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!

My Other Favorite Actor From Omaha

In the past two months that I have not updated this blog, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching a select group of plays by Tennessee Williams. This has included watching A Streetcar Named Desire more times than I care to count. This has made me want to watch nothing but Brando, which works out well since TCM is celebrating the man’s 91st birthday today with a slew of films.

My favorite, though, is absent from the line-up. That’s okay because I’ve also watched it more times than I care to count. It is another perfect film. It is another film to take to that desert island. It is a film with a quote for every occassion. Overhear a conversation about weight or dieting? “When you weighed 168 pounds you were beautiful.” Someone say something that rubs you the wrong way? “You know, you’re not too funny today, fat man.” Need to pay someone a compliment? “You had your hair…Looked like a hunk of rope. And you had wires on your teeth and glasses and everything. You was really a mess.” Someone hounding you to grow up, get a real job, get some ambition? “I always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.” Get annoyed with questions? “It’s none of your business!” See a pigeon in the road? “A pigeon for a pigeon!” Someone insults the upcoming holiday that is Easter? “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” And for everything else, there’s… “Definitely!” It is On the Waterfront

"During an acting class, when the students were told to act out 'a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,' most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, 'I’m a chicken - I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'" -- Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

“During an acting class, when the students were told to act out ‘a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,’ most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, ‘I’m a chicken – I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'” — Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

This film–like so many of his great performances–is all about Brando. You cannot take your eyes off of him–not that you would want to. Why? Because he creates a character with such a front of toughness that has such an underlying vulnerability, a character (Terry Malloy) who is constantly torn between his loyalty to his “friends” and his “conscience.” (“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”)

There’s probably no better example of Brando doing this than in the famous taxi cab scene with Rod Steiger, who plays Terry’s older brother Charlie. Charlie has been sent to talk to Terry to try to convince him to play “D&D” (“deaf and dumb”); if Charlie can’t convince him, then he has been instructed to kill his own brother. When Charlie pulls the gun on Terry, Terry gently pushes away the gun. He does not respond with anger but with sadness that suggests the depth of his pain. “Oh Charley!” he says in tone that is reproachful, loving, and sad.

"To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me 'Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!' So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.”

“To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me ‘Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!’ So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.” — Eva Marie Saint

Not too much later, Terry is called into the street to discover the dead body of his brother, who has been killed for not following through with his assignment. Terry is distraught and angry. He immediately seeks revenge and goes looking for mob boss Johnny Friendly with a gun in hand. His love interest, Edie, has followed him and begs him not to do anything. He ignores her and instructs her to get the Father to take care of Charley’s body, but “For God’s sake, don’t leave him alone here long!” His voice nearly cracks with emotion; there is so much concern for his brother and his dead body being left alone.

My favorite scene, though, comes toward the end of the film. Terry has testified against Johnny Friendly, and all of his friends are angry at him–even the young “Golden Warriors” Terry has befriended. Terry, who keeps pigeons, goes up on the roof to check on his pigeons. He finds that they are all dead, killed by the youth who once idolized him. “What did he have to do that for? Every one of them.” Edie has again followed him and calls his name, attempting to comfort him. Brando does not face her but turns into the pigeon coop and waves her away meekly with his hand. He needs to grieve alone–just for a moment. And Brando communicates this with a single gesture. It’s the same gesture he would use years later in The Godfather when Don Corleone learns that Michael–Michael, whom he loved so much, for whom he wanted so much more than the life of a Don–has been sent to Sicily because he is the one who killed Sollozzo. The Don lifts his hand and weakly waves away the speaker: he needs to be alone with his grief.

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“I interviewed some deaf actors and I asked them who their favorite actor was, and they said Marlon Brando. And I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because even though we can’t hear what he’s saying, we know exactly what he means.’ In other words, his expression told everything.” — Patricia Bosworth 

I could talk about every scene in this film, but I (sadly) have more research to do. (It is addicting.) Brando rightly won an Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront. It’s one for the ages. Happy birthday, Bud.

Finding Fred Gwynne

Or, rather, finding Fred Gwynne in a movie starring Marlon Brando, which requires my eyes to wander and look at someone else besides Marlon Brando. Scientists sometimes refer to this behavior as “unnatural.”

The Munsters came to my house for Christmas, and watching the show again prompted me to look up ol’ Herman Munster, Fred Gwynne. I was surprised to discover that his career included an uncredited bit part in On the Waterfront.

I love On the Waterfront.

File On the Waterfront under Films I Could Watch Every Day For The Rest Of My Life And Still Never Tire Of.

So how did I not know that Fred Gwynne was in this movie? Marlon Brando, duh. When I saw On the Waterfront at the local theatre as part of its ongoing Celebrating the Classics series, the film was preceded by an introduction by a local film aficionado/critic/historian à la Robert Osborne. This man told us all kinds of interesting bits of trivia and anecdotes about the film, and he left us with a challenge to watch any one else in the film besides Brando, who, of course, gives an electrifying performance. I felt no need to accept that challenge (who wants to watch anyone except Brando in this–or any–film?)–until I learned of Fred Gwynne’s role.

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There he is! Gwynne plays one of Johnny Friendly’s henchmen. There’s so many of them, he is easily overlooked, but once you know to look for him, he’s just as easily found.

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Annnnnd there he is again. Herman! 

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And in case you’re blind and still not convinced that that is indeed Fred Gwynne, he utters a single line, albeit offscreen, during an argument with Friendly’s banker and another henchman, “That’s why I never got married.” Herman Munster speaks!

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There he is again, preparing to throw a can or something at Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is speaking about how longshoreman Kayo Dugan’s death is akin to the crucifixion of Christ and how anyone who knows anything about his or Joey Doyle’s death is complicit in that crucifixion. You can see the effect of his words on Terry Malloy (Brando), who is torn between what he feels should be his loyalty to Friendly and his moral conscience.

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Yup. That’s him. In the hat. Er, on the left.

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And one last final appearance. Here he is, preventing anyone from interfering in the climatic fight between Friendly and Malloy. Ain’t no one gettin’ past Herman!

On the Waterfront is a perfect film, a film so perfect I’ll have to gush about it properly (i.e. devoting thousands of words to Brando’s every movement in the film) in another post. But I do believe its perfection has been heightened by the small discovery that it features Fred Gwynne. Definitely! 

P.S.

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Bless. Your. Face.