I first saw the ON THE WATERFRONT when I was five and my brothers took me to see it at a local theater in second run. As adult memory doesn’t begin until about seven, I just remember fragments and most especially that the theater was so packed that I had to sit the petition behind the last row of the orchestra. I think I remember the fight at the end and that the streets and apartments in film looked very much like where I was living at the time. That’s pretty much how a kid thinks.
AT THE FAR RIGHT, WATERFRONT PLAYING ON BROADWAY AT THE ASTOR IN 1954
I dimly remember watching it years later when I was in High School at a friend’s apartment when a group of us cut school. As can be understood I didn’t give the film much attention as there were some girls with us and we hadn’t cut school to watch movies. Then, for some unusual reason I didn’t see the film again until I was in college on an afternoon TV showing on local TV. Not only did that TV station cut out a half hour but inserted commercials in the middle of some of the most dramatic scenes absolutely killing the experience. Boy was I pissed. I called the TV station, was put into contact with the person who made those decisions and I gave it to him for half an hour going on and on how he was destroying these movies and he didn’t know what he was doing etc. The poor man listening silently as I don’t think anyone had said something like this to him before over of all things a “mooovvvie.” I don’t know if it changed his mind but it sure made me feel better.
I saw the film again when I returned to New York. No cuts but commercials yet the film was so powerful that the commercials couldn’t get in the way of appreciating the movie.
If you want to read all about how the film was made and scores of anecdotes you can read Ela Kazan’s autobiography. At over 1000 pages one of the greatest Auto-bios I have read. He leaves nothing out. Reading the book, you’ll be amazed how that film got made or better yet almost didn’t get made. It could make a film itself.
KAZAN DIRECTING BRANDO
For some strange reason I don’t really remember watching it on TV as much as I remember watching on DVD for the first time and of course on a big screen Blu-ray. The emotional power of that film, and how the Brando’s character finds his ‘soul’ is as moving as anything you will ever see in a movie. Brando re-defined screen acting in STREETCAR but in WATERFRONT he perfected it. Every gesture, every little nuance of acting that he employed transforms his character into as a real person an actor can create. The cab ride with Steiger is iconic and as moving the last time you see it was the first. When Brando finds his dead brother leaves me in tears every time I watch it. His shouting at Lee J Cobb is a knock-out and of course when Lee J. Cobb (as dirty a street fighter as they come) beats him almost to unconsciousness and the Brando gets up and makes that walk—no “could have been a contender” there, but a real champion. As I write about these scenes there are tears in my eyes. That is how powerful the film is. I wish I could really give the film justice, but about this film words fail me.
I can go on but I don’t want to start crying. In short the film takes you into the soul of a man as he finds his nobility…something that we would all like to do. Great, great movie and a credit to everyone involved in its making.
I will leave you with this. I showed the film to my Polish born wife who had never seen it before. I had been showing her a group of neo-realist films and used Waterfront to demonstrate how that movement eventually found its way into American movies. My wife was blown away. She told me that it took you into the heart of these characters so much so that you felt what they felt and it became not just a film but a life experience. There were tears in her eyes just as there were in mine. She was moved by it for days. You just can’t get a better review.
Leonard Bernstein’s great music added immensely to the films impact and makes me wish he had written more scores. A friend of mine who knew him well told me that Bernstein just didn’t like the Hollywood’s way of doing things and preferred Broadway and the concert stage. The result is that we got West Side Story. So, who am I to complain?
It’s interesting that the film was released in 1954 when Cinemascope and wide screen—also 3D—were seen as saving the film industry from TV. Well this gritty B&W non wide-screen movie landed up becoming one of the biggest grossing films of the year and won 8 Academy awards including one for Brando—as deserved as any Oscar ever was—and of course Picture, Script as well as Director, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, editing and art direction. Lessen to be learned: if you have a great story, great performances and great direction you can show the film on a bathroom wall and people will pay to see it.
Of note is some of the interesting things that Kazan wrote about Brando in his auto-biography. Brando could not work in the stage. He simply could never do things the same way twice in front of the camera and having to it the same way over and over on the stage killed him. When he was doing STREETCAR on the stage Jessica Tandy said that it was torture for him to do it the same every night. He wouldn’t have had the patience for that as he was so creative.
Also, he had a terrible memory which is why he had his lines written on cue cards; most famously in the Cab scene and why you can see him searching for the lines which made the scene so effective as it gave his performances a tentative process; as if the character was struggling to put his thought into words..
Kazan wrote that unlike James Dean who was basically only beginner, Brando was a trained technician who could a year apart effectively play Terry in WATERFRONT and Mark Antony in JULIUS CAESAR. I have watched the two films back to back and it is amazing to watch Brando. It will provide anyone with a lesson in acting. Add to that double feature TEAHOUSE OF AUGUST MOON and you will see what a great actor Brando was. When I saw TEAHOUSE when I was a pre-teen I didn’t even I didn’t even know it was Brando. I still find it hard to believe that it’s Marlon Brando. When I found it out it was him, it was a revelation. He even got the accent right. It’s called genius. And I have no better word to use to describe Brando and ON THE WATERFRONT.
Finally; of note is that actor Fred Gwyne was also in the film. He was so good, that it took a while to realize who it was and not one of the real longshoreman Kazan had hired for the film. If you don’t remember who Fred Gwynne is, he was Fred Munster on the popular TV show.