On the Waterfront
(United States, 1954)

The first time I can recall seeing Marlon Brando act was (unfortunately) in Superman. Based on this performance, I couldn't understand why anyone would pay this man so much money, since he seemed to be about as emotive as my mother's refrigerator. Indeed, Brando's post-Godfather body of work is, for the most part, unimpressive. Turning back the clock, however, to the early 1950s, it's easy to see the roots of the legend. And, while A Streetcar Named Desire introduced him, it was On the Waterfront that cemented his reputation. The movie represents the pinnacle in Brando's career. It is one of the most influential performances of the post-silent era - subtle at times, explosive at others. It's impossible to watch this and not be impressed. Brando's work overshadows the film as a whole, but not to the degree where its other components are reduced to obscurity. On the Waterfront tells a compelling tale that is made all the more memorable by the performances contained therein. (Not only Brando, but Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger.) With the exception of the ending, this movie has aged well. And, with the "I coulda been a contender" speech, it contains one of the silver screen's unforgettable moments.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The central figure in the film is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), an ex-boxer who does odd-jobs and runs errands for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the crooked boss of the dockers' union. Terry's brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is a member of Johnny's inner circle, and, in large part because of his influence, Terry is trusted. When a longshoreman threatens Johnny's position, the boss has him killed - with Terry's unwitting assistance. Once Terry realizes that he was inadvertently involved in the murder, he begins to reassess his life and his position in Johnny's organization. Meanwhile, the local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to organize the longshoreman to speak out against the corruption around them by going before the Waterfront Crime Commission. Terry is torn between loyalty to Johnny and his brother and the unease of his conscience and his growing infatuation for the murdered man's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). In the end, he is pushed into a position from which escape demands that he betray someone.

Over the years, many critics have praised On the Waterfront for having what has been called a nearly perfect screenplay. Written by Budd Schulberg, the script has the unmistakable ring of truth. For the most part, it neither proselytizes nor preaches, and deals with its central subject with a candor that many movies of the era lacked. Today, parts of On the Waterfront don't work quite as well as they once did. Some scenes seem contrived or overly familiar. But the anger and passion come through. However, the real reason to see On the Waterfront is for Marlon Brando. It's only possible to understand his impact on American cinema by observing what he does in On the Waterfront. The power of the "contender" scene isn't so much in the words as it is in the way they're delivered - the simple pain in Brando's voice is echoed in his eyes and mannerisms. Schulberg may have written the scene, but Brando makes it his own. On the Waterfront may have baggage, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the great American productions of the mid-20th century.

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