Thursday, 2 August 2012

On the Waterfront (1954)

Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint

In the early 1950s Elia Kazan (director of A Streetcar Named Desire and Splendor in the Grass) was working on a script set in the docks of New York’s Red Hook with playwright Arthur Miller (writer of The Crucible). After Kazan appeared as a friendly witness at the House Un-American Affairs Commission any collaboration with the left-wing Miller was dead in the water. Miller – and many other individuals within the artistic world of the time – felt betrayed by Kazan ‘naming names’. Miller even poured his disgust into his play The Crucible. HUAC, to him, was a witch-hunt. Kazan, in turn, was hurt by his colleagues turning their backs on him.  

Instead Kazan started working with writer Budd Schulberg, who had also testified before HUAC. Schulberg had a script set among the piers of Hoboken, New Jersey. In it corrupt union officials in league with the Mob run rackets on the dockside. Those courageous enough to testify against this crime are silenced. Kazan and Schulberg justified their actions in what became one of the greatest movies ever made: On the Waterfront.

Whatever your take on the decisions Kazan made in his career (personally I have trouble reconciling his actions with the great strides he made in both the theatre and on screen) it cannot be denied that On the Waterfront deserves its fame. It scooped eight Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Marlon Brando and Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Eva Marie Saint (best known to me as the Hitchcock blonde in North by Northwest). Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger (who later won for In the Heat of the Night) all attracted Best Supporting Actor nominations. Leonard Bernstein was also nominated for his score. Frankly there is an embarrassment of talent in this tale, both in front of and behind the camera.

The film is set amongst the longshoremen of Hoboken. These men earn their living from loading and unloading the great cargo ships that dock at the port. This work, however, is unionised, and union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, who later portrayed Lt Kinderman in The Exorcist) controls who gets the cushy jobs, who gets the tough jobs, and who gets no work at all. He also has his fingers in waterfront crime, loansharking and gambling syndicates. The contrast between Friendly and his enforcers in their suits and camelhair overcoats and the longshoremen who rely on him in their threadbare reefer jackets could not be greater. In one scene the tokens needed to work that day are thrown at the crowd of waiting workers; they scrabble like animals to get their hands on them. Instead of uniting the interests of the longshoremen the union bosses keep them fractured and feuding. It is every man for himself. “Do it to him before he does it to you.” 

Friendly’s power relies upon the longshoremen playing “D and D”“Deaf and Dumb”. They see nothing, they know nothing. The film opens as Joey Doyle prepares to testify against the bosses. Lured to a meeting he falls to his death from the roof of his apartment block. One of the first on the scene is his sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), back from college. She launches an investigation to track down her brother’s killers. Her clear sense of right and wrong pricks the conscience of waterfront priest Father Barry (Karl Malden, who also appeared in Kazan’s Streetcar…) who encourages the dockers to speak out about corruption. “Isn’t it as simple as one-two-three?” he asks. “One: the working conditions are bad. Two: they’re bad because the Mob does the hiring. And three: the only way we can break the Mob is to stop letting them get away with murder.” Her “fruitcake” philosophy of people caring abouit each other also gets to Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the friend who inadvertently lured Joey to his death. Concern for Edie – coupled with his attraction to her – lead Terry to contemplate testifying. He is still undecided when his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), one of Friendly’s inner circle, is sent to dissuade him. In one of cinema’s most famous scenes Charley pulls a gun on Terry in the back of a taxi. Terry simply looks at his brother sorrowfully and reminds him how he helped to wreck Terry’s chance to escape the docks as a prize fighter: “I coulda had class. I coulda ben a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley…” Guilt crashes down upon Charley. He tells Terry to run and instead goes to face Friendly’s thugs alone. It is the resulting murder of his brother that finally convinces Terry to turn “canary”.  

Terry and Edie sprinted home to grab their purse
before the ice cream van could leave

Guilt and betrayal are everywhere. Edie shames Barry and Terry to act. Terry carries the guilt of setting up Joey; the priest carries the guilt of having persuaded Dugan (Pat Henning) to speak out, only for Dugan then to have a sling of crates dropped on him. Charley feels guilt for having told Terry to throw his big fight. Charley betrayed his brother instead of looking out for his interests. The Mob talk about informers betraying their fellow brothers, when in actual fact it is Johnny Friendly and his goons that have betrayed the people they grew up amongst. Add in the religious aspect of Father Barry’s role, telling the workers that every death, every beating is another “crucifiction” and Kazan and Schulberg put forward a powerful defence of their behaviour before HUAC.  

Brando is superb in this. He is a docker, a boxer, he has never had an education. Watching this inarticulate man struggle to express his moral conflict or sweet talk Edie is fascinating. He may not have the words, but his subconscious gestures - the way his eyes slide away from a question, the manner in which he plays with Edie's glove, the sorrowful tone he uses when his brother pulls a gun on him - tell a different story. This is not the bestial alpha male of A Streetcar Named Desire. This is a man clumsily for the first time deciding to stop taking orders and make his own decisions without the vocabulary to do so. Even if the story were not so compelling, even if Saint, Malden, Cobb and Steiger so eye-catching in their roles, On the Waterfront would still be compulsory viewing for Marlon Brando's portrayal of Terry Malloy.

What have I learnt about New Jersey?
A long way from the glitz of New York are the docks of the New Jersey waterfront. Anything being shipped in has to come off boats here. Shippers are willing to pay to get their goods unloaded quickly and correctly. Those who can corral the workforce to do this can name their price. This leads to the power of a unionised workforce – or rather the power of the union bosses who work hand in glove with the Mob. There are rackets all across the area and those who attempt to expose them are marked for silencing. According to at least one tagline for the movie at the time, it is the law of the jungle down in the docks. In fact the story was based on real life cases from the New York waterfront. 

The workers are from the lowest rung of society. The names of the characters give a hint to their ethnic origins. We hear Irish names, Italian names, Serbian names (even if that was just the real name of Karl Malden being used as a tribute to him). They wear holed jackets, tote their hooks, and dream about getting their daughters an education so she will not have to live down here in the docks – possibly a good thing judging from the bawdy public house wedding Edie and Terry interrupt. 

Can we go there?
On the Waterfront was shot right on the waterfront in among the piers in Hoboken. The Empire State Building looms across the Hudson River.  Kazan had wanted to do a location shoot among the dockyards for ages, and this gave him the opportunity. The park overlooking the water where Terry, Edie and Father Barry walk is Stevens Park on Hudson Street. Barry’s church is a composite of two real ones: the exterior shots are of Our Lady of Grace Church on Willow Avenue, and the interiors are of St Peter and St Paul Church back on Hudson Street. The piers and warehouses – and the cool floating union station – are no more however. By all accounts Hoboken these days is pretty trendy!
Ironically, considering Kazan’s desire to film on location, the movie’s most iconic scene – the taxi cab conversation between the Malloy brothers – was filmed in a studio, in a half-cab shell. There was no rear projection available, hence a set of Venetian blinds was installed in the back, coincidentally strengthening the claustrophobia of the scene. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

No comments:

Post a Comment