Film & TV

Iconic Films: ‘On the Waterfront’: Standing Up for What’s Right, No Matter the Cost

TIMEDecember 20, 2021

Not Rated| 1h 48min | Crime, Drama, Thriller |1954

Was there a movie when you were younger that was so stirring that it became indelibly lodged in the back of your mind and soul the first time you saw it? “On the Waterfront” (1954) was such a powerful cinematic experience for me that, the first time I watched it, it instantly became one of my favorite movies. Despite that fact, I’ve forgotten many of the film’s finer details.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this sort of “memory lapse” of highly admired films. That’s why for the entire past week, I’ve been looking forward to watching this film once again—to see if it held up through the years and could still deliver that same ol’ magic feeling that once stirred me. Happily, it surprised me by surpassing both my lofty expectations and fuzzy recollections.

At the time of the film’s production, Marlon Brando was enjoying his prime as one of the most (rightfully so) important actors of his generation—perhaps more influential than any of them. His performance here influenced acting as a whole for generations to come. He’d already earned three Oscar nominations for Best Actor—1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” 1952’s “Viva Zapata,” and 1953’s “Julius Caesar.”

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Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and Terry (Marlon Brando), in “On the Waterfront.” (Columbia Pictures)

In this film, Brando stars as a washed-up, former prize fighter named Terry Malloy. He is a simple and somewhat idealistic man who has found work through his older brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), as a dockside worker. Terry has more or less accepted his lot in life as a has-been. On the other side of the equation is the ironically named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a mean-spirited, constantly glowering criminal who runs the longshoremen’s local.

Johnny manipulates Terry into getting another dockworker to meet him up on a rooftop. Thinking Johnny’s men just want to have a chat with the dockworker in question, Terry is shocked when the man is thrown off the roof by the henchmen. Terry takes the murder hard, believing that he’s had a hand in it—however unwittingly.

Just as with Johnny’s many other serious crimes, everyone is afraid to talk, so the crooked union boss’s criminal activities continue to plague the area unabated. Indeed, the murdered dockworker was scheduled to testify as a witness against Johnny’s outfit to the Waterfront Crime Commission, so everybody is reminded to keep their mouths shut, or else. 

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Charley (Rod Steiger, L) looking out for his brother, Terry (Marlon Brando). Or is he?  (Columbia Pictures)

Terry soon links up with the deceased dockworker’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who is an impassioned firebrand for justice. She’s so strong in her convictions that she manages to galvanize the local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), into scheduling a meeting with the dockworkers. Their goal is to inspire the men to stand up against the corrupt union and put an end to its criminal stranglehold, once and for all.

Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and Terry protectively escorts Edie away from danger. Things are touch-and-go for a while until Charley seems to present a way to ensure Terry’s safety. (The latter was seen by Johnny’s henchmen talking to an investigator.) But does Charley truly have his younger brother’s interest at heart?

I must say that during the film’s opening scenes, I was quickly reminded of why this film profoundly affected me.

From the immersive score, to Elia Kazan’s crisp direction and gift of steadily building up both dread and tension, this exemplary cinematic experience is something you have to see for yourself—some of what makes it magical is beyond mere words.

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Terry (Marlon Brando, front R) standing up for what’s right—no matter the cost, in “On the Waterfront.” (Columbia Pictures)

Kazan had been a card-carrying communist for a brief time in the 1930s. But later, he famously (or infamously from the communists’ point of view) “named names” of various communist members to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), many of whom were later revealed to be Soviet agents.

As Kazan once commented: “To be a member of the Communist Party is to have a taste of the police state.” How timely. 

With these factors in mind, “On the Waterfront” can be considered not only as one of the finest achievements in filmmaking, but also as Kazan’s metaphor for standing up for what’s right and calling out evil wherever one may find it.

‘On the Waterfront’
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Not Rated: Approved
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane.

Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality. You can check out his health blog at IanKaneHealthNut.com