25
Jul
11

“On The Waterfront” (1954)

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Co-stars: Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger

Awards: Academy Award for Best Actor, BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama

AFI Rankings: 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #19 (down from #8)

100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains #23 (Hero)

100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes #3

100 Years of Film Scores #22

100 Years… 100 Cheers #36

Character: Terry Malloy

This film is so damn near flawless I almost don’t know what to write about it. Reuniting Brando with Elia Kazan and Karl Malden, whom he worked with on Streetcar, the film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning 8, including Brando’s first win for Best Actor. The win, over his previous three nominations, comes as no surprise, as it rises above them like a mammoth. Unlike the characters he had been playing with deep human textures, Terry was a very real person. He wasn’t a Roman, or a Mexican Revolutionary, or the product of a Tennessee Williams play. Terry is a just a dude that breaks your heart, repeatedly.

Terry works down at the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, with the rest of the blue collar coast workers. His dock’s union has been overtaken by the mob, of which his brother is a member. In return for doing little favors for them, he was given job perks and always guaranteed work, unlike some of the others on the dock. A former prize fighting boxer, he had lost out on the title shot a few years previous at a match in Madison Square Garden. His fellow workers don’t trust him because of who his brother is, and the mob pushes him around, forcing him to do their bidding. At the beginning of the movie, he is told to call Joey Doyle up to the roof of his building, where he is ambushed and pushed off the top. Terry isn’t happy about being involved in the murder, having thought they were just going to intimidate Joey. He decides to stay D & D (deaf and dumb) on the subject, so as not to get offed himself. However, he is subpoenaed to testify in court on the matter.

Joey’s sister Edie is bound, set, and determined to find out who her brother’s killers are and see them prosecuted. She knows it has something to do with the mob, and that answers can be found on the docks. She turns to Father Barry to help her find answers, who realizes that in order to give the men the courage to drive out the mob, he needs to be active in the community and in his parish, as opposed to hiding away in the church. After going down to the docks and viewing how the men are treated, he rallies a small group of men left behind without work that day, and tells them to come down to the church basement to discuss what’s going on. Terry is dispatched by Johnny Friendly (the local mob boss) and his brother (Johnny’s lawyer) to go to the church and listen in and take names of the attendees. While the men are in the basement, mob goons attack the church, and the men are forced to escape in pairs. Terry spots Edie frantically trying to get away from the violence, but unsure of which way to go, he takes her and helps her escape without being attacked.

Once away from the violence, they walk through a local park, getting to know each other. Edie goes to a college ran by nuns, with aspirations of one day being a teacher. Terry is more or less uneducated, but his brother went to university to study law. She is fragile on the outside, but strong and smart on the inside. He has a tough and hardened exterior, but is kind and gentle below the surface. Edie can plainly see the difference between right and wrong; Terry believes a person needs to look out for themselves first and foremost. However, their chemistry is undeniable, and they fall for each other, against the pleas of her father and his brother.

Realizing he can’t keep the secret of his involvement with her brother’s murder away from her, Terry seeks the advice of Father Barry, who is still fighting on the docks for the workers. He tells him that he needs to tell her, and so he does. She runs away from him, heartbroken. Word gets to the mob that this is going on, and they tell Terry’s brother he needs to deal with it, or they’re going to deal with it. So he picks up Terry to try and convince him not to testify against Johnny Friendly, which Terry has been considering doing, and to make up his mind before they arrive at their destination. It’s this point in the film where Brando delivers the famous “contender” speech. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and in a moment of conscience, Terry’s brother has him leave the car with a gun, so that he can escape. He runs to Edie’s apartment, even though she wants nothing to do with him. And, well, I’ll just show what happens:

You can die now.

Terry runs down to the alley, and it seems like it could be the last we see of him. Instead, he discovers his brother’s lifeless body, hung up by his jacket with one of those large dock hooks used by the killer in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Angry, he storms off to kill Johnny Friendly, leaving Edie behind with the task of making sure his brother’s body is taken care of. While he’s at the bar where the mob guys drink, waiting for their return, Father Barry rushes in and convinces him to testify against them the next day instead. He does, and it breaks the case. The next day, he returns to work on the docks, even though Edie tries to convince him to skip town.

The film’s impact can be measured by Brando’s performance: along with his performance in Streetcar, he changed the way people acted in film, influencing future greats such as Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro (among others). The “contender” speech is one of the greatest in film history, ranking #3 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best movie quotes. It was somewhat co-opted by DeNiro in Raging Bull. On a political level, it was clearly a statement by Elia Kazan, who obviously sees himself in Terry. He had testified against former friends and colleagues to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, pointing them out as communist sympathizers (including Kim Hunter, who played Stella in Streetcar, and was subsequently blackballed from Hollywood for a decade). In turn, many people in Hollywood turned their backs on him, viewing him as disloyal. Brando, himself a staunch liberal, and who had been mentored early on by Kazan, took the betrayal hard. Tensions ran high on the film set, as the friendship had dissolved. This would be the last time the two would ever collaborate.

On The Waterfront is an undisputed classic, highly entertaining and, unlike Brando’s previous film The Wild One, still has an air of  relevance. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to watch a great movie, including fans of flicks like The Fighter, The Departed, and Cinderella Man. I myself plan to purchase a DVD copy, and burn a hole through it. A definite thumbs up.

As well, here is Brando’s acceptance speech at the Oscar’s that year. He would go on to use his trophy as a door stop for several years, until eventually it was stolen.

Quotes: “You don’t understand. 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. It was you, Charlie.”

“You know you’re not too funny today, fat man.”

“Quite a nose, huh? Some people just have a face that sticks in your mind.”

“Conscience… that stuff can drive you nuts!”

“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

Charlie “You’re getting on. You’re pushing 30. You know, it’s time to think about getting some ambition.”
Terry “I always figured I’d live a bit longer without it.”

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"He's an angel as a man and a monster as an actor."
- Bernardo Bertolucci

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