On The Waterfront (1954)

Sixty-eight years ago today, the film On The Waterfront premiered. Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint (in her film debut), and Leonard Bernstein all created a movie that was a critical and commercial success. It received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan. In 1997, it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth-greatest American movie of all time. You should watch this.

Title: On The Waterfront
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Produced by: Sam Spiegel
Screenplay by: Budd Schulberg
Story by: Budd Schulberg
Suggested by: “Crime on the Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Eva Marie Saint
Music by: Leonard Bernstein
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Edited by: Gene Milford
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Release date: July 28, 1954
Running time: 108 minutes
Budget: $910,000
Box office: $9.6 million
Academy Awards Best Motion Picture – Sam Spiegel
Academy Awards Best Director – Elia Kazan
Academy Awards Best Actor – Marlon Brando
Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress – Eva Marie Saint
Academy Awards Best Story and Screenplay – Budd Schulberg
Academy Awards Best Art Direction – Black-and-White – Richard Day
Academy Awards Best Cinematography – Black-and-White – Boris Kaufman
Academy Awards Best Film Editing – Gene Milford
Bambi Awards Best Film – International
Bodil Awards – Best American Film
British Academy Film Awards Best Foreign Actor – Marlon Brando
Directors Guild of America Awards – Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures – Elia Kazan
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama – Marlon Brando
Golden Globe Awards Best Director – Motion Picture – Elia Kazan
Golden Globe Awards Best Cinematography – Black and White – Boris Kaufman
International Film Music Critics Association Awards – Best Archival Release of an Existing Score – Re-Release or Re-Recording – Leonard Bernstein (music), Douglass Fake (album producer), Frank K. DeWald (liner notes) and Joe Sikoryak (album art direction)
Nastro d’Argento Best Foreign Film – Elia Kazan
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Director – Elia Kazan
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actor – Marlon Brando
Venice International Film Festival – Silver Lion, OCIC Award, Pasinetti Award
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama – Budd Schulberg

Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) gloats about his iron-fisted control of the waterfront. The police and the Waterfront Crime Commission know that Friendly is behind a number of murders, but witnesses play “D and D” (“deaf and dumb”), accepting their subservient position, rather than risking the danger and shame of informing.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker whose brother Charley “the Gent” (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man. Terry had been a promising boxer until Friendly instructed Charley to have Terry deliberately lose a fight so that Friendly could win money by betting against him. Terry coaxes Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), a popular dockworker, into an ambush, preventing Joey from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry assumed that Friendly’s enforcers were only going to “lean” on Joey to pressure him into silence, and is surprised when Joey is killed.

Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), angry about her brother’s death, shames “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Friendly sends Terry to attend and inform on a dockworkers’ meeting Father Barry holds in the church, which is broken up by Friendly’s men. Terry helps Edie escape the violence, and is smitten with her. Another dockworker, Timothy J. “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify after Father Barry promises unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.

Although Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey’s death, and despite Father Barry’s impassioned “sermon on the docks” reminding the longshoremen that Christ walks among them and that every murder is a crucifixion, Terry is at first willing to remain “D and D”, even when subpoenaed to testify. However, when Edie, unaware of Terry’s role in her brother’s death, begins to return Terry’s feelings, Terry is tormented by his awakening conscience and confesses the circumstances of Joey’s death to Father Barry and Edie. Horrified, Edie breaks up with him.

As Terry increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry, offering him a good job where he can receive kickbacks without any physical work, and finally threatens Terry by holding a gun against him, but recognizes that he has failed to sway Terry, who blames his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. In what has become an iconic scene, Terry reminds Charley that had it not been for the fixed fight, Terry’s prizefighting career would have bloomed. “I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody”, laments Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.” Charley gives Terry the gun, and advises him to run. Terry flees to Edie’s apartment, where she first refuses to let him in, but finally admits her love for him. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered that night near the apartment and his body hung in an alley as bait to lure Terry out to his death, but Terry and Edie both escape the attempt on Terry’s life.

After finding Charley’s body, Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry prevents it by blocking Terry’s line of fire and convincing Terry to fight Friendly by testifying in court instead. Terry proceeds to give damaging testimony implicating Friendly in Joey’s murder and other illegal activities, causing Friendly’s mob boss to cut him off and Friendly to face indictment.

After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Terry is shunned by his former friends and by a neighborhood boy who had previously looked up to him. Refusing Edie’s suggestion that they move far away from the waterfront together, Terry shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry openly confronts Friendly, calling him out and proclaiming that he is proud of what he did. The confrontation develops into a vicious brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly’s thugs gang up on Terry and nearly beat him to death. The dockworkers, who witness the confrontation, show their support for Terry by refusing to work, unless Terry is working, too, and pushing Friendly into the river. Encouraged by Father Barry and Edie, the badly injured Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other workers. A soaking wet and face-scarred Friendly, now left with nothing, swears revenge on them all, but his threats fall on deaf ears as they enter the garage, and the door closes behind them.

One comment

  1. Pretty certain I have seen this film AT LEAST Ten or Twelve times.
    First time was back in ’76 and I was about to leave Texas for Lake Charles, Louisiana, ostensibly to become a longshoreman. (I got over-taken by events and never full-filled my dream of becoming Brando–Alas)
    Thanks for putting me back onto my ‘Memory-Lane’
    Now, I gotta watch this film One-More-Time.
    (Been tryin’ to decide what to watch tonight as I polish off the last of my bottle of cheap vodka)
    And Cheers!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.