On the Waterfront (1954)

Dir. Elia Kazan. Starring Marlon Brando, Eva-Marie Saint, Karl Malden

It’s hard to say this about Leonard Bernstein, who was one of the great American musical minds of the last century, but his score for On the Waterfront is occasionally distracting; there are times when one can more easily imagine this music in the background of a wildebeest stampede than the dank docks of Hoboken. Think of the movie’s most famous scene, where Charley (Rod Steiger) and Terry (Brando) are driving together for what we know will be the last time. Charley is speaking normally, but the orchestra is a mess of strings and horns which scream “The call is coming from inside the house!” But there is a saving grace: there’s Brando, and the way that the music must change for him. Charley, openly reminiscing to the sound of a saxophone, blames Terry’s manager for the way the younger brother’s boxing career imploded. As the camera shifts back to Terry, though, the saxophone is overtaken by strings. “It wasn’t him, Charley,” Terry says. “It was you.” Brando says it so matter-of-factly, with just enough emphasis to make it clear that he’s taking charge of the conversation just as the strings did a moment ago.

From the time when Charley puts down the revolver to the reset where he hands it over to Terry, I count eleven shots over about 135 seconds.

  1. Medium shot, both brothers. ~5 seconds. Charley looks away, Terry rolls eyes.
  2. Close-up Charley. ~13 seconds. Charley cannot quite muster up the strength to look his younger brother in the eye.
  3. Close-up Terry, reaction shot. ~9 seconds. Terry can’t believe what he’s hearing and makes it clear with his face as we hear Charley talking.
  4. Close-up Charley. ~10 seconds. Charley blames the manager.
  5. Close-up Terry. ~5 seconds. “It wasn’t him, Charley. It was you.
  6. Medium close-up, both brothers. ~33 seconds Charley looks at the seat in front of him while Terry accuses him. (“‘Kid, this ain’t your night,'” “Palookaville,” “You shoulda looked out for me a little bit.”) Angled so that Charley is closer than Terry.
  7. Cl0se-up Charley. ~3 seconds. Charley reminds Terry of the money he got for taking a dive.
  8. Close-up Terry. ~12 seconds. You can probably quote this part from your seat.
  9. Close-up Charley, reaction shot. ~2 seconds. Charley looks straight in front of him and says nothing. The music is saying it for him, and I’ve mostly forgiven Bernstein.
  10. Close-up Terry. ~5 seconds. “It was you, Charley.”
  11. Medium shot, both brothers. ~30 seconds. Charley tells Terry he’ll lie to Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) about not being able to find him, gives him the gun.

It’s a great scene. My personal preference is for longer takes rather than shorter, but only once does Kazan sort of fall flat; he can’t quite edit his way out of the difference in Brando’s posture between 5 and 6, and so that little pause is an enormous distraction. On the Waterfront, like just about any other Kazan and/or Brando feature, relies on reality. It needs to feel real and gritty and to some extent even a little documentarian to hit its marks. A long take can remind us there’s a director on the other side of the camera, I guess, but a cut is an even greater intrusion. I wish that the movie had been able to move from “It wasn’t him…” all the way through “You shoulda looked out for me…” without cutting once. It would have been the difference between something sublime and something merely excellent, and the razor-thin margin between the two seems to me like a tacit reminder of that old truism: the difference between a great film and a middling one is that nothing goes wrong with the first.

If Marlon Brando had been hit by a train in 1970, then “I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it” would have been his most memorable line. It’s one of those movie moments which is nothing short of magical; something that famous and oft-parodied shouldn’t be able to move us so many years later, but it does. It’s impossible not to feel for Terry, who has been quietly suffering for so much of the movie; he is the portrait of somebody who cannot understand that something which is normal to him might also be wrong. Charley doubtless has made the connection, and Later on in the picture, Terry will stagger through a row of men in a Via Dolorosa of sorts, but Charley seems much more Christlike. In this scene, he has a look of lonely pensiveness which recalls a knowingly doomed Jesus in Gethsemane; later on, after Johnny Friendly has him killed, he is hung up like Our Lord on the Cross. (Now is a good time to recall that the Vatican made a list of forty-five great movies, with fifteen apiece on sublists for “religion,” “values,” and “art.” On the Waterfront is one of the fifteen movies on the “values” list, and certainly some of the Christlike imagery accentuates the moments in which the best traits of the characters stand out..) The brothers live in a world of dead ends and tight corners; they may be driving in a spacious car, but it is as close as a prison cell.

On the Waterfront is full of people who only become interesting after we come to know more about them; for a movie which doesn’t hit two hours, it is incredibly patient about giving just about everyone a scene or two in which to settle before pinning someone down to a moment or feeling. Pop Doyle (John F. Hamilton) is a fine example here. He is hard-bitten scenery until a scene where he implores his daughter, Edie (Saint) to return to the boarding school and get away from the life of the docks. She and Terry take a while themselves to ease into their own rhythm. Charley burns as slowly as an old-fashioned wood fireplace. The sole exception to this role is Father Barry (Malden), who puts his flag in the ground almost immediately. He comes down to see what it’s like on the waterfront for the men of his parish, is horrified, and instantly is ready to become a rabble-rouser for labor endowed with great spiritual authority and, better still, practically untouchable. (Some people throw rubbish at him while he’s making a speech once, but Barry is not Oscar Romero; killing him would almost certainly be a step too far.) Barry fits into the Jim Casy archetype—the preacher whose church is everywhere but the church—but he lacks the doubts which made Casy fascinating. Father Barry either has no doubt about God or he hides it to perfection; where Casy might get drunk and run off, Barry is a Jersey Gibraltar and implacable in conversation. Whether or not something is difficult makes no difference to him, regardless of the personal cost. He seems to genuinely make his decisions based on what is right and wrong and expects everyone else, from Terry to Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning) to Johnny Friendly himself to follow suit. Casy does not have that gene, and the perfect knowledge of right and wrong makes it seem, from description, that Father Barry is Eric Camden with sympathy for Samuel Gompers. The difference between the two is that Barry, incredibly, actually seems to believe in God. I frequently complain about religious figures in movies and television who don’t seem to be religious at all, or who, at the very least, are much closer to writers’ stereotypes about religion than anything else. Barry doesn’t have that problem, and more than that has managed to figure out how to bring his faith into the present day:

Father Barry: But remember, Christ is always with you – Christ is in the shape up. He’s in the hatch. He’s in the union hall. He’s kneeling right here beside Dugan. And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me!

His most powerful moments on screen come in the hold of a ship where Dugan has just been killed for daring to speak out against the union bosses, and Barry’s ensuing speech is filled with references to Jesus and his Crucifixion and the guilt of the Roman soldiers who did the deed. It’s an essential element of the story as much as any scenery or any bit of Brando’s speech. No priest in this community would merely be concerned with the rights of his parishioners; he would have to couch it in his own faith and in his own desire to bring those people to God. It’s the same inclination that pushes him to send the former boxer without a lick of help up to the foreman to ask for work after having been brutally beaten. Father Barry recognizes that salvific qualities of that moment more than anybody else. Jesus may have had help to carry his cross to Golgotha, but once he got there it was all on him.

3 thoughts on “On the Waterfront (1954)

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