WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘On The Waterfront’.
On the Waterfront not only showcases the acting talents of Marlon Brando, but reflects a turning point in the life of the film’s Director, Eli Kazan.
The crime drama follows Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who is dedicated to older brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a member of the mob-connected union in control of the waterfront. As mob leader Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is investigated by the Waterfront Crime Commission for countless murders, Terry is unknowingly involved in the murder of Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), a dockworker that agreed to testify against Friendly. The murder weighs heavily on Terry as he becomes romantically involved with Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and the pressure to testify against Friendly swells.
The Journey of Terry Malloy
Terry grapples with the thought of betraying his brother, the only person to ever really care about him. He is sheepish at the beginning of the film, despite his domineering physical stature, but soon realizes this lifelong dedication is not reciprocal. Terry had a promising boxing career until Charley convinced him to throw a pivotal match because Friendly bet against him. This slow realization cumulates into the iconic “I coulda been a contender” monologue, which has been repeated by film fans ever since – even making an appearance in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). The struggle that Terry goes through in this realization is heartbreaking, with Brando’s method acting adding to its realism. As Charley attempts to save his brother one last time Terry finally refuses, and the consequences turn deadly.
As I was re-watching On the Waterfront, I could not stop thinking about the pigeons Terry cares for. He scoffs early in the film that they have a great life. Later, he introduces Edie to the pigeons and explains they are faithful birds. The life the pigeons lead is similar to Terry’s. He leads a decent life, getting consistent work as a dockworker because of his connection to Charley.
Terry is also faithful to his brother, even defending him as he stands in the pigeon coop when a detective is pressuring him to testify. Once Terry testifies, the pigeons are killed by his young friend, who even yells at him “A pigeon for a pigeon”. The similarity is disrupted as Terry finally decides to fight back, confronting Friendly at the docks and influencing the dockworkers to stand up to the union.
Art Imitating Life?
The life of director Elia Kazan is ground-breaking yet complicated. An influential theatre director turned filmmaker helped bring authenticity to the screen, presenting the lives of ordinary people and working closely with actors. Emphasising method acting, Kazan also worked with Brando on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
A dark era in film history is the Hollywood blacklist. Government officials attempted to find Communists or Communist sympathisers in Hollywood. Those found guilty were barred from working in the American entertainment industry until the blacklist ended in the 1960s. Many prominent Hollywood figures were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or land on the blacklist themselves for not cooperating. Kazan was called to HUAC in 1952, “naming names” of eight former communists.
Kazan received a great deal of backlash for this decision, and On the Waterfront can be interpreted as his response to this negative reaction. Showing the intense struggle and need for Terry to testify against a group that was damaging towards the American way of life, it can be seen as Kazan’s reasoning to testify. After Terry testifies he also receives criticism just like Kazan. When Terry is shunned from working on the waterfront, he confronts his opponents and explains why he testified, one can wonder if this is Kazan’s own response to his critics.
The Legacy of ‘On the Waterfront’
On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning 8. The film most notably won Best Picture, and Elia Kazan won Best Director. Marlon Brando received his first Best Actor Oscar and Eva Marie Sainte won Best Supporting Actress.
Kazan continued to direct, introducing Hollywood to James Dean with his first leading role in East of Eden (1955). His actions during the HUAC investigation followed Kazan throughout his life. In 1999, Kazan was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. Calls to protest Kazan during the ceremony because of his HUAC testimony were raised, with a portion of the audience remaining seated and refraining from applause. The director’s actions during the era of the Hollywood blacklist and whether the lifelong backlash was deserved is still debated.