“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it”.
Some critics suggested that Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront reflected his role as a “friendly” witness before the US House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, where he admitted past membership in the Communist Party and named names.
The movie, written by Budd Schulberg (who had a similar experience) is a clear parable of loyalty and betrayal.
It is the story of slow-witted but sensitive docker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), who is unwittingly involved in a murder and decides to denounce his corrupt and all-powerful labour boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb), to the police.
His guilt is exacerbated when he falls in love with the dead man’s sister, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint in her film debut), but his illuminating crisis is his realisation that he, too, has been sold out – most heartbreakingly by his older, smarter brother Charley (Rod Steiger), who is Friendly’s sharp lawyer and right-hand man.
After Edie shames the initially ineffectual parish priest (Karl Malden) into leading the crusade against harbour union racketeering, Friendly’s intimidation turns more deadly.
Terry painfully defies the code of silence and testifies at a congressional commission.
He is ostracised for “ratting” by the waterfront community and beaten to a pulp in the dockyard before his fearful comrades fall in behind him, breaking Friendly’s hold on their lives and labour.
Brando is superb as the uneducated, inarticulate, confused ex-boxer, and he gets sterling support from such Actors Studio alumni as Rod Steiger and Karl Malden.
Brando confronting Steiger in the back of a cab is the most often cited classic scene (pictured below), but there are many other unforgettable moments: Brando fiddling with Saint’s little glove, putting it on his own hand; Terry discovering that all his lovingly cared-for pigeons have been killed by the neighbourhood boy who admired him; and Terry beating down Edie’s door and forcing an admission of love as they slide down to the floor in a desperate kiss.
Sam Spiegel was the daring producer who took on the production after it was turned down by every major Hollywood studio. He was rewarded with the Best Film Oscar at the 1954 Academy Awards.
On The Waterfront was shot entirely on location in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Lee J Cobb
Eva Marie Saint
John F Hamilton