On The Waterfront
Director: Elia Kazan / Screenplay: Budd Schulberg / Editing: Gene Milford / DP: Boris Kaufman / Music: Leonard Bernstein
Cast: Marlon Brando / Karl Malden / Lee J. Cobb / Rod Steiger / James Westerfield / Eva Marie Saint / Martin Balsam / Pat Henning
Still a Contender…
On the Waterfront remains a talismanic picture and not just because it gave prominence to an emergent generation of post-war talent, as-yet unbroken by Hollywood; just one glance at the taut cheeks of its hungry young stars will tell you that. Perhaps of greater significance than names on the poster, was the approach taken by director Elia Kazan, in earning performances freighted with emotional truths.
It all began in 1948, when Kazan co-founded New York’s ‘Actor’s Studio’: a performance & coaching school, that would train new talents in ‘Method’ acting; a technique pioneered by the Russian dramatic theorist, Stanislavsky. In essence, devotees of Method find value in acting ‘around’ the text on the page, to find a grounded realism, born of real-life experience, found beyond lines of script.There’s a good example in Waterfront, when Brando is walking with newcomer Eva Marie Saint. She accidentally drops a glove and Brando stoops to pick it up but, rather than simply return it, he chooses to toy with it. Any other director might’ve called ‘Cut!’ at Saint’s mistake, but Kazan knows better and lets the scene run-on to give Brando space to improvise. The end result is shot-through with naturalism and it transforms things. We’re no longer watching two actors run through a scene: we’re privy to a private exchange between two young people, who are edging towards a deeper understanding of what the other needs: that’s the difference offered by Stanislavsky.
Long before shooting began however, Kazan’s own career – and his standing in Hollywood – had taken a sizeable hit, when he testified before Senator McCarthy’s ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’ (or ‘HUAC’ as it came to be better known; a chapter of US history parodied in the Coen’s Hail Caesar!). Kazan named peers who were paid-up members of the Communist Party, despite his own, earlier membership of same. Inevitably, such public recanting of his past beliefs, lost him more friends in the movie business than it made. If anything, Kazan was to be ostracised by old colleagues, for having ‘sold them out’. In the course of researching this review, I’ve wondered what might’ve possessed him to choose this course. One answer might be that, as an immigrant to America himself, Kazan might’ve felt compelled to defend the country that’d taken him in, even if its lawmakers were behaving like asses! One day, I should get hold of a copy of Kazan’s autobiography and hear his own side of the story but, for now, you’ll just have to settle for my own addled suppositions…
Whatever the truth, history records that Kazan found it increasingly difficult to get projects off the ground after testifying. One such, was a collaboration with one-time friend, playwright Arthur Miller, with whom he’d been developing a drama set in the New York docklands around the district of Hoboken. After Miller withdrew support in high-dudgeon at Kazan’s apparent betrayal, producer Sam Spiegel stepped-in to the fray, with an idea by writer Budd Schulberg, that used the same gritty locations and broad-brush plot ideas and turned the piece, into a meditation on the righteousness of testifying; of speaking out, no matter the personal cost.
Naturally, being both all-out of other options and having identified with Schulberg’s analogous plot, Kazan was keen to proceed; especially as it held-out the prospect of a reunion with Marlon Brando. They first worked together when Kazan directed Brando in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire for the Broadway stage and again in 1951, for its screen adaptation; a double-whammy that gave early boosts to the careers of both men. If you had any questions over how Kazan could give his star such leeway in interpreting a role, this past success should be a clue.Waterfront begins with Brando luring-out an acquaintance – Joey – from his tenement apartment, by saying he’d retrieved the guy’s racing pigeon; a novel tactic, to be sure, but a theme we’ll return to. Joey thus climbs to his pigeon-coop, up on the building’s roof, only to be met by unseen assailants and thrown to his death. From his vantage point on the street below, Brando sees this much and it causes him immediate distress; especially on hearing one of the thugs comment: ‘Maybe he could sing, but he couldn’t fly!’ Callous, indeed.
Enter Karl Malden as the local priest, Father Barry and in her film debut, Eva Marie Saint as Joey’s sister, Edie. As the pair of them start asking questions of the neighbours and anyone who might’ve seen something, it’s clear that there’s a conspiracy of silence at work here (or ‘Deaf and Dumb’ – ‘D&D’ – as the heavies later refer to it). Malden’s great here, combining his character’s role as a pillar of that society with an awareness that, if his life had gone another way he, too, might’ve ended-up sprawled on the pavement, six-storeys below. Watch his impassioned speech from the bowels of the ship and you’ll end up as much a believer as he is…
Kazan then cuts to a saloon-bar, that’s the unofficial HQ for the gang responsible for Joey’s death and, in just a few minutes, Schulberg’s script lays it all out for us. The boss here is Jimmy Friendly: a walking, talking waxwork of a petty thug, given stylistic heft by Lee J. Cobb with no apparent irony over his name. After greeting Brando as Slugger, we learn a crucial element of Friendly’s demeanour: why use someone’s real name, when a nickname speaks of his authority to demean? The Alpha in the room, Friendly prowls its space as he checks-in with his pack. In this case, the ‘pack’ represents the leadership of a chapter of ‘The Longshoremen Association’; an actual union, then-representing port workers along America’s Eastern seaboard. Schulberg’s script took its cues from a real investigation into corruption and ‘gangster’ practices within the TLA, which resulted in a ‘Crime-Commission’ being formed, to police the wharves & docks and ensure fair treatment for workers; developments all echoed in the picture.While Friendly’s prowling, this is what we learn about his operation: a banana-boat’s due in the next day, so the union will withhold its labour until higher rates are agreed; rates they know WILL be paid, if the ship’s consignment is to be unloaded & sold before it rots in the hold… An accountant’s bleating that someone’s refusing a loan from the union mob (you just know the interest alone will be un-payable); the joke is, that it’s a nephew of one of the gang-members: no-one’s immune. We also see a lot of cash-rolls swirling about the table as if, without being aware of the image’s potency, Kazan is prepping for a movie about a drug-gang that might appear thirty-odd years later. Amidst it all is Slugger, taking compliments from Friendly on his prowess as an ex-prizefighter. Being in the game he is, Friendly’s only reference point of admiration is the ability of a man to express himself through violence – even if that’s in a boxing ring.
Yet Friendly possesses sufficient primal nous, to see that Slugger’s upset at having been duped over Joey’s death; it seems Slugger didn’t expect the outcome… Despite the presence of his older brother, Charley-the-Gent played by then-emerging talent Rod Steiger as Friendly’s apparent deputy, Slugger still can’t see the real danger he’s in, by refusing to play along with everyone else. Even the promise of being given an easy work assignment on the pier, can’t assuage his conscience.
Kazan’s direction is so tight here. I LOVE the way he keeps the camera’s dolly at the perfect height so that, when Friendly walks behind a pool table’s overhead lamp, all-but his mouth is masked. Yet this man is such a wolfish predator that, as it snarls & barks, his mouth is all we care about! Such a clever discovery by Kazan, this. The scene ends with a quick shot of Friendly divvying out the spoils to his slavering pack, like a tour-guide chumming waiting sharks.Next day, ‘on the waterfront’, Joey’s dad turns up for work as usual, with no time for grieving or sentimentality. Indeed, he gives a friend-in-need Joey’s old jacket and this man in-turn, passes his own, ragged specimen onto someone even worse-off. This is the reality of Schulberg & Kazan’s world: it’s a place where honest, decent & hard-working men are trapped at the bottom of the food chain, unable to prosper on account of all the sharks swimming above them; skimming-off their take as if it were a right… It’s Capitalism In Action, right kids?
Things get even uglier after Edie & Barry arrive to watch proceedings, for she witnesses her own grieving father scramble – along with others – in a so-called ‘Shapeup’ for a scattering of tokens, that will entitle the holder to earn a day’s pay: no wonder that Edie’s dad looks so embarrassed when he spots his daughter and why a shocked Barry declares ‘it’s a problem for the Church!’ Not just, Church, Father, I’d warrant, but for society at-large. Isn’t that the reality Kazan’s trying to shame us with?
Shortly after, Barry holds a thinly-attended public meeting at his place, in which he hopes to hear from those missing out on the mob’s largesse. Things turn nasty from without but, luckily for Edie, Slugger’s also in attendance, as a mob-spy. By this point he’s also acquired an actual name – Terry – and as he and Edie slip away, so we get the first real flourishes of Brando’s genius as an actor. The sequence includes the aforementioned ‘glove moment’, but that’s just an encore to what’s really going on between the pair of them, as a later scene in (another) saloon-bar demonstrates.
Terry reveals that he – along with brother Charley – are products of a broken marriage and a children’s home; in short, he’s a graduate of the School of Life, with Honours in Hard Knocks… As he talks, Terry swiftly moves from explaining the chip on his shoulder, to revealing an emotional vulnerability previously reserved for his own pigeons. He is thus laid bare. There’s an electricity fritzing from Brando here, so vibrant and open is his delivery. In Edie, he sees the potential of living a life as-yet denied him; a state even Edie can see when she comments, ‘There’s not a spark of sentiment or romance or human kindness in your whole body!’ Brando’s heavy eyelids, his brooding countenance are advertising both his physical potential and an inner, emotional vacuum. He’s like quicksilver, here; impossible to confine.On – and off – the mob’s pitch, events take their course. At one point, Terry has an impactful exchange with Edie and as he speaks, Kazan both drowns-out his words with a nearby tugboat’s foghorn and delights in showing us Edie’s grief-stricken face as she learns the truth: denied a voice, the blaring horn is her scream, now. Her face is cupped, by the very glove that Brando had tainted earlier; Kazan’s giving us quite a flourish of Pure Cinema and kudos to editor Gene Milford for hanging in-there; it’s as if he knew they were bottling lightning with every cut & splice.
Which brings us to The Scene. The sequence that always gets wheeled-out whenever Waterfront or Brando is mentioned on TV. On the face of things, it’s a simple two-hander, between Charley & Terry in the back of a cobbled-together taxi-stage but, in the hands of Brando & Steiger, it transcends the page. The thrust of Schulberg’s writing, is an effort by Charley to set-up his brother in a cushy job, in exchange for keeping his mouth shut about the union, but their interpretations, turn it into the end of a fraternal love story in which, perhaps for the first time, each man says what he really feels about the other. It’s truly alchemical film-making, inasmuch as Kazan and his two actors take base elements and create something entirely new.
Terry blames Charley for his prematurely-ended boxing career and it’s a pitiless truth that Charley recognises only when all selfish pretence is gone. What remains, is his love for his brother; a love that will lead Charley to make the ultimate sacrifice. And Terry? What of him? Charley might be a lost soul, but there’s still hope for Terry’s redemption. He has one last fight in him and this time, he’ll not stay down to be counted-out. Not when there are people around him now, who need him. And love him… Other notables? Leonard Bernstein’s score rings-out loud and true throughout, only rearing its head on occasion; stirring when it needs to be, unobtrusive without being meek, it’s perfectly suited to Kazan’s vision. As is Boris Kaufman’s photography; the deep shadows and voids of Hoboken lend undeniably noirish tones to the picture, that suit the mood being evoked.
Problems? Not many. Yes, Saint looks a little out of her depth at-times, but this was her screen debut against a future-titan of the screen, so let’s cut the lady some slack. More problematic, is Brando’s occasional mugging-of our attention. At times, he’s just brilliant, but at others, when he’s mumbling almost to himself, or laying on The Method with a trowel, the mask slips and we see behind the curtain. Trouble is, the illusion only works when we can’t see the joins! Still, it’s to Kazan’s credit, that he keeps things so tight & controlled in the face of such raw talent.
Brando would go on to lose the curtain entirely in his later career, more’s-the-pity, and charge a fortune for producers dumb enough to believe the hype. In-short, he’d become his own, bloated stereotype and lose sight of what had made him great in the first place. Steiger – and others who followed him in the unenviable role of Brando’s fall-guy – would find his way out of Brando’s shadow and make a decent career for himself, as would Saint (watch her in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and believe).
In the end, however, it remains Kazan’s picture. A love-letter to his belief in ‘doing the right thing’ despite the fallout that ensues. Did it work? Set aside its grab-bag of EIGHT Oscars (including Best Picture) and the question remains: Did his peers ever forgive him for causing some of them to lose their most productive years in blacklisted purdah? When awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1999, Kazan ducked the chance to apologise for any misjudgements he might’ve made: a ‘method’ defence from a figure that only ever followed his own script…
He gets the shot outdoors in a ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville! You was my brother, Charley. You should’ve looked out for me a little bit.