On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)


Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley ‘the Gent’ Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle). Directed by Elia Kazan. Screenplay by Budd Schulberg. Rating: PG. Running time: 108 minutes.

Never has and never will a film be made that is quite as awe-inspiring as On The Waterfront. Never will an audience be so angered by the injustice they see, and so encouraging of the protagonist’s fight back. Never will one actor become a force of energy so strong, that they make you question whether films are about their directors, and whether actors are really the people we should all bow down to and revere for their power and creativity.

That actor, of course, is Marlon Brando. He is considered the greatest actor of all time, and in On The Waterfront we see why that title is sufficiently merited on the basis of this one performance alone. He embodies his character beyond all proportion and expectations of what is possible. Not one line sounds inauthentic or is thrown away without meaning. He becomes Terry Malloy, a failed prize-fighter who now works as a puppet of the corrupt bosses of the waterfront. He is conned into setting up the death of one of the peasant workers who is talking a little too openly about the nature of their activity, and, in time, as the corruption and willingness of his bosses to murder spirals out of control, he becomes the canary and takes the stand he selfishly refused to in the past.

Impersonally speaking, then, it is a story of political growth: the struggle of a community of silent workers in passive acceptance to find someone willing to make that all-too-risky courageous stand that just might spur the others on and give them collective strength. The disincentives of putting your neck on the line had prevented any such power-shifts for a long time. But, in the end, Terry Malloy has the balls. Inspired by the consciences of the almost socialist priest and sister of the murdered worker, he realises letting them control his life is cowardly. ‘I was ratting on myself all those years and I didn’t even know it.’ He takes a stand, and watching him do so, watching Brando do so, is, without exaggeration, simply spine-tingling.

Al Pacino says he saw On The Waterfront when it first came out in the cinema as a teenager, and by the end of it he couldn’t move. He kept seated, waited for it to start again, and watched it through for a second time. It comes as no surprise to me that his reason for doing so was Marlon Brando.

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