Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Critiques: On the Waterfront.

Something of a double feature today, with John Wayne in the morning and Marlon Brando in the afternoon – with a bit of shopping in between. One of the things I love about this project is that most of the top 122 AFI films are available on DVD for 10 bucks or less, if you know where to look. My favorite haunts in the Boston area are the three Newbury Comics stores that fall within my regular turf: one at Harvard Square, one near our apartment at Alewife, and another near Burlington Mall. Elia Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront is one of the ones that I couldn’t find for under ten bucks no matter where I looked, but I finally found a copy today for twelve and jumped at it without a moment’s hesitation. Some of the films on the list are worth making exceptions for. (Others in that category so far have included Taxi Driver and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and will include Network the next time I place an Amazon order.)
On the Waterfront, for the uninitiated, is the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the pugilist kid brother of Charley ‘the Gent’ Malloy (Rod Steiger), who is the right-hand man of corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly, who rules the shipyards – wait for it – on the waterfront. Johnny’s boys skim off a huge take, resulting in the dockworkers living in near poverty, and anyone that rises up against them winds up dead. Terry’s been pressed into service as one of Johnny’s boys after his boxing career tanked (which, we find out, happened deliberately as a favor to Charley and Johnny), but his role in the death of a would-be informant pushes him over the edge, with a little help from Karl Malden’s Father Barry and Eva Marie Saint’s Edie Doyle (the sister of the deceased). As Edie and Terry become romantically involved, and Edie and Father Barry convince Terry to help take down Johnny Friendly – which, of course, means turning on his own brother. This is where the famous “I coulda been a contender” scene comes in, and it really is as great as film scholars have been saying for the last fifty years.
Brando’s Terry has taken too may shots to the head, hence the famous Brando slurring of words, but Brando delivers the character with a fascinating mix of sweetness and battered cynicism. Although perhaps not as remarkably as The Third Man, the film makes great use of shadows, camera angles and moody tones, and there are several moments of real cinematic brilliance. The “coulda been a contender” speech in the back of a taxi is the most famous (don’t miss the featurette on the DVD with James Lipton going on at great length about this scene’s testament to the value of method acting) but there’s another scene that really played to my interest in negative capabilities: the scene where Terry finally confesses to Edie his role in her brother’s death is almost completely illegible – and intentionally so. The scene is first shot from a distance (echoed, perhaps, in There Will Be Blood) but the dialogue is almost completely drowned out by the sounds of the nearby shipyards. We are instead left to discern how the conversation is going through watching their faces (now in close-up), attempting to read their lips, and pieced together with only a couple of snippets of audible speech. Even so, or perhaps because of this, the scene is absolutely heartbreaking.
I’d been looking forward to watching On the Waterfront for a long time, and as has happened repeatedly with this project so far, I wasn’t disappointed. Totally worth the extra cash, and it would have been totally worth its full list price as well. Highly recommended.