In the 1950s, Hollywood especially prized method acting and realistic films dealing with social issues. And you can’t find a better example of that than Elia Kazan’s 1954 drama “On the Waterfront” starring Marlon Brando at his best. The black and white classic, the next offering in The News-Gazette Film Series, screens at the Virginia Theatre at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Brando) works as a longshoreman at the docks in Hoboken, N.J. The dockworkers union has been corrupted by gangsters, led by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), and Terry’s older brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), acts as his lieutenant; Terry gets along as a low-level flunky. When dockworker Joey Doyle decides to testify before a crime commission investigating the situation on the docks, Terry is ordered to lure him to the roof of his tenement for, Terry believes, some physical intimidation not to talk. Instead, Joey gets thrown off the roof.
In the aftermath of the murder, Terry meets and falls for Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who is trying to find out the truth about her brother’s death. When she asks Terry for his help, he says he can’t help her, but his conscience and the encouragement of the local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), push him toward talking to the crime commission, making him a target for Johnny Friendly’s gang. And, as the film demonstrates, there are lots of different ways to die on the waterfront.
Director Kazan had begun his career as an actor himself and was one of the founders of the Actors Studio, a nonprofit workshop for actors. Considered an “actor’s director,” he was renowned for his ability to work with actors and guide them to award-winning performances. His 1951 “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for example, had earned Oscars for Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter and a nomination for Brando. For their performances in “On the Waterfront,” Brando won as best actor and Eva Marie Saint as best supporting actress — in her screen debut, no less. Steiger, Malden and Cobb all were nominated as best supporting actor.
Not only are the performances here uniformly outstanding, but they produced iconic scenes that have become standard texts for professional acting classes. In particular, the scene in the taxi between Terry and Charley stands out where Charley tries to convince Terry not to talk to the crime commission, and Terry says the oft-referenced or spoofed “I coulda been a contender” line.
The excellent script by novelist/playwright/journalist/screenwriter Budd Schulberg went through numerous revisions. Kazan’s friend, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote the initial version but withdrew for essentially political reasons when Columbia producer Harry Cohn wanted the gangsters rewritten as communists.
Kazan replaced Miller with Schulberg but then had trouble finding a producer and eventually wound up with independent producer Sam Spiegel, who fine-tuned the script with Schulberg. Spiegel also “fine-tuned” the budget to such an extent that Kazan faced unexpected challenges in getting the shots he wanted — such as how to shoot that scene in the cab with no rear-screen projection to show the street outside.
Some of Kazan’s problem with Miller and possibly the source of his deep interest in the script to begin with appear to have been consequences of Kazan’s friendly testimony before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, in which he named other Hollywood talents who had been members of the Communist Party (Kazan had been a member in the mid-1930s for about a year and a half).
The scene of Terry’s testimony before the Crime Commission (one of only two scenes in the film not shot on location) probably owes much to Kazan’s own testimonial experience.
Brando is in top form here, and Kazan often just let him go with his own ideas during filming. This sometimes produced lovely grace notes as when Saint accidentally drops a glove while talking to Brando, and he picks it up, cleans it off and puts it on his own hand — an instance where, Kazan noted in later years, he was clever enough not to call “cut” when it happened. On the other hand, Brando starting the taxi scene with lines not in the script initially caused Steiger some distress, until he realized what was going on — namely, Brando thought the scene should be played differently from how they had been told.
Apart from all the script revisions and impromptu changes on the set, Terry, Johnny Friendly and Father Barry are all based on real characters. In fact, the longshoreman who was the model for Terry sued Columbia Pictures for appropriating his life story.
The film won eight Oscars: best picture, director, actor, screenplay, supporting actress (Saint), art direction, cinematography (Boris Kaufman, one of Hollywood’s top cinematographers) and film editing.
It also received four other nominations: supporting actor for Cobb, Malden and Steiger and best score of a dramatic or comedy picture (Leonard Bernstein). Brando’s win was his first after three consecutive losses in the best actor category (for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Viva Zapata!” and “Julius Caesar” — the first two directed by Kazan).