02nd Dec2019

‘On the Waterfront’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint | Written by Budd Schulberg | Directed by Elia Kazan


The opening tells us everything. We can visualise the shipyard before we’re shown a single image. Leonard Bernstein’s horn-heavy score sounds like the song of ships. It’s almost peaceful. Then a piano strikes like military drums.

1954’s On the Waterfront is a furious, blue-collar political drama, sandwiched between A Streetcar Named Desire (also starring Marlon Brando) and East of Eden in the filmography of its director Elia Kazan. The film takes place amongst the largely Irish American community of shipyard workers in New Jersey. Manhattan can often be seen, tantalisingly, across the water, visible through prison-like iron railings, or from the rooftop where Terry Malloy (Brando) cares for a dead man’s pigeons, like a form of repentance.

The dead man is Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), murdered by local gangsters. Terry was semi-involved. Terry works on and off for Johnny Friendly’s (Lee J. Cobb) gang, in exchange for the better jobs on the dock. Terry isn’t the sharpest crate-hook on the rack, but he knows what it takes to get regular work. Unlike the other men, he doesn’t have to show up on the waterfront before dawn and hope the foreman calls his name. The workers are treated like animals. In one moment, one of Johnny’s bruisers tosses work tokens on the ground like feed to livestock. The workers can’t discuss action or organise themselves because there’s no union and Johnny’s always listening. They must be “deaf and dumb”. One day, accompanied by Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the local priest (Karl Malden) offers his church as meeting point. When the church is attacked, it is the trigger for a very reluctant revolution.

Terry is an impressionable young man, dragged this way and that by various opposing forces: his confusing love for Edie; his personal shame (he “coulda been a contender” in the prizefighter world); and his duty to his family. Johnny’s right-hand man is Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry’s brother – a “butcher in a camel-hair coat.” Terry was made in a world where survival is an everyday challenge. It’s meeting Edie that really twists his melon. Edie is grieving. “Everybody’s got a racket,” he warns her. But she’s having none of it. She stands by the socialist principle that we’re all part of each other. She’s willing to make a sacrifice (a teaching career, in her case), so why shouldn’t Terry? Poor Terry doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to help her. He tries feeding her booze like it’s the only salve he knows.

Brando’s performance is quite different. While the other players lean into the melodrama, his performance is naturalistic and nuanced, like something from today. Somewhere between the electrifying discomfort of James Dean and the raucous intensity of a youthful Christian Bale, Brando goes through the full gamut. Terry begins as an impassive machine; Edie awakens him, first to possessive love and then to a broader, brotherly love.

It’s this universal, inclusive message that remains so relevant today. Kazan might have been seen as a revolutionary red to some at the time, but On the Waterfront actually looks pretty conservative through modern eyes. I mean, the basic plot has the priest as the peacebringer, urging Terry to use the tried and trusted justice system to bring about resolution.

There are elements to satisfy every film fan here. We get the chilly shadows and smoky atmosphere of film noir; lowdown political drama; wild melodrama bumping up against moments of delightful subtlety; and we get a good mix of robust action and complex romance. It’s this irresistible balance that makes On the Waterfront endlessly rewatchable.

On the Waterfront is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 2nd December 2019.


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