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‘On the Waterfront’ and on returning to the top

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Director Elia Kazan was not equivocal when asked about the meaning of his film “On the Waterfront.” Kazan had been a left-wing activist in his youth, and, in April 1952, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. The leaders of HUAC were convinced that communists were ubiquitous, especially in the liberal entertainment industry. When he appeared before HUAC, Kazan offered the names of eight colleagues who had once been members of the communist party. HUAC determined that, because he had been a cooperative witness, Kazan could keep directing plays and films. The peers that he named, however, were promptly blacklisted.

Kazan received sharp criticism for his actions, even from his closest friends. Arthur Miller had chosen Kazan to mount his most renowned play, “Death of a Salesman,” on Broadway. After Kazan’s testimony, Miller stopped speaking to him. The writer Budd Schulberg remained an ally, and two years later, Kazan collaborated with him to write “On the Waterfront.” In his autobiography, “A Life,” Kazan asserted that the movie was connected to his divisive testimony.  “Every day I worked on that film,” he wrote, “I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.”

 A cursory summary of the plot seems to support Kazan’s claim. The film is set in Hoboken, where the mob has taken over the dockworker’s union. Ex-boxer Terry Malloy is a loyal operative in the corrupt organization who falls in love with the innocent Edie Doyle. The mob killed Edie’s brother, and she urges Terry to testify against it. It is easy to draw parallels between Terry and Kazan, between the mob and the leftist intelligentsia who castigated him. Still, Kazan’s testimony alone cannot explain its popular success and enduring appeal. “On the Waterfront” remains compelling because it explores the difficult dilemmas of pedestrian people.

The renowned director Martin Scorsese recalls watching the movie in theaters during its initial release in 1954. As a teenager, he did not pick up on the film’s political commentary, but he felt the film had been “shot on Elizabeth Street, or Mott Street, or Mulberry Street,” in the New York City neighborhood where he lived at the time. Kazan and his designers had paid particular attention to detail— “the texture of the paint on the walls…the bar, the shirt the bartender wears” were all familiar to Scorsese from quotidian experience. Certainly, some movies before “On the Waterfront” possessed a realist aesthetic. During the Depression, directors had not shied away from the hardscrabble existence of the everyman. In postwar Italy, filmmakers employed non-actors to better capture the circumstances of the commoner. Still, “On the Waterfront” was made in America during the prosperous 1950s. Kazan’s commitment to realism was unusual.

Seeing the film, Scorsese realized that “the character of Terry Malloy was very close to people [he] knew, people lived with.” For all his screen presence, Marlon Brando does play Malloy as an ordinary guy. He comfortably uses the colloquial speech of the dockworkers, he maintains an amicable façade and his eyes light up when he sees the pretty Edie flitting by. Yet, Brando also indicates that Malloy is consumed with resentment and regret. Once, he was a boxer, fit, sleek, and quick on his feet. After losing a pivotal match, Malloy retired and is now a stooge for the mob.

Malloy unleashes his fury in the film’s famous taxicab scene. His brother futilely tries to convince him that he should not take a stand against the mob. His boxing history comes up during the conversation. Malloy reveals that he missed his chance because the mob bosses forced him to throw the fight. As he reveals this information, crucial to his character, Brando’s eyes narrow and burn. His gestures become tense and erratic. At this moment, screenwriter Schulberg allows Brando to deliver one of the most memorable monologues in cinema. “I coulda been a contender,” he explains. “I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

These words have been endlessly quoted, but they are quintessential to the power of “On the Waterfront.” Not only does the film take place in a mundane milieu, but it is peopled with bums. Early in the film, mob boss Johnny Friendly proudly recounts his ascent to prominence. Lee J. Cobb, who plays Friendly, could masterfully portray the pathetic. After all, he originated the role of Willy Loman, the saddest salesman in the annals of art. Cobb’s frantic, self-promoting account makes us realize that Friendly is no supervillain, just an undistinguished crook. Malloy’s brother is content to be Friendly’s second-in-command. His complacency is unsurprising. Even the parish priest doubts whether he can make a difference in the community. 

Of course, by testifying, Malloy does become a contender. In the film’s thrilling conclusion, he is enshrined as a hero of his time. Yet, his return to preeminence is not as simple as it appears to be. By the end of the movie, Malloy has destroyed what little influence Friendly had. While the priest and Edie convinced Malloy to speak out, they are sidelined in the film’s final seconds. Though Malloy can call himself a contender, he will never enter the ring again. He has become a contender in another arena, and New Jersey state politics are much less glamorous than the prizefight. Kazan sold the film short in his assessment. Even if he refused to consider the consequences of his own testimony, “On the Waterfront” forces us to reflect on the repercussions of rising back to the top. The film is an uncompromising examination of the every day and the price of striving to be somebody.

Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.