There’s a scene at the end of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” where Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), a former boxer who has become a disgraced, overweight wreck, prepares for his pathetic night club act by reciting a famous monologue that culminates with the line “I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve had class, I could’ve been somebody.” That famous speech is given by Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the conflicted dock worker who is the soul of Elia Kazan’s legendary 1954 Best Picture winner, “On the Waterfront.” Like La Motta, Terry is a former boxer, but the similarities end there. Scorsese’s film was about a man who destroyed his own life through his own selfishness and shortcomings. Malloy’s fall is different, and is at the heart of his decision of whether or not to bring down the world he was forced to live in due to circumstances stemming from the selfishness and corruption of others. His sadness doesn’t come out of wretched pity like in “Raging Bull.” Part of “Waterfront”‘s greatness, other than the revolutionary performance given by Brando, is the incisiveness that Kazan, who has had his own problems with snitching on his peers, brings to the foggy cold and run-down world of the New York City docks in the 1950’s. That realism is what keeps this movie alive.
Working on the docks, unpacking the various shipments of goods that come into the city, is monotonous work, and it beats down everyone who works there. Terry is our gateway into this world, and those who run it. The dock union has been hijacked by the mob and Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, all-time character actor), who rule with iron fist, taking union dues for themselves and demanding that the workers stay “D and D”: deaf and dumb, about nefarious activities. Terry becomes complicit in the murder of Joey Doyle, who was knocked off for wanting to blow the whistle on Friendly’s racket. Friendly and Terry’s brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) want him to push the whole affair out of his mind, and give him a cushy job for his compliance.
However, that is easier said than done. Terry, who in his youth was hotshot fighter on the fast track to a title shot, starts to question his station in life, thanks to some outside forces. There’s Joey’s sister Edith (Eva Marie Saint), stubborn and naive, who is shocked by the cruelty and corruption that defined Joey’s world. There is also Father Barry (Karl Malden), the tenacious Irish priest who manifests as a profound force of righteousness, ready to clean up the seedy underbelly of the neighborhood. But the preaching he does from his shaky pulpit falls on deaf ears, even after Joey’s death. But Barry senses guilt and regret in Terry.
Scorsese speaks at length about how Elia Kazan was an enormous influence on him, and you can definitely see it in “On the Waterfront.” The meditations on guilt and identity, as well as the spot-on, gritty sense of time and place are all here, standing (mostly) in stark contrast to the clean-cut, responsible movies American studios were cranking out at the time. The film is lived-in; it doesn’t have striking cinematography or spectacular camerawork, and some of his choices are pretty ham-fisted (Terry takes care of stool pigeons…get it?). The only overpowering technical element is Leonard Bernstein’s muscular, but occasionally overbearing score. Kazan was rooted in the theater (he directed Brando in the stage production and film adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire”), and getting amazing performances was his top priority. Cobb, who gave one of my favorite performances ever in “12 Angry Men,” is just as great here, creating a ferocious blowhard in Johnny Friendly, using his air-horn voice to create an aura of absolute authority. Malden is just as boisterous as Berry, embodying a street-wise man of God, with a muckraking spirit counterbalanced with deep empathy. He becomes the conscience of the movie, the angel standing on Terry’s shoulder steering him towards salvation. It’s not a coincidence that Edith is a student at at Catholic university; the film is focused on bringing Terry up out of a world of sin with religious overtones. This was Saint’s debut role, which she won an Oscar for, so it’s easy to give her a mulligan for how uneven she is. Her wide-eyed horror at the world she is discovering and some of her intense emotional scenes with Brando do become overwrought but she still does an admirable job of giving her a fragile tenacity. But her histrionics do stick out more when compared to the subtle Method employed by Brando.
Many before me have waxed poetically and lengthily about Brando’s game-changing approach to acting, and that’s because he forever changed how characters (and what kind of characters) could be portrayed on screen. Movies were long rooted in the traditions of the theater, bludgeoning the audience with constant emoting to make sure they always understood the how and why of whoever they were playing. But Brando wasn’t interested in that. His performance as Terry Malloy did for movie acting what punk did for rock and roll: scraped away the artifice and made the form raw, simple, and even more powerful than it was before. Here was a movie star who crashed down to Earth, not afraid of looking weak and defeated, mumbling his lines and refusing good posture. Malloy’s guilt and frustration over his life as a dock worker, and how the powers that be forced him into that life against his will, starts as an itch that turns into a scratch that becomes a gaping wound. The Oscar that Brando won for “On the Waterfront” was a watershed moment: movies could have a dose of reality in them. Brando dug deep into this character, typified by one scene where Edith drops her glove. Brando completely improvised this scene (which drove many a director nuts), using the setting around him and what was created on the page by screenwriter Budd Schulberg to dive into Terry’s mind. When he is approached by investigators to blow the whistle on the docks, that conflict rings all the more true not just because of the performance, but also because of Kazan’s relationship with the story. Kazan was put in a similar position during this time when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, who put a jihad on Hollywood in their desperate search for Communists, many of whom they found out through Kazan’s testimony. This stigma never left Kazan and may have drastically damaged his career in Hollywood, but his experience bleeds into Terry’s. How do you keep your soul and integrity intact when you are forced to tear down the world you live in, even if it’s an unenviable world?
The essence of “On the Waterfront” is distilled in that famous scene in the back of the car with Terry and his older brother Charlie. When Terry says he “could’ve been a contender” before he was forced to throw a big fight, there are multitudes of sadness contained in something as simple as stressing a syllable. ” I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody, I could’ve had class.” It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in American movies, and “On the Waterfront,” although some of its elements haven’t aged particularly well, still wins by an early-round knockout.