Welcome back for Day 4 of our Marlon Brando spotlight series! Today we’ll be talking about one of my favorite movies, the film that earned Brando his first Oscar win: Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954).
I waxed on about the merits of A Streetcar Named Desire in Day 1 (another Kazan/Brando pairing–clearly they knew how to complement each other’s strengths) and Waterfront is just as good, albeit for different reasons.
In a role completely different from the hot-headed Stanley Kowalski, Brando’s Terry Malloy is quiet, introspective, and only fights when he’s pushed to his limits. Malloy is a former boxer, and was largely “sponsored” in his short career by the shady dealings of his older brother, Charlie The Gent, and the corrupt boss of the dock-worker’s union (laughably nicknamed Johnny Friendly). Charlie is Friendly’s right-hand man, and together the duo controls the cash flow of imports/exports along the waterfront. As the story unfolds, we learn that Malloy’s boxing career was incredibly promising until Charlie and Friendly started paying him to take dives in his fights. Friendly’s greed is limitless, and unfortunately, what Friendly wants, Friendly gets. You’ve all probably heard some portion of Brando’s “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender!” speech (*chills*), chastising Charlie for choosing Friendly over family. As a result of the mob’s betting, Malloy’s rising talent is wasted and he resigns himself to working on the waterfront as a longshoreman: bitter and alone.
Despite his own personal misgivings, Malloy can’t seem to shake the influence of Friendly and the mob. They essentially run the town, and particularly with his brother’s lofty position in the ranks, Malloy remains a reluctant participant in their schemes. To that effect, the film opens with Malloy unwittingly leading a young longshoreman, Joey, to his death at the hands of Friendly’s flunkies. He thinks they merely plan to rough Joey up a bit (to keep him from testifying to the group’s unsavory activities in court), but much to his horror, Joey is pushed from the rooftop in cold blood.
While he’s still processing his own role in the murder, Malloy meets Joey’s sister, Edie (played touchingly by Eva Marie-Saint). This is a turning point for him, and while the “I coulda been a contender!” speech is indeed fantastic, I think the best part of the movie for me is the burgeoning on-screen relationship between Brando and Saint. One of my favorite classic movie bloggers, Anne Helen Petersen, perfectly describes the change that comes over Edie during the course of the movie: “A woman made of Catholicism, shrillness, pointy edges, and buttoned up jackets becomes sexy before our eyes. Part of the transformation can be credited to good directing, lighting, costuming, etc., but as Brando falls in love with her, the way he looks at her — all lusty with those eyelids that fold over on themselves — somehow becomes the way we look at her.” It’s SO true, and you can see a glimpse of the transformation in the clip below:
Brando’s friendship and tender attentions soften her, and while they don’t diminish her thirst for justice on her brother’s behalf, they do open her eyes to the fact that situations in life are rarely black and white.
With the help of Edie and a local priest named Father Barry (Karl Malden, who also co-starred with Brando in Streetcar), Malloy finally gathers the grit and the courage he’s needed to take on Friendly’s organization. He knows the cost of such an action, but he’s come too far to turn back now–redemption awaits by doing the right thing.
The final scene of this movie is one of the most powerful in all of cinema, and makes On the Waterfront a must-see classic (along with, you know, all the other amazing things about it). If you haven’t come across it before, seek it out. Now. Today. Right this minute. It’s one of Brando’s absolute best, and exemplifies the subtle, emotive acting that made him such a one-in-a-million star.
Tomorrow, Charles will be reviewing another stone-cold classic: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). I can already hear the mandolins. Don’t miss it!