I work for a military prep school with a strict (if deceptively simple) honor code, and while there I often run a film appreciation club. One of the first films I run is often On the Waterfront for a very simple reason: it is in many ways about deciding between honoring a “Buddy Code” and an “Honor Code” as Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy has to figure out if he will do the hard right over the easier wrong as his conscience eats away at him.
There’s a bit more going on here than that.
For one thing, has there ever been a more artistically pleasing excuse made for something many see as bad behavior before? Let’s get this out of the way first: Elia Kazan allegedly made this film as a response to his naming names with the House Un-Americans Activity Committee. There’s some dispute to that, and giving testimony was a move that didn’t exactly earn Kazan many friends. Kazan had been working on the film well before he gave his infamous testimony, but the belief stands all the same. Did Kazan mean it as a way of excusing himself, saying he did what he did because it was the right thing to do in the height of the Cold War? I can’t really say, but in retrospect, if this was an explanation, it’s a rather piss-poor one. People who were named to the Committee were largely artists who may or may not have held political beliefs that weren’t exactly popular in the United States, but realistically speaking, they were hardly dangerous. By contrast, the people Terry Malloy ultimately rats out, to use the film’s terminology, were violent thugs and gangsters controlling a longshoremen union in Hoboken, New Jersey. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t much of a comparison.
But setting aside that, if this is an excuse, it’s a damn well made one. The film won multiple Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor for Brando and Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint in her film debut. It could have nabbed one for Supporting Actor if it weren’t for the fact that three members of the cast–Rod Steiger as Brando’s brother Charley the Gent, Lee J. Cobb as ironically named union boss Johnny Friendly, and Karl Malden as tough priest Father Barry–were all up for the award and I suppose could have split the vote. That’s an impressive haul in even the best of times, but considering Saint gets more lines than any other woman in the film and was Brando’s love interest, I am curious why she was up for a Supporting Actress award. Wasn’t she the female lead?
Then again, this film is, in terms of acting, a total showcase for Brando. There are no slouches in the cast, but Brando’s Terry sells the film for what it is. He’s young, confused, and maybe not very bright. A washed-up boxer turned longshoreman, he’s had a longtime relationship with Johnny due to his older brother being one of Johnny’s righthand men. Can Terry turn on his own brother? Father Barry insists upon it. Saint’s Edie probably expects it. Charley on his own tries to protect Terry as Johnny becomes more inclined to have Terry killed the way he has so many other witnesses who step forward to say what they know to the Citizens Crime Commission. If Johnny goes, the local union can be clean again, but hardly anyone is brave enough to stand up to Johnny because the few that are tend not to last long enough to testify.
It comes to a head in the film’s most famous scene, as Charley and Terry talk in a cab on their way somewhere. Charley is trying to feel Terry out. Terry is trying to figure out what he should do, and he’s hoping his educated brother could help him out, but then Charley pulls out a gun and Terry finally realizes Charley wasn’t always there for him; in fact, Charley is one of the big reasons Terry never amounted to much in the boxing ring. Steiger does his best here, but he’s no match for Brando, particularly when Charley does pull the gun on Terry. You’d think Terry, for his part would be angry. He isn’t. He’s disappointed, which sums up Terry’s entire relationship with his brother up until that point. And then we get to the “could have been a contender” speech, and Terry expresses some of that anger, but also regret at how his life turned out because he trusted Charley to take care of him. Terry is certainly not happy with Charley, but he’s also not happy with himself.
And then Charley turns up dead, so of course Terry tells the Commission all he knows. You’d think Johnny’s outburst in the packed courthouse that’s on the radio live would have been enough to seal Johnny’s fate anyway, but he’s still on the streets later.
But after being called a bum over and over again, even by himself, Terry does win the day not through beating Johnny up. That goes poorly since Johnny’s goon helps out and give Terry a viscous beating, and that doesn’t even get into how much Johnny cheats. No, the long march Terry makes to go to work, unaided by anyone as insisted upon by Father Barry, breaks Johnny’s control over the union. How? I have to admit, I’m not sure. I suppose it’s because no one is afraid of Johnny anymore, but Johnny’s mob still appears to be intact. Heck, Terry can barely walk in a straight line and should probably see a doctor. Still, as symbolic victories go, having Johnny scream in impotent rage as the warehouse closes its doors on him is powerful enough. Cobb was a very versatile actor considering the many stage and screen roles he played where he wasn’t a villain. Heck, this guy was the original Willy Loman in the stage version of Death of a Salesman. I’m a bit surprised this is the first I’ve seen of him in this project given his resume, but it’s a hell of a film to be in. Much the same could be said for Steiger, truth be told, though I know Karl Malden best outside of this for being conspicuously present for a number of American Express card thefts.
But then there’s Eva Marie Saint, an actress who is still alive and working today. I have to say, she does an impressive job for her first film, and she comes across as innocent, vulnerable, and tough as nails all at once. She’s very different from the more worldly spy I saw in North by Northwest, and the fact that she managed to keep a long career going is a true testament to her talent and drive.
So, if this is an excuse for naming names, it’s the most artistic one I’ve ever seen with strong performances, good direction, and a smart script all leading to something where, for the second time in a row for this feature, I got to see a man develop a conscience. Not bad at all.
NEXT UP: We skip ahead to 1967 for the genre-blurring film about a manipulative older woman trying to get her way against a naive young college grad in the form of The Graduate.