How do I love “On the Waterfront”? Let me count the ways.
Starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, this landmark film won eight Academy Awards, and for good reason. The story is unconventional and surprisingly gritty as it deals with the corruption of union bosses on the New Jersey waterfront. Behind this thought-provoking storyline was director Elia Kazan and his anti-communist agenda. Kazan was very democratic, and he created this film to counteract the secretly communist film directors in the movie industry. America’s Red Scares only served to promote Kazan’s goal of shaming his communist colleagues, whose “On the Waterfront” character counterparts happened to be the hated union bosses.
Terry Malloy, an inarticulate ex-boxer, is often pulled into boss Johnny Friendly’s criminal schemes, and not always by choice. Terry is played to perfection by screen legend Marlon Brando (yes, the dude from “The Godfather”). He’s the kind of character who one moment you don’t understand and in the next does something completely heroic and unexpected. Terry is an authentic longshoreman, flannel shirt and all.
Few good stories lack romance, and this film has one. Enter Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), a Catholic teacher-to-be. Terry thinks of her as innocent and overprotected but finds her endearing despite his own tough persona and constant brushes with crime. Who said dock workers couldn’t be sentimental?
But Terry has a guilty secret. He unknowingly took part in the brutal murder of Edie’s brother. Talk about an awkward situation. Just as he becomes close with her, he must confront his criminal past. Should he rat on his sketchy mob friends? The situation is complicated since Charley, Terry’s older brother and idol, has a major role in the union’s structure of organized crime.
The character development is originally crafted, and the undertones stay undertones. For the hopeless romantics out there, you should enjoy this. This movie revels in romantic subtlety for all except the dramatic kiss in the second half. Neither Terry nor Edie say much, so whatever they do say is conveyed with strong emotion and carefully coordinated body language.
If in-your-face romance is your thing, I can’t guarantee this will be your favorite movie. But nobody I’ve met thinks that young Brando is a bad leading man. And we could all benefit from some good old-fashioned tenderness. This is no “Titanic,” and thank goodness for that! A movie about gritty Jersey longshoremen trying to overthrow murderous mob bosses should not be overly romantic or sentimental. This isn’t the Hallmark Channel.
My one complaint is Brando’s makeup. I kept having the urge to lean up close to my TV and check if his eyebrow mark was a scar or some genetic quirk. But it serves to remind us of Terry’s rough-and-tumble days in the boxing ring.
As for frightening scenes, this movie has hints of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers. The plot contains three murders. The first two are sad but not particularly frightening. The final one didn’t scare me, but it could be terrifying for younger viewers. And, violence is sometimes used as a first resort when characters deal with each other. Again, this is not the Hallmark Channel.
One thing of note is that this is one of the few movies where a Catholic priest is portrayed, well, as a decent human being. He serves as a guide both for the undernourished, intellectual Edie and Terry, the neighborhood bad boy. His presence makes Terry question his own role in the murders.
“On the Waterfront” deserves five
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.