Film Score: Leonard Bernstein Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Starring: Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Eva Marie Saint
On the Waterfront is one of the all time great films, sporting a tremendous cast and a powerful screenplay and has become an iconic part of the cultural landscape of the 1950s. The film is also one of the few in Oscar history to sweep the top five awards, best film, director, actor, actress, and screenplay, with awards going to producer Sam Spiegel, director Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, though technically not an official sweep as Saint’s award was for a supporting role. In addition, the film won three more awards for cinematography, art direction, and film editing, as well as earning nominations for supporting actors Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and composer Leonard Bernstein. It’s one of the many films that appeared following the hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee that stressed unity of workers against criminal enterprises that threatened to destroy their livelihood. It’s not a stretch, in this context, to see the mob bosses controlling the longshoremen as symbolic of the government’s interference into Hollywood by Joseph McCarthy.
The film begins on the waterfront itself, the men who control it emerging from a tiny shack, a gigantic ship in the background, accompanied by Leonard Bernstein’s jazz influenced opening. The men want Marlon Brando to get one of his friends to go up on the roof of his tenement so they can talk to him. When he’s pushed off, Brando has his first crisis of conscience. Eva Marie Saint is the dead boy’s sister and she’s shaken up by the experience and wants someone to pay. The kid worked on the docks, but was going to talk to the crime commission, something the mob couldn’t allow to happen. Lee J. Cobb is the head of the union, extorting money from the shippers to unload their cargo, money from his workers to get specific jobs, and silence from the neighborhood so that the men can keep their jobs. Brando is a former boxer, rather dimwitted, and a favorite of Cobb, while his brother is Rod Steiger, the money man in the operation. Karl Malden is the naive parish priest who attempts to help Saint and Martin Balsam is one of the detectives for the crime commission. When Brando is sent to spy on the disgruntled workers, he meets Saint and falls for her. This sets up an obvious conflict between Saint and her association with the unhappy workers and Brando’s mob connections.
The film is a character study of Brando and Saint, their mutual affection for each other as well as the forces that threaten to tear them apart. And the affection is none too subtle. When Brando is walking her home from the church he says that he’ll protect her from the guys who “have only one thing on their mind.” Then he asks if he can see her again, and when she asks him why . . . it’s clear he had the same thing on his mind. Likewise, she tells him that if she had been his teacher when he was a troubled youth she would have given him “a little more patience and kindness.” Returning home, her father is frantic for her to go back to school, but while she claims she’s staying to find her brother’s killer, it’s clear that she’s staying because of Brando. Though Brando’s emotional journey in the film takes him from a dim-witted pug to a self-determined individual, the foreshadowing of his confusion about the death of his friend is ever present.
One of the most impressive things about the film is the cast. Brando and Saint are terrific, youthful and energetic, though playing their innocence perhaps a bit too obviously. Lee J. Cobb is a fascinating character, throwing the money around to have everyone count it like he doesn’t care, but when it comes up short he humiliates and dismisses them. Rod Steiger is also terrific as Brando’s brother, conflicted in his own way between loyalty to Brando and Cobb. Karl Malden, oddly enough, is the weakest of the cast, even in his strongest moments he lacks the kind of force he showed in Hitchcock’s I Confess a year earlier. A magnificent supporting cast unfortunately has only bit parts: Martin Balsam, Pat Hingle, Fred Gwynne, Michael Gazzo and Scottie MacGregor. Leonard Bernstein’s score is very symphonic, which is to be expected, what is not is how much his music evokes Aaron Copeland in this context, which gives the film a very rural feeling in spite of the urban setting. That ruralness is expressed in the way that the film is about individuals and relationships rather than plot. It centers on Brando’s discovery of himself, but he is also reflective of all the longshoremen looking inside themselves to see if they have the strength to go up against the mob.
The A List essay by Robert Sklar emphasizes, naturally, the historical context of the film. Kazan and Schulberg both testified before HUAC and named names, as did Cobb. But where Cobb later regretted his decision, Kazan and Schulberg had no such qualms, and their association in their own minds with Brando’s decision in the film to testify remained rock solid. There’s also the influence of the method in terms of acting and directing and is one of the reasons the film has detractors. The fact is, whether method or not, it’s a bit difficult to tell if the method really makes much of a difference in the telling of the story, as method actors tend to be a bit too brooding and introspective anyway. Sklar also, naturally, mentions the iconic backseat conversation between Brando and Steiger and its memorable line, “I coulda been a contender.” The real oddity of the picture, and the thing that weakens it overall, is the indecision of the dockworkers to take over when they clearly have Cobb on the ropes. But in the end it’s a minor criticism. On the Waterfront is, and is destined to remain, a classic.