Retro Review: ON THE WATERFRONT Proved Marlon Brando Was Much More Than a Contender, at Plaza Theatre This Week

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2013 By:

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954); Dir: Elia Kazan; Starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb; Starts Friday, March 29.; The Plaza Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), a landmark film of the 1950s featuring one of the maybe two or three most memorable roles of Marlon Brando’s career, begins a revival run today at the Plaza Theatre. It’s a movie that many people have heard of but few have actually seen, and it’s one of those crazy films where the story behind the scenes casts a longer shadow than the one on the screen.

Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a simple guy who keeps to himself, tends a pigeon coop, and finds work by the day on the New Jersey docks. His brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is connected to the dockworkers’ union run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a crook who years ago put an end to Terry’s rising boxing career by forcing Terry to throw a fight. When Friendly comes under investigation by the authorities, he rallies the union around him and starts snipping the loose ends, but when Terry develops a distaste for Friendly’s murders, he has to make a decision between staying loyal to the union or doing what he knows to be right.

ON THE WATERFRONT is a conservative parable, an anti-union tale that works because of (or in spite of?) the seething anti-Commie anger of legendary director Elia Kazan. During the peak of the Red Scare, Kazan was dragged before Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities and, either from an inflated sense of patriotism or a desire to save his own neck, came clean about his past associations with communist groups and even named names of his co-conspirators (most of whom went to a few parties in their youth and then went to bed. It’s Hollywood, after all. The only ideology is the opening weekend). The film community turned on Kazan for cooperating with the witch hunt, but a defiant Kazan refused to apologize. He truly believed in the danger Communism posed to America, and hated the fact that some around him questioned his patriotism, the guy willing to ferret out the Red Threat. Kazan funneled his anger into the story of Terry Malloy and his crummy life, ruined when Terry bowed to pressure and refused to stick up for his principles, a man crushed by doing the bidding of others rather than himself. Terry is an Ayn Rand cautionary tale.

If ON THE WATERFRONT doesn’t jibe with your brand of politics, it’s tempting to dismiss it as propaganda, but that would mean ignoring a truly great movie and one of the all-time great film performances. Kazan was a master storyteller and he was motivated to bring his very best game. The film sweats anger from its pores as it depicts the trials of Terry, played by Brando as the ultimate sad sack resigned to having missed the only chances that would ever come his way. Brando was only a couple of years removed from his foundation-shattering performance as Stanley in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), also directed by Kazan, and the actor uses ON THE WATERFRONT as a lab to experiment with his role as an anti-star. The studio system was still strong in 1954, and the currency of the day was bankable movie stars. They didn’t want actors, they wanted known quantities who could repeat a winning performance in picture after picture. To his credit, Brando couldn’t have cared less what the studio wanted, or that he was meant to be a sex symbol. He disappeared into his roles, inhabiting them in a way that sparked a revolution in movie acting, and that’s not hyperbole. Brando changed everything, and he’s so electric and alive in the role of Terry that the weight of his cinematic legacy disappears. He’s perfect.

Equally incredible is the work of Karl Malden as the “dock priest” who fights the tyranny of the union bosses with impassioned speeches and principled beliefs. Malden was a tremendous actor, but he’s never better as he competes with the force of nature he’s acting against. Don’t miss Malden’s fiery speech to the dockworkers whose behavior has strayed so far from the moral high ground.

ON THE WATERFRONT’s most famous line—“I coulda been a contender!”—is a cry from Kazan that everybody has a right to stand up for what they believe in. If Terry had refused the dive, he could have been somebody. In Kazan’s mind, he avoided the easy fall. Naming names to McCarthy was the hard way out, at least as he saw it. ON THE WATERFRONT is Kazan’s angry appeal to see the nobility in sticking to your principles, even at the cost of a friend. The subject is a thorny one, even fifty years and a lifetime of politics away.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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