Thursday, March 7, 2013

We Finally Watch: On the Waterfront (1954)

Somehow, and I don't really have a good explanation for this considering I have seen Manos: The Hands of Fate at least four times in its entirety (including once in the theater), I had never seen the 1954 Marlon Brando starring classic On the Waterfront.

This is young, virile Brando, who was full of ideas about acting that would change the artform forever and who made the ladies swoon.  As much as I like old, weird Brando, you need context, and between this movie and A Streetcar Named Desire,  it's not hard to see why the name still gets tossed around.

And, before we begin, was Karl Malden just born aged 42?  Because, seriously, Karl Malden.

I'd recorded the movie off Turner Classic back in February and finally had an opportunity to watch it this evening.  Robert Osborne's intro went a bit into how director Elia Kazan (Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden) and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (A Face in the Crowd) had testified to HUAC and named names.  It provides a deep context to the film that would have been enjoyable enough on its own, but knowing that the testimony and fallout in Hollywood was any indication, it makes the story all the more gut churning.

Basically, the story follows Brando's Terry, an ex-boxer, longshoreman and who is now a low-level thug for the mob that's taken over the local union.  He believes he's setting up a co-worker longshoreman for "a talking to" when he threatens to go to the cops, but instead the fellow gets tossed off a roof.  His sister comes home from college to learn what happened, and as Terry falls for Edie and talks to the crusading Father Barry, he begins to think beyond the safety and self-preservation he's always lived by.

I'm glad that Osborne was able to interject the historical context as it made for a richer viewing experience (I did recall Kazan had spoken to HUAC) as I generally wind up hearing about how this director or writer was blacklisted for their beliefs, something I find fairly unAmerican, but I hadn't really given much thought, previously, to the stress of naming names and what that must have felt like.

I'd long known On the Waterfront was a fairly dark picture, and it is.  It doesn't pull many punches, and nobody gets off easy by the time the credits roll.  It's kind of silly to recommend an Academy Award winning movie everyone's familiar with 59 years on, but there you have it.  It's worth it for the scene you think you know of Rod Steiger playing Terry's brother, Charlie, as they talk about how they got here.  Just a terrific bit of acting going on there from Brando and Steiger.

So, thanks, Nathan, for always insisting I watch this one!

Terrific picture, and I hope you people look for it, for no other reason than to see a young Fred Gwynne in a minor part.


picky said...

I don't think it's silly to recommend it. I'm sure there are many people just like you (with lots of films under their belt) who haven't seen it.

I saw this a long time ago but watched it again several years ago and was really blown away. It is a dark film, but Brandon, who is good in Streetcar but not mindblowing) really impressed me here. It's also a really tense film, and I wish I had seen the intro you reference.

And poor Karl Malden. I love him, but you're so right.

J.S. said...

Say what you will, but I don't think Marlon Brando holds a candle to Shia LaBeouf.