Monday, July 27, 2009

Reeling Backward: "On the Waterfront"

Everyone's personal filmography contains some holes, and "On the Waterfront" was one of the biggest in mine. I'm glad I plugged it.

Some movies fade with time, or their setting or stories become antiquated. Right before I started watching "Waterfront" I put on another Marlon Brando movie, "Teahouse of the August Moon," and didn't get 10 minutes in before I turned it off. I'm sure it's a fine film, but I was too put off by Brando portraying a Japanese man, complete with eye prosthetics and pidgin English ("Sank you velly much.")

"On the Waterfront" has an immediacy and punch that renders it timeless. Even the setting of New York dock workers intimidated by mobsters feels like it could have jumped out of a New York Post headline in 2009.

Nowadays the film is remembered for one thing: Brando's performance, captured in the famous "I coulda been a contender" speech in the back of a taxi. It is indeed a knockout, and Brando embodied an entire new way of embracing film acting. Up until him and his ilk, movie performances were essentially seen as stage acting that is recorded. So everything is big and broad. Brando's more naturalistic approach makes you believe that Terry Malloy is just another street hood who shrugged his way into our lives.

The contender dialogue is great, but the moment of the film that floored me is when Father Barry, the priest played by Karl Malden, stands at the bottom of ship's cargo hull and gives a sermon over the body of a dead worker who's just been killed by a falling load of whiskey. It was made to look like an accident, but everyone knows he was offed for daring to testify against the corrupt union bosses. Malden stands there, his speech slowly building from a benediction to a call to arms, even as mob chief Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) stands at the top and glowers. Some of his flunkies throw vegetables and even bottles at Father Barry, but he keeps on thundering away. Terry decks one of the mobsters for throwing stuff at the brave priest, and this is the real turning point for his character, the moment of truth when he decides to defy the bosses.

Johnny Friendly looks upon Terry as something of an amusing pet. A former boxer, Terry took a dive at the orders of Friendly, who had fixed the betting, and became just another palooka with a bent nose and swollen eye sockets. Friendly tosses him cush jobs like a master turning over his scraps to a dog. Terry isn't really a member of the inner circle, but his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly's right-hand man. So they get nervous when Terry falls for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a guy he unwittingly set up to take the fall for Friendly's enforcers.

You want to talk about a great cast? "On the Waterfront" had three Oscar nominations for best supporting actor -- Malden, Steiger and Cobb. Brando won for Best Actor, and Eva Marie Saint won in the supporting actress category. Not to mention Academy Awards for best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and art direction.

Director Elia Kazan had one of the truly great careers, although his heyday only lasted from the late 1940s until the early '60s. He's reviled in some circles for testifying against fellow filmmakers in the McCarthy hearings. But his influence as a filmmaker is undeniable. Just watch -- and listen -- to any of the outdoor scenes, where the churn of machinery in the background seems almost timed to the rhythms of the dialogue, like another musical score beneath Leonard Bernstein's (also nominated for an Oscar).

"On the Waterfront" deserves its reputation as one of the greatest American films, ever.

4 stars

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