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On The Morality Of 'On The Waterfront'

Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

It’s really a shame that any review of “On the Waterfront” is colored by Elia Kazan’s infamous friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. By some accounts, including Kazan’s own on occasion, “On the Waterfront” was the director’s defiant gesture toward his critics. Now sixty years later, can it stand outside the controversy? I believe it can, as it’s a great film and an American classic. As brilliantly played by Marlon Brando, Terry Malloy stands up for what is right, not what his so-called friends would muscle him into doing. It’s as American as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but with the added grit of being filmed on location in Hoboken, with a new realism that had rarely been seen on film before.
What Brando brought to the role of Terry was a unique combination of toughness and tenderness. Observe the way Terry Malloy is short with his fellow longshoremen, or explains his philosophy of life to Edie (Eva Marie Saint): “Do it to him before he does it to you.” But then we also see Terry caring lovingly for his rooftop pigeons, or strolling through the park with Edie, idly and gently playing with her white glove. His charisma and charm are displayed in a far different way than his equally brilliant but more brutish turn as Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” a few years earlier.

Terry opens the film as one of the lower men on the totem pole in Johnny Friendly’s union gang, a group of thugs that runs a racket on the waterfront in Hoboken. Johnny (Lee J. Cobb) is an explosive gangster who isn’t above asking a man to knock off his own brother, as evidenced by one of the film’s most famous scenes. Terry already seems to harbor doubts about himself after leading Joey Doyle to his death. When he meets Joey’s sister Edie, she awakens feelings in him of love, and regret for his path in life. Soon he is approached by two men from the Waterfront Crime Commission who want him to sing on the stand, and with the encouragement of a local priest, he starts to seriously consider doing so.
But being a “cheese eater” as he says, would mean turning in his friends, not to mention his own brother, Charley, who’s a member of Johnny Friendly’s inner circle. The code of the waterfront is “D and D--deaf and dumb,” and it’s possible he’d also be an outcast among the locals if he were to testify. Terry somewhat humorously expresses his growing inner conflict: “Conscience... That stuff can drive you nuts!”

More deaths, including a beloved dock worker and even his own brother, finally convince Terry that testifying before the Waterfront Crime Commission is the right thing to do, and  afterward, he yells at Johnny Friendly, “I’m glad at what I done!” Who’s speaking there, Brando or Kazan? After all, it was Kazan who took the unique position (on his wife’s recommendation, reportedly) of buying space in the New York Times to defend his HUAC testimony. Kazan thought he was doing the right thing. He saw communism as a menace, and was disturbed by what he felt was the American Communist Party’s rose-colored view of Stalin’s Russia, a place we know from history now to be quite dreadful indeed, with gulags and murders. Johnny Friendly and his gang are thugs and murderers. They’re “bad guys,” as critic Richard Schickel points out on the DVD commentary; they deserve to go down, and Terry Malloy is doing the right and moral thing by testifying.

Credit Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Just a few years before “On the Waterfront” was released in 1954, real-life corruption on the docks of New York and New Jersey was making front-page headlines. A terrific supplement on Criterion’s indispensable new release of “On the Waterfront” features author James T. Fisher sharing the history of waterfront crime, going all the way back to Tammany Hall in the 1870s, and tracing the rise of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). By the 1950s, corruption was rampant. Journalist Malcolm Johnson, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and others involved with the production hoped “On the Waterfront” would bring down the rackets. Instead, just like Johnny Friendly, who yells “I’ll be back!” at the end of the film, the longshoremen of the Port of New York voted for continued representation by the ILA. With the advent of containerized shipping in the 1960s, the need for manual labor went down, and while the ILA still represents the interests of longshoremen, the organization has far, far fewer than the 17,000+ members it had at its height in the early 1950s.

To add further historical context to the film, Criterion has added a booklet to the set with historical articles by Malcolm Johnson and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, whose profile of “waterfront priest” Father John Corridan was the real-life inspiration for Karl Malden’s character in “On the Waterfront,” Father Pete Barry.
Other special features on this set include an interview with Martin Scorsese, who cites “On the Waterfront” as a major influence on his own career. Scorsese interestingly compares Terry Malloy’s final walk up the pier in the film to Christ’s journey on the Via Dolorosa.
There are visual essays about Leonard Bernstein’s score, and new interviews with Eva Marie Saint and longshoreman Thomas Hanley, who played Brando’s young friend in the film. Ported over from Sony’s previous DVD release is a 25-minute documentary about the most famous scene in the film, the “contender” scene with Brando and Rod Steiger as Charley.

Of many memorable moments in the film, this scene is a standout, and not just because of Brando,  though his contribution is justly celebrated. But watch Steiger again in the scene. What at first seems overly mannered, in the old style of acting, is instead the delivery of an actor who knows his character is in trouble with his boss, and that it’s either him or his brother. After Brando pushes away the gun, Steiger can hardly look at him. Bernstein’s score rises, and Steiger’s mood visibly changes. A split second before, he was holding a gun to his own brother. Now, as Brando expresses emotions and words previously unsaid about their relationship, about how Charley didn’t stand up for him when he needed it most, Steiger's voice is warmer as he changes heart and accepts responsibility for his brother. He may even know himself that he’ll eventually have to make the sacrifice for Terry--something he had avoided for years, and which he’ll be paying for, perhaps with his life. It’s a great scene for both actors, and it’s the heart of “Waterfront.”

The relationships and the acting of Brando, Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, and even Karl Malden in his stoic way, help “On the Waterfront” rise above the level of simple crime melodrama. This is a landmark American movie on a great American theme. Regardless of Kazan’s testimony, “On the Waterfront” remains a one of the greatest movies about finding the courage to do the right thing in the face of immense pressure.

In the early 1950s, Hollywood was fretting about television, and devising new ways to lure audiences back to the theater. Widescreen cinema was a direct response to this. But before theaters across the country could be adapted for the new processes, many films were shot in multiple aspect ratios. Criterion is presenting “On the Waterfront” in three different formats (see video below). The main presentation is in 1.66:1, disc two of the DVD set includes a slightly wider 1.85:1 presentation, and on disc three, you can see the film in the full camera aperture of 1.33:1.  I prefer the 1.66 presentation, which offers just the right amount of headroom for the characters, while still retaining the widescreen cinematic feel.

The 4K restoration of the film is magnificent. The black and white image is crisp, with rich gradients of grayscale. Two audio options are available: either a restored mono track, or a new 5.1 mix using the stereo masters of Leonard Bernstein’s score. I preferred the balance of voice to music in the mono mix.
This is an essential release of an essential classic film. Bravo!