ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Waterfront poster

Directed by: Elia Kazan

Written by: Budd Schulberg

Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, John F. Hamilton, Ben Wagner, James Westerfield & Fred Gwynne

I’ve heard about ON THE WATERFRONT for years, but never had the urge to watch it. The plot sounded dull and every out-of-context scene I saw (mainly the famous “contender” speech) made Marlon Brando’s performance look a bit melodramatic. Having finally taken the plunge into the WATERFRONT, I will fully admit that all of my preconceived notions about this movie were 100% wrong and it’s an undeniable classic that’s completely deserving of its acclaim. ON THE WATERFRONT isn’t simply about a corrupt labor union and the dreary lives of longshoremen. Instead, this film is a deeply emotional story of sacrifice and redemption that happens to feature a corrupt union and longshoremen.

lee j. cobb, marlon brando & rod steiger - on the waterfront 1954

After giving up on his dreams, former boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has been wasting his days away as a dockworker. Terry’s latest assignment, from corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), is to lure his best friend Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) to a meeting with Friendly’s goons. This results in Joey being killed and Terry finding himself racked with guilt over his involvement. When Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) begins sticking her nose into the questionable waterfront business, Terry falls head over heels for her and begins to consider revealing the ugly truth of Joey’s death to the Crime Commission. Local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) urges Terry to do the right thing, but this is harder than it seems, because Terry’s older brother (Rod Steiger) is a close associate of Friendly’s. Testifying would certainly place Terry’s life in danger and tensions begin to rise as he finds his conscience catching up with him.

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ON THE WATERFRONT tells its touching story in a magnificent fashion. We get the setting and are then introduced to the seemingly unsympathetic Terry. As the plot moves forward and his relationship with Edie deepens, we slowly see Terry’s “tough guy” layers peel away and reveal his true character hidden underneath. One date with Edie reveals a lot about Terry and adds a lot of humor by showing the reluctantly romantic side to this seemingly brutish thug. Terry may have no problem with roughing someone up, but he also takes care of Joey’s pigeon coop as a hobby. As a result, WATERFRONT follows one man’s journey from sinner to savior and it happens to take place in the unlikely setting of a New Jersey dockyard.

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Even though he was an unlikable diva behind the scenes, one cannot deny Marlon Brando’s fantastic acting abilities and they’re on full display in the role of Terry. He won an Oscar for this performance and it was well deserved. Serving as Terry’s love interest, Eva Marie Saint made her debut as Edie and was also awarded with an Oscar for her efforts. Saint is a compelling beauty to Brando’s beast. Impressively, the character of Edie never once seems like an annoying damsel-in-distress. Saint’s scenes with Brando turn obvious exposition into compelling and humorous conversations that progressively become more emotional and serious as the story moves forward.

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Rod Steiger sits on the sidelines until one very crucial scene arrives, complete with suspense and heartbreaking honesty. My favorite character is Father Barry. Karl Malden’s priest isn’t above drinking, smoking and decking someone in the face. He’s an unwavering, kind-hearted source of light in a very dark place. A scene in which Father Barry delivers an inspiring sermon on the hopeless setting of the waterfront docks stands out as one of most powerful moments in the entire film. The corrupt, murderous Johnny Friendly is played to perfection by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb’s ironically named Friendly is one of the most uncharismatic baddies I’ve seen in a black-and-white film. He’s downright despicable and makes you hate his guts from the very beginning.

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ON THE WATERFRONT mixes suspense, tragedy, romance, and heartbreaking drama into one singular masterpiece. The conclusion is among the most powerful and satisfying I’ve seen on film. I felt like cheering and crying at the same time. Something seemingly mundane (when taken out of context) transforms into an emotional tour-de-force that encapsulates everything this story is about: sacrifice, love, courage, and redemption. ON THE WATERFRONT is an inspirational masterpiece and deserves to be seen by as many film fans as possible!

Grade: A+

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