There’s so much going on with the multi-Oscar-winning 1954 classic On The Waterfront—both onscreen and behind the scenes—that it’s tough to know where to begin discussing it. It’s probably best to start with the two men most responsible: director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who collaborated closely on this crime drama, inspired by journalist Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Sun stories about union corruption on the Hoboken docks. On The Waterfront didn’t originate within the ’50s Hollywood studio system; Kazan and Schulberg developed the project their own way, and though they suffered through the meddling and budget-cutting of producer Sam Spiegel, they made the movie they meant to make, largely uncompromised.
But what’s the most important thing to say about Kazan and Schulberg? To some, all that will ever matter about these two is that during the Communist witch-hunts of the ’40s and ’50s, both men unapologetically cooperated with the House Committee On Un-American Activities, helping legitimize an institution that wrecked the lives of innocents. Schulberg always claimed that his On The Waterfront script had nothing to do with his HUAC testimony, but Kazan was less dismissive of that criticism. And indeed, it’s hard not to see On The Waterfront’s story of bullies and whistleblowers as being at least informed by Kazan and Schulberg’s own experiences with the Communist Party. Both were reportedly communists in the ’30s, until they grew disillusioned with the party’s support of fascism abroad and its attempts to meddle in their artistic endeavors at home. So there’s some obvious personal feeling in On The Waterfront’s plea for honesty, and for letting men of merit work freely.
The movie is also a landmark in the changing American cinema of the 1950s, for multiple reasons. Criterion’s new Blu-ray and DVD set includes the film in three different aspect ratios—1.85:1, 1.33:1, and 1.66:1—because cinematographer Boris Kaufman framed the film so that it could look good in the then-new widescreen theaters as well as on television. Kazan and Kaufman shot on location, aiming for a hybrid of stark neo-realism and shadowy noir, both documentary-like and cinematic. And while Schulberg’s dialogue has the flavor of the New York/New Jersey streets, Leonard Bernstein’s score is more florid and theatrical. Director Martin Scorsese has often pointed to On The Waterfront as a direct influence on his work—something he acknowledges again in an interview with Kent Jones on the Criterion set—and there’s a clear line from this film to the likes of Mean Streets and Raging Bull. On The Waterfront has that same mix of the stylized and the offhand, the commercial and the thorny.
Scorsese also says to Jones of On The Waterfront, “It’s theater, isn’t it?” And that’s yet another angle on the film: It’s a product of the post-WWII New York theater scene, and the exciting new breed of actors giving lived-in performances hatched from the psychological process called “the Method.” As a former boxer turned mob enforcer, On The Waterfront star Marlon Brando fulfilled the promise of his early movie roles in The Wild One and Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. All of Brando’s little fidgets—tugging on his chin, off-handedly mangling his lines—are in service of a character who’s been ignoring his nagging conscience for years, until the moment when he realizes he’s participated in the murder of someone who didn’t deserve to get bumped. Brando’s matched with actors in his league: Rod Steiger as his bookish, mobbed-up brother; Lee J. Cobb as the thug who rules the docks; Karl Malden as a crusading Catholic priest, trying to appeal to the faith of his blue-collar parishioners; and Eva Marie Saint as the pretty, trusting sister of the man whose murder sets Brando on a new path.
On The Waterfront contains a few scenes so famous that even people who don’t know the movie often know the moments. There’s the scene where Brando picks up Saint’s dropped glove and plays with it while they talk about growing up in their rough neighborhood, which is often cited as a quintessential example of Method actors living in the moment. (The glove-drop, though, had actually been introduced first during rehearsal; and the scene is just as remarkable for Schulberg’s words, as Brando reminisces about how the young Saint’s braids used to look “like a hunk a rope.”)
But the key scene in On The Waterfront remains Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech to Steiger, which was shot on a cheap, makeshift “taxicab” set with zero visual panache, and yet is unforgettable because of the way Steiger and Brando inhabit their characters. Steiger’s the petrified company man, urging his brother to just go along with what the bosses ask, lest more people get hurt. Brando’s the disappointed loved one who understands that people are going to get hurt regardless, so he might as well do what he believes to be right. That’s just five amazing minutes of On The Waterfront. What’s remarkable about the movie is that just about any other five-minute stretch of it can bear just as much scrutiny.
Key features: As mentioned above, Criterion’s set has the film in three different aspect ratios, along with hours of old and new interviews about the film; it also features a wonderfully conversational commentary track by Richard Schickel and Jeff Young.