On the Waterfront

Released:  1954

Cast:  Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture, Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Black-and-White (Richard Day), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) (Boris Kaufman), Best Film Editing (Gene Milford)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb), Best Supporting Actor (Karl Malden), Best Supporting Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Leonard Bernstein)

SUMMARY:  The local waterfront is controlled by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a union boss who has gained power through his ties with the Mob.  The authorities, particularly the Waterfront Crime Commission, know that Friendly is responsible for numerous murders, but are unable to prove anything because no witnesses are willing to come forward.  One of Friendly’s close associates is Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger), whose younger brother Terry also works for Friendly.  Terry (Marlon Brando) had once been a promising boxer, but had lost his career after taking a dive for Friendly.  Now, Terry works as an enforcer for Friendly.  One night, Terry is used to lure longshoreman Joey Doyle into an ambush, during which Joey is killed (he had been planning to talk to the authorities).  Terry was unaware that Joey was going to be killed, and resents Friendly for putting him in that position.  Despite this, and despite the pleas of local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), Terry continues to keep silent about Friendly’s activities.  By this time, Terry has also met and fallen for Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who is unaware of his role in Joey’s death.  Soon, another dockworker is killed after it is learned that he planned to testify against Friendly.

Terry has become more and more upset by his role in Joey’s death, and by Friendly’s treatment of the longshoremen, and seems to be thinking of testifying.  To stop him, Friendly tells Charley that he must either convince his brother to keep silent, or have him killed.  However, when Charley and Terry meet, Charley is unable to convince Terry, who has also become resentful of his brother (for the end of his boxing career).  Instead of delivering Terry to the waiting killers, Charley lets Terry get away.  Unfortunately, Friendly’s associates have been watching Charley, and kill him as punishment.  His body is then hung in an alley for Terry to find.  Terry decides to shoot Friendly, but is stopped by Father Barry, who convinces him to finally stop Friendly through testifying.  After testifying against Friendly in court, Terry is told that he will not find a job anywhere on the waterfront.  Edie wants the two of them to simply leave town, but Terry insists on going down to the docks for recruitment.  Once there, he loudly insults Friendly, and announces that he is glad that he testified.  Friendly and Terry get into a brutal fight, which ends with Friendly’s goons ganging up on Terry and nearly killing him.  The other dockworkers, who had been watching, have finally had enough, and refuse to work unless Terry also works.  Despite the fact that he can barely stand, Terry manages to stagger into the dock, followed by the other men.  Johnny Friendly is left standing outside the garage, screaming at the men to come back.

MY TAKE:  This movie is one of those irritating-yet-inspiring ones.  It’s irritating because absolutely everybody cows to Johnny Friendly and his cronies.  Obviously, bad things happen when a single man tries to stand up to Friendly, but I spent the whole movie thinking that if the men would simply band together, they would simply outnumber the mobsters, and could thereby take back control of the union.  Father Barry seems to also be of this opinion, but his pleas to the men seemingly fall on deaf ears.  Apparently, it takes a cowboy like Marlon Brando to motivate people to fight for fair treatment.  He is great in this movie (he actually opens his mouth when he talks, which is a nice change after One-Eyed Jacks), but even he has to get the living daylights beat out of him before the other longshoremen are willing to do anything.  Although Terry has spent a long time fighting for the wrong side, you still have to admire him for standing up to Friendly.  Friendly threw a lot of crap at Terry in an attempt to discourage him – he killed Charley and tried to kill Terry, for starters –but Terry wasn’t cowed.  Based on Terry’s age and former profession, it seems to me that Friendly was lucky to have his buddies there during that final fight, since Terry was in the process of putting a serious ass-kicking on him.  Of course, if Terry had been able to finish Friendly off, we wouldn’t have gotten to see the other longshoremen push Friendly off the dock.

RATING:  Very good.

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