#638) On the Waterfront (1954)

#638) On the Waterfront (1954)

OR “Pier Pressure”

Directed by Elia Kazan

Written by Budd Schulberg. Based on the New York Sun “Crime on the Waterfront” articles by Malcolm Johnson.

Class of 1989

The Plot: Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a washed-up prizefighter now working as a longshoremen on the New Jersey waterfront with his brother Charley (Rod Steiger). Their workers union has been corrupted by their boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who runs the docks with fear and intimidation tactics. Terry says nothing and goes along, including setting-up his co-worker Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) to be murdered before he can testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission. Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) enlists the help of local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to determine who killed her brother, and ends up forming a mutual attraction with Terry. When Terry is subpoenaed by the Commission, Friendly orders Charley to “persuade” Terry against testifying. It’s a morality character study with political overtones courtesy of Classic Hollywood’s most controversial director.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “hard-hitting script” and “[s]upreme” performances by Brando, Steiger, Saint, and Malden. An essay by film scholar Robert Sklar contextualizes the film’s politics.

But Does It Really?:  Oh boy, here we go. On its own, “On the Waterfront” is terrific: great acting, taut direction, a dimensional script, it’s got everything. Unfortunately it’s hard to judge this film on its own knowing its major historical context: A film about informing on a corrupt union boss written and directed by men who saved their own careers by informing on their fellow artists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Something doesn’t feel right about all this, but it’s a testament to the final film that it’s still a compelling watch despite the shades of gray hanging over it. “On the Waterfront” maintains a unique spot in film history for its own superb merits as well as the ongoing controversy surrounding its production.

Title Track: Schulberg’s screenplay was originally titled “Waterfront”, but was changed when Columbia learned about the TV show of the same name that premiered during this film’s post-production. Bonus shoutout to Cobb, Malden, and Rudy Bond (as “Moose”), who all utter the phrase “on the waterfront” at some point in the movie.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “On the Waterfront” was far and away the frontrunner on Oscar night, receiving 12 nominations and winning 8 (tying the then-record with “Gone with the Wind” and “From Here to Eternity“). Among its wins were Best Picture, Director, Actor (accepted by Marlon Brando in person and without incident), Story and Screenplay, and Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint.

Other notes 

  • Ultimately, I keep coming back to one question: Why did Elia Kazan inform against his colleagues to HUAC? Of course, anyone’s reasons for doing anything are personal and nuanced, so only Kazan truly knows for sure why he did it. What I do know is that Kazan had been a member of the Communist party in the mid-1930s, but quickly left after becoming disillusioned by its “discipline and secretive hierarchy”. When Kazan was asked to testify before HUAC in January 1952, he denounced Communism in a closed-door meeting but did not name any members. When he was called for a public hearing three months later he, like so many others who named names, was worried that his career would be destroyed if he didn’t (I also suspect that as an immigrant, Kazan felt threatened by an accusation of un-American behavior). While Kazan knew that either choice would have lifelong ramifications, he felt testifying was the right decision, and “On the Waterfront” served as a semi-conscious defense of his actions. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s reasons for naming names in May 1951 are more clear-cut: he had also been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, but quit when high-ranking officials tried to force changes to his novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” that aligned more with the party’s values. Still bitter about this over a decade later, Schulberg testified against the party after being named himself by another screenwriter.
  • While working for The New York Sun, reporter Malcolm Johnson was assigned to investigate a murder on the Manhattan waterfront in 1948. While on assignment, Johnson learned of a powerful crime syndicate that had secretly corrupted the longshoremen union, providing work to those who kept quiet. Johnson’s subsequent 24 article series “Crime on the Waterfront” was the first major exposé on crime syndicates in American journalism and earned him a Pulitzer Prize. The film rights were purchased by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, which got the attention of Elia Kazan, whose own attempt at a movie based on these events (“The Hook” written by Arthur Miller) fell through. The comparisons between Terry Malloy’s actions and those of the film’s director and screenwriter did not go unnoticed, and the film was controversial from day one.
  • Okay, with all that context out of the way, how is the actual movie? It’s very good, I give it that. Brando, of course, is holding this movie together with an incredibly realistic performance as a regular guy in extraordinary circumstances. This is the kind of movie that can best highlight Method acting. Despite its modern reputation, the Method is about naturalistic performances that, to quote the Bard, “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”.
  • For a movie that relies on subtext to convey some of its bigger ideas, “On the Waterfront” has some pretty heavy-handed metaphors throughout. Exhibit A: Following Joey’s death, Terry raises his pigeons. Get it? Like pigeon the bird but also like a stool pigeon? Don’t worry, they’ll repeat it until you understand.
  • What a remarkable feature film debut for Eva Marie Saint. There’s something very unique about Saint as a screen actor: the best of both Classic Hollywood and the Actors Studio. It’s a fascinating performance, and it makes you wish Saint was given more opportunities to star in her own movies.
  • Also making their film debut: Martin Balsam! The future Oscar winner and victim of Norman Bates shows up here as Gillette, one of the investigators for the Crime Commission. Look at how young he is!
  • Karl Malden is one of those actors whose latter-day caricature precedes him, but I’m really enjoying his performance here as a kick-ass priest. Who needs “Going My Way” when you got Malden punching Brando and smoking cigarettes?
  • I would be remiss if I did not mention that like his director and screenwriter, Lee J. Cobb was also a “friendly witness” who named names to HUAC. Unlike Kazan and Schulberg, however, Cobb publicly regretted his decision. Another example on the pigeon level of subtleties: Cobb’s character is named “Johnny Friendly”? Come on, that’s just mean.
  • If the actor playing Friendly’s thug Slim looks familiar, it’s Fred Gwynne, aka Herman Munster! Later in the film Slim’s real name is revealed as Mladen Sekulovich, Karl Malden’s real name that he enjoyed sneaking into his film projects whenever possible.
  • Today in Code-era censorship: Terry uses the phrase “bird seed”, a common movie euphemism for another kind of BS.
  • Kazan manages to sneak in at least one of his trademark social causes into the film: a handful of bit parts are played by Black actors at a time when the Civil Rights movement was just starting to pick up steam (the Montgomery bus boycott was still a year away).
  • The glove scene is the Method in a nutshell. Brando takes a little detail in the scene and makes it integral to the story. By holding Edie’s glove and putting it on, Terry is forcing her to stay and talk to him; far more endearing and less obvious than grabbing her and shouting “Listen to me!”
  • The phrase “D ‘n D” comes up a lot. In this context, it means “deef and dumb”, but of course it’s funny to imagine these tough New Jersey-types sitting around rolling 20 sided dice and gaining XP on a new campaign. I bet Charley was an excellent Dungeon Master.
  • This is legendary composer Leonard Bernstein’s only non-musical film score, and it’s very…Leonard Bernstein. Maybe it’s the time period and the lower class setting, but some of this music sounds like a first pass at “West Side Story“. One piece of music has a few passages that almost turn into “Something’s Coming”.
  • One bit of Oscar trivia: “On the Waterfront” was the first movie to receive three Supporting Actor nominations: Cobb, Malden, and Steiger. They’re all great, but I can see how they split the vote. Their screen time is comparable and although they each serve the story in different ways, none of them really dominate over the other two. Looks like this is Edmond O’Brien’s lucky day.
  • Wow, that cab scene. What can I say? It’s a classic for a reason. Brando and Steiger play this scene of brotherly betrayal honestly without resorting to melodrama. Terry’s “I coulda been a contender” mini-monologue, in which he accepts that Charley is the one who cost him his prizefighting career, still stings. Steiger for his part shows Charley’s change of heart realistically with zero theatrics. Good stuff. No notes.
  • If Lee J. Cobb doesn’t like this courtroom hearing, it’s gonna be real awkward in a few years when he winds up serving jury duty with Martin Balsam.
  • Why is everyone mad that Terry testified against a corrupt mob? Doesn’t everyone’s life get easier now that Friendly has been taken down? Obviously Kazan’s real-life actions are more nuanced than what this movie can present in under two hours, but I don’t see the logic comparing a violent crime lord actively trying to kill you with a group of innocent artists associated with a political party you no longer agree with. “On the Waterfront” is staunchly pro-union and anti-corruption, but at the end of the day it doesn’t work as a justification of Kazan and Schulberg’s actions. Better luck next time boys.


  • “On the Waterfront” was an immediate hit with critics and audiences alike. Brando’s performance in particular still gets singled out almost 70 years later as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) film performances of all time. Such heavy-hitters as Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Anthony Hopkins have all cited Brando’s performance in “Waterfront” as a major inspiration and influence on their careers.
  • Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg would reunite a few years later for fellow NFR entry “A Face in the Crowd” (which I recall enjoying). Decades later Schulberg would adapt his “On the Waterfront” script into a stage play. After a disastrous preview period, a change in directors, and one cast member having a heart attack during the press performance, “On the Waterfront” opened on Broadway in May 1995, and closed six days later.
  • The first major parody of “On the Waterfront” was Sid Caesar’s “On the Docks” sketch. The morning after it aired, Caesar received congratulatory phone calls from both Brando and “Waterfront” producer Sam Spiegel.
  • The film’s legacy has pretty much boiled down to the line “I coulda been a contender”. It has been referenced and parodied so often that I suspect most people have no idea where it’s from. The line was put to good use in “Raging Bull” when Jake La Motta recites the scene with zero recognition of how it parallels his relationship with his own brother. De Niro acts out non-acting so well it’s like he’s not acting!
  • Among the film’s non-Contender references: Karl Malden’s appearance as a priest in an early episode of “The West Wing”, allegedly using the same bible and stole he used in “On the Waterfront”.
  • But of course, the film’s political legacy is that Hollywood never fully forgave Elia Kazan, not just for naming names, but also for having such a successful career with seemingly zero professional consequences. Kazan made nine more movies over the next 22 years, though none hit quite as big as “Waterfront”, and his actions with HUAC permanently haunted his career and legacy. When Kazan received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999 (an award successfully lobbied for by Academy board member Karl Malden), it was met with protests and criticism prior to the ceremony, and many in attendance refused to applaud for him.

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