Reel Matt

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On the Waterfront

Film #417


An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses.

Year 2, Film #52

THE REVIEW: “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.” This quote, which is number three on AFI’s list of the top 100, can be heard in the 1954 Best Picture winner, On the Waterfront. This is a film that focuses on the difference between doing what’s right and doing what you have to in order to survive. Sometimes, as is the case with Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), doing what you have to can sometimes interfere with your hopes and dreams, but all it takes it a little push in the right direction to get you on the right path again.

On the Waterfront is probably the oldest mob film I’ve seen thus far and it sets a lot of precedents that can be seen in the mob films of recent years. You have the president of the union, John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who’s taking a large cut of the workers’ dues and not even guaranteeing all union members steady work. The police are investigating Friendly and the other union leaders as the film starts because of some recent evidence brought forth by Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) who is seen as one of the nicest guys in town. Friendly, as you would expect, doesn’t like this at all and sends Terry and a few of his other thugs to take him out. This then provides the central conflict for the rest of the film as Terry thought the mobsters were just going to intimidate Joey, not kill him.

Marlon Brando does a fantastic job of playing Terry as a tough guy with a sweet heart that tries to hide it. Years ago he was prevented from going for the heavyweight championship because he did what he had to do: throw the match for Friendly. Brando brings the right amount of carelessness mixed with devotion and loyalty that Terry’s character needs. The rest of the cast as well, including Cobb and Eva Marie Saint who plays Terry’s love interest and Joey’s sister Edie Doyle. They fit their molds quite well but they also bring a unique level of authenticity to their characters as well. While the story can seem quite distant at times (more on that in a bit), the characters are always right there at the forefront of your attention. You grow to care about these characters, or in the case of the mobsters, wish upon them an early demise.

The story is very good overall, but there’s one major area where it’s lacking and that’s in the scheming and conniving. Arguably, the main focus of On the Waterfront is Terry’s struggle between sticking with Friendly and the mob, or ratting them out to help the rest of the union get the work that they deserve. And this part is told well. His relationship with Edie and his tense interactions with the priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) show his complicated character that I mentioned above. But while his half of the story is well developed, the other half — the mobsters — feels incomplete. In order for us as viewers to really relate and sympathize with Terry’s struggles, we need to see just how ruthless and terrible Friendly and his crew are. Some of that is alluded to throughout the film, but there’s only one time where we really see the conniving Friendly at work, and that’s at the end of the film. Most of the villainous acts take place behind closed doors where we as viewers can understand what’s happening, but at the same time, aren’t really seeing the full effect. On the Waterfront needs more scenes like that between Friendly and Charley (Rod Steiger) at the end, or even the scene in the beginning around the pool table when Terry walks in after Joey was thrown to his death. We need to see the evil that Terry is a part of and struggles with trying to leave in order to fully appreciate the change Terry goes through.

On the Waterfront is a classic that holds up to films of today incredibly well. It may be one of the oldest mob/crime films I’ve seen but it’s just as energetic and morally-questionable as some more modern films. The acting, especially from Brando, brings out the best and worst of the characters who go to the docks every morning at eight o’clock looking for work. And the struggle Terry goes through of whether he should play “D and D” (deaf and dumb) and help himself or speak up and help everyone is very clear to the audience. The lack of focus on the mobsters however diminish the struggle a bit and leave a bit to be desired. This in no The Godfather, but On the Waterfront does have something special of it’s own that makes it worth watching.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5