It’s tough, on the waterfront. Filmed on location in Hoboken, New jersey it is violent, with strong language – telling a priest to “go to hell”? Shocking stuff in 1954. Director Elia Kazan, the cast, and Boris Kaufmann, who took the pictures, all come out of this gritty drama covered in glory. Which is more than can be said for the characters in the story.
New York dock workers struggle to eke a living but they are in the grip of the corrupt unions. Of course, it is not true that labor unions were, or are, always corrupt, but hey, it’s a story. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), his boxing career behind him, hangs around his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) who is lawyer to union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb). Neither Charley or Johnny are as nice or as honest as they ought to be. We know Terry is nice because he looks after his pigeons on the rooftop and he once showed promise as a boxer. He could have been a contender.
At Johnny’s request, Terry asks a union worker to meet him on the roof. When Johnny’s henchmen push him off Terry is shocked:
Terry: I figured the worst they was gonna do was lean on him a little bit…
Truck: A canary. Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly.
Terry starts to feel guilty when he meets the victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). No wonder, she’s the sweet sort of dame who would make any red blooded young man feel guilty about something. Through her he meets Father Barry (Karl Malden) who persuades Terry to give the information that will finish the racketeering on the docks.
Method acting triumphs in On the Waterfront.
All this acclaim, plus the box office success, was well deserved. The dialogue is tight and simple, the brooding tenements and docks are starkly and realistically portrayed. The drama unfolds with menace. The actors are all convincing, even the smaller parts for thugs. Cobb and Steiger make truly villainous villains. For Steiger in particular this is perhaps his finest performance.
Brando’s performance as the inarticulate former pug whose inherent decency forces him, reluctantly, to take on the hoodlums is magnificent. And yet, in the much-parodied car scene in which he delivers the ‘contender’ speech, he is almost acted off the screen by Steiger.
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The memorable scene is where Terry climbs into the back of the car with his brother Steiger who wants to do him a favour. He wants him to get the chip off his shoulder and hang out with the thugs as before.
Certainly, Terry does not feel he owes his brother anything:
Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money …. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.
Director: Elia Kazan
Terry Malloy: Marlon Brando
Charley Malloy: Rod Steiger
Johnny Friendly: Lee J. Cobb
Edie Doyle: Eva Marie Saint
Glover: Leif Erickson
Truck: Tony Galento
Kayo Dugan: Pat Henning
Writer: Budd Schulberg
Score: Leonard Bernstein
* Best Picture
* Best Actor (Brando)
* Best Supporting Actress (Saint)
* Best Director
* Best Story and Screenplay
* Best Cinematography
* Best Art Direction – Set Decoration
* Best Editing