AFI Top 100 #45- On the Waterfront

by - Wednesday, April 03, 2013

After having yet another fainting incident at the doctor's today (and now a big old bump on my head) on top of some sort of nasty cold I got from someone while home, I ended up spending most of the day in and out of naps laying on the couch. The big bright side of this was that On The Waterfront was on TCM, so I got to put another tiny dent into my AFI mission!

On the Waterfront was released in 1954, and was completely embraced by critics from the getgo, earning Oscars for the director Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, and Eva Saint Laurent. It also won Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Black and White- I love that it was a split category once), Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. Basically, people loved this movie.It is about dockworkers in New York and how they're union has become corrupted. It begins with a murder, catalyzed by Brando's character Terry, of a young man who was talking to the police. In the film, most of the characters reject authority- the priest and the police- instead playing deaf and dumb to avoid being on Johnny Friendly's bad side. The movie is violent and pretty hopeless. It's a big old Bechdel loser, as only one woman is on the screen for the whole film, but it has a lot of great qualities, best of which is Marlon Brando's performance. 

I have to say, I didn't want to love Marlon Brando, because it seems so cliche to do so, but I did. It was kind of like watching Stagecoach for the first time and realizing how beautiful John Wayne was when he was young. I think I have only seen Brando in Apocalypse Now and Superman (and a Michael Jackson video? Am I imagining that?). His performance style, gosh darn it, is fantastic. He has so much grit that everything feels incredibly natural and truthful. In this film, he works a lot of nuance into his body language and face, without it ever feeling overwrought.

Case and point, in the scene in the car with his brother, the conversation moves from casual to one of the deepest I have ever seen on film in such a natural way. Every line means more than is said, and it builds naturally to basically the two both making life or death decisions. When his brother reveals he is about to kill him (by saying nothing of the sort), Brando makes it clear that he understands the implications in phases, and it is so great. When he reaches his famous line, which we have all heard so many times with the Brando accent, you expect it to be cliche, but damn it is so good! So basically, I liked the movie, but it made me buy into the Brando mythos much more than I expecte.

Despite the beauty of sections of the film, I found the end to be really strange. It was overly feel-goody (I mean, if it was that easy, why didn't someone do it before), but even more jarring was its message of individualism. After getting the crap beat out of him, Terry rises to enter the dock, freeing the workers from Johnny Friendly's corrupt union. He struggles to walk, but the priest insists that no one help him. As he parades past the crowd of workers (most of whom were not all that helpful when he got the beat down, the camera takes two specific viewpoints. First, we see from the perspective of the boss, as Terry limps closer and closer. Second, we get forward dolly shots, that seem to take Terry's perspective by looking at the passing workers faces (though you never see Brando look to the side). I only watched it once, but I noticed we nearly never see from the collective's perspective. Terry is framed as heroic in his suffering and individual in his success. His tragedy is that he gave up his individual success (his chance to be a contender) for the good of a larger group, and he finally gains success individually that is just followed by others.

Apparently this heroic ending is quite different from the original text, in which Terry is brutally beaten to death. I am not saying that would be preferable, but this ending does feel really false to the rest of the story. Very riding out into the wilderness in Blade Runner. It also has strange political undertones, as Kazan had been criticized for turning in former Communists, including Arthur Miller. This film highlights the problems in unions when they are ruled by individual interests and greed, and Edie seems to stand for altruism, the priest for hierarchy, and Terry failed/ Beat individualism, but I am not sure that it is how we are meant to read this ending.

All in all, it's a 4 out of 5, I think. Not one I would rush to watch again, but I am glad I saw it.

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