On the Waterfront Forever

Long time, no post, oops. I have no real excuse. Pet peeve #1: People who say they are “so busy”. False. Everyone is given the same amount of time. Individuals prioritize and make time for what is important for them. End of story.

Moving on.

Early in my marriage (going on a whopping four years now!), my husband and I would spend inordinate amounts of time trying to decide what to watch on a weekend night (you know, those nights when we have the energy to stay up past 9:30) until we finally landed on a routine: each of us is responsible for choosing one evening of cinema without complaints or protests from the other. While this method does indeed save time, it also has the added benefit of allowing me to watch Marlon Brando films (because someone is just a teensy bit jealous of Marlon–hence why my framed photograph of Marlon Brando is currently in storage and not hanging over our bed).

I recently chose On the Waterfront, and I was astounded yet again by the artistry and beauty of this film.

The story is compelling and forever relevant. The score perfectly complements the action and emotion on screen. (Do you ever just wake up with the On the Waterfront score in your head? I do but not near often enough.) The black-and-white photography, becoming increasingly obsolete by the Technicolor world at the time of its release, lends a raw beauty to the harsh, stark world of the longshoremen of Hoboken, New Jersey. There is not a single miscast actor or even extra. (Frank Sinatra is Frank Sinatra, but can you imagine him as Terry Malloy? Really? I laugh.)

Director Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando on the set of On the Waterfront.

The greatest being, of course, Brando as the menacing yet gentle and vulnerable Terry Malloy, who slowly realizes throughout the course of the film how he has sacrificed himself and his own ambitions for an entity that does not value or respect him and ultimately decides to take action against that abuse. (Brando later expressed dislike for what he felt was the implied metaphor in the film’s story: Kazan naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 was justified. A man, no matter what he has done, can atone.)

The effect of Brando’s verbal and nonverbal choices as an actor in inhabiting Terry Malloy and bringing him to life is mesmerizing: the touch of his nose, “By the nose, huh?”; playfully handling Edie’s dropped glove; the emphasis of the delivery of the modified line, “I coulda been somebody–instead of a bum, which is what I am.”; the tenderness in which he pushes the gun away from his brother Charley, then how he uses the same gun to massage his wounded arm, and finally hurls it at a photograph of Johnny Friendly–taking a weapon intended for killing and transforming it into an object of sadness, comfort, and anger; the forlorn wave of his hand when he discovers his pigeons have been mercilessly killed after his testimony, unable to share his grief with anyone. Elia Kazan rightly declared, “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.”

Bless your face.

Terry Malloy’s journey throughout the film is laden with melancholy. He has been discarded and dismissed by his brother Charley and the mob as a brainless bum whose boxing career was thrown away for a bet, a reality he only verbalizes when Charley pulls a gun on him and pleads with him to take a job that will prevent him from testifying against Friendly. And yet, he still does not decide to take action until he sees Charley’s lifeless body hanging in an alleyway and declares he’s “going to take it out of their skulls.” Father Barry (Karl Malden) convinces him to choose the alternative route by testifying against Friendly. Yet when he does, he loses the friendship and respect of those around him; Tommy, a “Golden Warrior,” who once idolized Terry reacts by killing Terry’s entire flock of pigeons. “A pigeon for a pigeon!” And yet, his testimony was not enough–he has to face the other longshoreman on the dock and physically stand up to Friendly before his metamorphosis from a trapped bum to a free, upstanding, brave man with a conscience–a leader others want to follow–is complete. “If Terry walks in, we walk in with him.” And finally, miraculously, courageously he does.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint on the set of On the Waterfront

Eva Marie Saint told TCM host Robert Osborne that Brando was “adorable and a little frightening,” referring to the fact that she felt he could “see right through her.” She also revealed how sad it was that the acting world lost him–for she felt that at some point along the way, he lost the joy of acting. That is likely true; he may be the actor I have watched the most subpar films for. But On the Waterfront is certainly not one of them. In a world of technology addiction, my eyes were glued to the screen for the entire film because there is no need for any distraction found on that little phone screen while watching a film like this one. Where are the actors who make you forget that you are in fact just watching a movie? Where are the people in the world (or even the stories of people in the world) who are bold enough to stand up for what is true and right? Is it really all lost to the black-and-white world found in this stunning film? I hope not, but sometimes I am not very hopeful.

Until next time (hopefully not next year),

Countess Petofi

P.S. Definitely!

2 thoughts on “On the Waterfront Forever

  1. Definitely!

    Poor Brando in storage – I can think of several spots in my home that could do with a brando sprucing

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