On the Waterfront (1954)

Review #1,102

Director:  Elia Kazan
Cast:  Marlon BrandoKarl MaldenLee J. Cobb
Plot:  An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses.

Genre:  Crime / Drama
Awards:  Won Silver Lion, OCIC Award, Pasinetti (Venice). Won 8 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Supporting Actor (x3), Best Music.
Runtime:  108min
Rating:  PG for some mature themes.

“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life?  Do it to him before he does it to you.”

In perhaps one of his most memorable roles, apart from his starring turn in The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1972) and his 'cameo' in Apocalypse Now (1979), Marlon Brando gives a stunning performance as Terry Malloy, a lowly labour worker, whose brother has close ties to his corrupted boss who has an iron grip over the workers' union, choosing when to give people jobs, paying them low wages, and subjecting them to rough treatment. 

The setting is a waterfront, where shipments come in and out every day.  The workers long for a shipment from Dublin, if only to appease their desire for Irish whiskey.  The conditions are appalling, and the boss, king of a small underworld empire that dominate the trade, doesn't spare any sympathy to those who speak out against him.  He simply murders them to keep them silent.

In such a circumstance, it is befitting of Terry, a former prized fighter who according to himself could have been a contender (the film's most famous line), to take matters in his own hands when things become abject and his conscience stirred. 

Directed by Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront is a Hollywood classic, and one of the great films of the 1950s.  Its themes of corruption and redemption still resonate today, even if the film doesn't quite feel as compelling as expected. 

After a slow first-third where characters are established and put in their places, the narrative starts to become more interesting when a romance subplot and another subplot centering on a preaching priest begin to unfold around Terry.  It has to be said that Brando's screen presence and his raw, street-level portrayal of Terry has greatly helped the film to achieve a kind of intensity not often seen in Hollywood pictures of that period. 

Composer Leonard Bernstein's opening notes appear to have inspired Jerry Goldsmith's score for L.A. Confidential (1997), particularly its main theme.  The music in Kazan's film is not exactly an outstanding one, but it provides the 'melo' in this melodrama effectively.  Its dramatic flair, and quite superb performances from the cast, give the film a more emotional feel in an otherwise straightforward affair. 

Hence the melodrama, and perhaps why despite being essentially a crime picture about the lower rungs of society ruled by an oppressive lord, it retains a poetic quality of individual triumph against the tramplers, with its spirit of freedom and redemption continuing to inspire.

Verdict:  Backed by a stunning performance by Marlon Brando, this drama about corruption and redemption is a Hollywood classic.


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