Hollywood, Brando would here redefine movie stardom with the eloquence of his strangled inarticulation (“one glorious meathead,” per Time). The scene of scenes, in which Terry reproaches his smarter brother (Steiger) for selling him out, is the most triumphant expression of failure in American movies.
Always on the verge of unshed tears, his face a smooth mask of tragedy, Brando’s Terry is as soulfully stupid as he is beautiful—a male Marilyn Monroe (who achieved sex deity status in 1954). No other actor ever made more poignant use of what, pace John Steinbeck, might be called the Lenny factor. Terry is a sort of brute yet vulnerable animal trembling on the brink of consciousness. In class terms, he embodies what culture critic Harold Rosenberg once called “the pathos of the proletariat.” On the Waterfront reaches its climax not with the outrageous grandstanding of Terry’s beating (a scene criticized as “fascist” by future director Lindsay Anderson) but rather with his breakthrough declaration: “I’m just gonna go down there and get my rights.”
On the Waterfront, which begins with Terry fingering a courageous stoolie, is also—quite famously—the first movie that Kazan directed after appearing as a “friendly” witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee to ritually identify his former Communist Party comrades (and then make his own requisite anti-Communist film, Man on a Tightrope). Never mind that Terry’s heroic testimony against the gangsters who control his union is nothing like Kazan’s opportunistic naming of names—On the Waterfront unavoidably evokes the director’s potent mixture of guilt and self-justification. Kazan’s HUAC performance fueled this movie as it did the five subsequent features on which his reputation rests: East of Eden, Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and Splendor in the Grass. All are films about betrayal. (By the time he wrapped the last in 1961, the blacklist had been broken.)
At the same time, however, On the Waterfront is deeply evocative of Kazan’s aesthetic heritage—which is to say the left-wing theater of the 1930s. The look is less faux neo-realism than the bittersweet naturalism of the Workers’ Film and Photo League. It takes no great familiarity with Pop Front rhetoric to grok Malden’s waterfront priest as a crypto-Communist labor organizer or at least a two-fisted improvement on the anti-fascist priest in Rossellini’s Open City—or to imagine Depression-era slum-goddess Sylvia Sidney in the role played by Eva Marie Saint.
Working from a prizewinning piece of journalistic muckraking and the 1952 New York State Crime Commission hearings, Schulberg, another ex-Communist who cooperated with HUAC and replaced Kazan’s erstwhile scenarist Arthur Miller, came up with the best screenplay that Clifford Odets never wrote. According to Schulberg, the part of Terry wasn’t conceived for Brando but lefty street kid John Garfield, who died before the movie was made but had his own screen apotheosis in an earlier, no less primal tale of brother-against-brother corruption in the urban jungle, Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil.
Another possible Terry was a real son of Hoboken. In the short run, On the Waterfront inspired Arthur Miller’s answer play A View From the Bridge and provided John Cassavetes with his first major role (as a Brando clone in the Waterfront clone Edge of the City); in the longer view, it would enable Rocky, refract itself in Raging Bull, and underscore GoodFellas. But history would have sung a different song had Frank Sinatra managed to swing the role of the Christ-like stool pigeon.