On the Waterfront
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Starring Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden,
Back to Review Index
Back to Quick Reviews
Review by D. K. Holm
"I believe heroes play a role in society. They may be heroes for an hour or a day, but there are men who make a difference."
Elia Kazan, Movie, #19, 1972
"I coulda been a contender."
With those words one of the signature moments of '50s cinema, indeed all cinema, reaches its climax. In On the Waterfront (1954), Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando in his sixth film, leans back in the secluded rear seat of an impossibly roomy cab, and as the streetlights and car headlights dance across his face, he confronts his brother, Charley the Gent (Rod Steiger), who has just pulled a gun on him in an effort to compel his younger sibling not to testify against their boss, Johnny Friendly, born as Michael J. Skelly (Lee J. Cobb). Instead of recoiling in fear, Malloy looks sad, and embarks on one of the cinema's great speeches, lamenting the downward trajectory of his career and gently complaining that his older, smarter brother hadn't protected him.
The only thing is, this speech wasn't solely the creation of credited screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Nor was it influenced by the director of the film, Elia Kazan, who famously declaims that he merely stood by and let the actors work. Instead, according to Carlo Fiore, a former Brando intimate, he came up with the key idea of the scene, which is that Terry, rather than frightened when his brother pulls a gun on him, evinces disbelief and disappointment. In Bud: The Brando I Knew, Fiore explains how Brando was unsatisfied with the scene as written but didn't know what was bothering him about it. Fiore writes that he told Brando, "'the gun-pulling bit hits a bullshit note.' Marlon's interest immediately picked up. 'What do you mean?' I told him that when he expressed fear of being shot by Rod Steiger, his fright seemed a little false. After all, Steiger, although a gangster, was still his brother, and shocked disbelief that his brother would pull a gun on him seemed a more appropriate reaction than fright. I had unwittingly hit on the same complaint that Marlon had been making about the scene, and he flipped his lid. 'That's exactly what I've been saying about this fucking scene all along,' he said. He jumped out of the [mock up] cab and pretty soon he and Kazan and Spiegel were closeted in one of the stormiest conference I had ever heard, judging by the sounds that emerged. I was sitting in the cab, and while Kaufman was lighting the scene, Kazan emerged from the conference room and crossed to me. He put his hand gently on my knee and said 'Next time you get an idea about a scene, bring it to me, not to Marlon, okay?'"
Let's assume for the moment that Fiore's memory is accurate. The anecdote is illustrative of how truly fragile movies are. The scenes in films that create our precious memories are dependent on a great deal of creative luck. But you don't need Fiore's memory to know that. Just looking at the scene, in the context of the film around it, tells the viewer that so many factors could have gone awry, in casting, writing, directing, and so on, to hamper what the Guardian Angels of Cinema chose to make one of the great scenes of all time. But for the record, Terry's gently pushing away Charley's gun and saying "Wow," which are among the things that Brando is said to have brought to the scene, appear in the screenplay as published in 1980 by Southern Illinois University Press, and in Waterfront, Schulberg's novelization of the movie that Random House published in 1955. In Jeff Young's book, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses his Films, Kazan says that the only thing Brando added was to say, "Charley," over and over.
Casting is a large part of any movie. And what a power-packed cast in Waterfront. Besides Brando, there was Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman, whose barrel chest supported a voice that always seemed to be yelling. There was also Rod Steiger, fresh from the TV version of Marty, and making his film debut; Karl Malden, a Kazan stalwart who originated the role of Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire on stage and then won an Oscar for the role in Kazan's film; and Eva Marie Saint, also making her film debut and winning an Oscar for her labors.
Columbia TriStar is clearly aware that a lot of the buzz about the film focuses on The Scene to that end, the studio has provided a documentary on its DVD release of the film dedicated solely to its history. "Contender: Mastering the Method" is a 25-minute examination of it. Most of the interviews are with people who weren't there, including Martin Landau and recent Brando biographer Patricia Bosworth, but fortunately Rod Steiger was willing to share his memories of the shooting. It's interesting to learn that the cab set is so stripped down because producer Sam Spiegel "forgot" to pay for rear-projection equipment. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman had to improvise with lights and venetian blinds in the back window. Also, after shooting a master shot and shots from over Steiger's shoulder, Brando left (his mother had recently died and Brando was in therapy; he consented to work on the film, which won him his first Oscar, if he was permitted to quit work each day at 4 pm to see his analyst, where he worked through his relations with his mother and father and grappled with his sexuality). Instead, Steiger's shots are in close-up, and Brando's lines were read by one of the crew members.
Kazan had wanted to make a film about corruption on the waterfront for many years. Originally, he collaborated with playwright Arthur Miller on a project called "The Hook," about life on the Brooklyn waterfront. But Miller and Kazan had a falling out, and Kazan learned that Schulberg had been working on a similar project, loosely based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson. A string of failed development deals left the two men with Sam Spiegel, a version of Johnny Friendly himself, who produced the film for Columbia and apparently drove everyone crazy. The finished picture was a hit, winning eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Brando never liked it.
Brando was going through therapy and a career crisis. Brando was mad at Kazan for naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Brando had grave reservations about the screenplay. Brando ended up giving possibly his greatest performance and one that truly made him a superstar and showed how so-called "method acting" could bring a newfound realism to movies.
Among other things, Brando brought a new man to the screen, a type little seen before. He was a rogue, a brute, yet also almost feminine in his delicacy; almost pre-conscious but also a beautiful creature. When Brando as Stanley Kowalski made his first entrance in A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage, women in the audience gasped. As Molly Haskell describes the actor, his legend "is written in one word. BRANDO. Like Garbo. Or Fido. An animal, a force of nature, an element; not a human being who must as a member of society distinguish himself from other members with a Christian name and an initial as well as a surname. There is only one Brando." There hadn't seen such raw, bare-chested sexual charisma on the screen since perhaps Clark Gable. Or Tarzan.
It's curious that the two major male icons of the '50s resembled each other. Both Brando and Elvis had round, boyish faces; the '50s was the decade of boys, just as the '40s had been the decade of girls. Both were obsessive about their mothers, both liberated male and female sexuality, and both represented new movements in the popular culture. Both were movie stars. Both were icons, rather than mere performers.
And like Montgomery Clift, Brando backed into cinema. Neither made their first forays into films in high-profile projects as one might have expected. Clift first appeared in a film about the Berlin airlift, while the equally socially conscious Brando made his first screen appearance in a film about disabled war vets. These projects were far from the vital kind of work they did on stage that attracted the interest of Hollywood in the first place. It took both of them a few years, resisting all the way, to be fashioned consciously or not into sex symbols.
On the Waterfront did that for Brando, just a year after The Wild One made him a teen cult item and gay icon. The character of Terry Malloy made Brando reachable to the general public; everyone could identify with him. As Haskell writes, Brando's Malloy "enables us to experience inarticulateness as poetry."
A Brief Rant
[And by the way, why did Patricia Bosworth's miniature new Penguin Lives biography have to come into existence at all when there was already Peter Manso's massive and exhaustive bio already in existence? Aside from the fact that Viking Press, publisher of the series, is trying to cash in on a perceived reader enthusiasm for biographies, this tiny book offers little new about the man. Viking would have been better off reprinting and updating Molly Haskell's superb series on Brando, originally serialized in the Village Voice in 1974, and extremely hard to access.]
The Kazan Problem
On the Waterfront is about Terry Malloy, a failed boxer now eking out a living on the waterfront thanks to the patronage of union boss Johnny Friendly and his own brother Charley. When Terry is lured into helping set up a guy to be killed, a man named Joey Doyle who is going to testify against the union to a crime commission, Malloy begins to have doubts about his life, doubts that are given urgency when he falls for the dead man's sister Edie. With the additional counsel of the earnest Father Barry (Malden), and especially following the murder of his brother, Malloy decides to testify about the death of Doyle.
It's a given that when the subject of On the Waterfront comes up, reference is going to be made to Kazan's brief career as a snitch. Kazan, like many socially conscious actors of the time, had flirted with the communist party, being a member from 1934 to 1936 before deciding that it was still possible to be a progressive without being under the sway of Stalinism. During the blacklist years, Kazan testified, and named some former associates already known to the HUAC as members of the Party. Then Kazan ran an ad in The New York Times that sought to position the director as untainted by his testimony, as actors Larry Parks and Sterling Hayden, and director Edward Dmytryk had been tainted among liberals by theirs. The ad caused more of a ruckus than the testimony. Kazan is still a source of controversy among movie industrialites with long memories, and the controversy resurfaced in 1999 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Kazan an honorary Oscar. Joined by Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the stage, the 90-year-old director was still defiant, as half the audience stood and applauded while the other half remained seated and grim.
On the Waterfront is conventionally viewed as another version of that New York Times ad, an attempt by Kazan to justify ratting and still present himself as a liberal. Though Kazan admits that there are some vague autobiographical resonances between his life and the film, the two cases Malloy's and Kazan's are in fact quite different. Kazan testified about people he had known or known of 16 years previously, in secret testimony that was released a few days before his ad ran. The people he talked about had posed no actual physical threat. The Malloy character is testifying about an actual crime in an open forum during a criminal investigation. There is no literal analogy between the actions of the real-life director and the character. And in fact, the Malloy character, like the character of Father Barry, is based on a real person, one Arthur Browne, a longshoreman who testified against the mob and suffered some of the same consequences as Malloy. Both Schulberg and Kazan knew Browne and used him as a partial model for Malloy.
Columbia TriStar has served up a surprisingly stacked and pleasing DVD of On the Waterfront. The full-frame image and the monaural audio track enjoy digital remastering (with audio in both English and French, and an array of subtitles). Boris Kaufman's gritty, documentary-style black-and-white photography looks fine, but the soundtrack doesn't do much for Leonard Bernstein's brilliant, urban musical score. Nevertheless, this DVD excellently supersedes the supplementally challenged Laserdisc, released in March of 1994.
For extras, there's the "Contender" featurette, a "video photo gallery" that consists of four minutes of stills and poster art, and an informative 10-minute interview with Kazan. Among the bread-and-butter items are the usual theatrical trailers and filmographies, as well as a four-page production notes insert.
The most substantial supplement is an audio commentary shared by Time magazine reviewer and Blacklist apostate Richard Schickel and Kazan interviewer Jeff Young. The duo spend most of their time straying from the image on the screen to discuss Brando and Kazan, and they do tend to talk themselves into a bind when they attempt to justify Kazan's testimony to themselves by suggesting that the people Kazan named were unimportant. Nevertheless, the two critics are enthusiastic about the film, and they talk all over each other in an effort to get their views out.
On the Waterfront is a genuinely great film well-written, brilliantly acted, precisely directed. It's gripping storytelling that is romantic and committed. It is also another "missing in action" Oscar winner finally finding its way to DVD. Columbia TriStar is to be commended for offering this key film in cinema history on a DVD that has plenty of collector appeal.
D. K. Holm
- Black and white
- Full frame (1.33:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (English, French)
- English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Chinese, and Korean subtitles
- Commentary with writers Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
- "Contender" featurette (25 min.)
- Video photo gallery (4 min.)
- Elia Kazan interview (10 min.)
- Theatrical trailers for On the Waterfront, Picnic, and Suddenly, Last Summer
- Cast and crew filmographies
- Four page production notes insert
- Animated musical menu with 28-chapter scene-selection
[Back to Review Index] [Back to Quick Reviews] [Back to Main Page]