On the Waterfront - CoverThe Criterion Collection’ have recently released a digitally enhanced version of ‘On the Waterfront’. It was directed by Elia Kazan; it starred Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger; and it lasts for 108-minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the two-disc Blu-ray edition comes with the original theatrical trailer, a visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score, three feature-length documentaries, a brand new audio commentary track narrated by Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, a widescreen presentation, a full-screen presentation, as well as interviews with Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, Thomas Hanley, James T. Fisher, and Eva Marie Saint. Please enjoy.

On the Waterfront (Criterion Collection)

What should I do, Charley (Rod Steiger)? Come on, bro, tell me what I should do! Otherwise, I may go stark raving mad and end up getting myself into some serious, serious trouble.

Well, if truth be told, I’m confused, I’m really confused, as a part of me wants to tell Edie (Eva Marie Saint) why her brother was murdered, whereas another part of me doesn’t want to tell her absolutely nothing. After all, he got whacked because he was going to snitch on our boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), on account of his control over the waterfront. His very tight control.

So, Charley, what do you think I should do? Should I tell her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? So help me God. Should I keep my trap shut and hope for the best? Or should I go for broke and get the police to sort it out? Either way, that’s most probably why what next transpires goes splish, splash, splosh, when you look me squarely in the eyes and say, ‘Terry (Marlon Brando), stop being a bum’. As an ex-boxer is scared to raise a glove - two lovers fly high like a majestic turtledove - a hard-faced gangster gets ready for a much-needed shove - and at the end of the day, please remember, never be frightened to rise, way up above.

I first watched ‘On the Waterfront’ when I was in my mid-twenties, and in all fairness, I thought most of it was just amazing but couldn’t really understand the ending. Well, at the time, I took this film at face value and presumed that it was about one man standing up to a gang of hooligans. But no, it’s more than that, an awful lot more, which I eventually discovered when I started to do a bit of snooping around.

On the Waterfront - Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint
You see, way back in 1951, following their huge success on Broadway with ‘Death of a Salesman’, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan went to Hollywood with a brand new script they both managed to put together. It was called, ‘The Hook’, and similar to this story, it was about a longshoreman who stood up to a gang of corrupt union officials that were in charge of the docks in Brooklyn (not too far from where Miller once lived). However, the head of the studio, Harry Cohn, didn’t like their script because he thought it was Un-American and would cause some trouble for the government and the industry in general. So under advisement, he asked Miller to change their script. Change it so it would be a 'foreign power' corrupting the docks, not someone closer to home. But no, Miller didn’t like Cohn’s idea, and neither did Kazan, either. So after a while, both men postponed this project and went their separate ways.

Not for long, though, no, fortunately not, because a year or so later, in 1952, Kazan found himself in a very difficult situation that eventually led him back to ‘The Hook’. At the time, HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) were looking for communists penetrating the entertainment industry, and as Kazan was once a communist himself -- only briefly, mind you -- they, along with the head of 20th Century Fox, Spyros Skouras, managed to persuade him to name names at a trial they held behind closed doors. Names that belonged to eight communist actors he previously worked with in the 'Group Theatre', circa 1932.

On the Waterfront - Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger

Well, let’s face it, what other choice did Kazan have? If he didn’t tell HUAC who’s who and what’s what, then he would have completely destroyed his career due to the blacklist (keeping in mind that they already had the names he gave them). But as he did? In that case, he managed to save his career by adapting ‘The Hook’ into something else. Something I first watched in my mid-twenties and thought was just amazing but couldn’t really understand the ending. Now, though, now I understand the ending all too well, on account of it justifying someone betraying their friends for the greater good. Or to be more specific about it, their greater good. A greater good which hurt some but helped others, by telling a story that works on many different levels. On one level, it’s about organized corruption affecting the working environment. On another level, it’s about passion, romance, and hope. And on yet another level, it’s about betrayal, both sides of betrayal, both the positive side and the negative side, feeding off of each other like some form of symbiotic parasite!

On the Waterfront - Poster
Anyway, that’s enough of that for the time being, because I think now would be a pretty good time for us to sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) ‘Columbia’ first released this $910,000 production in New York, New York, on the 28th of July, 1954, and eventually clawed back $9.6 million at the Box Office. (2) This film marks the silver screen debut for a number of notable actors, including Fred Gwynne, Johnny Seven, Michael V. Gazzo, Pat Hingle, Martin Balsam, and Eva Marie Saint. (3) Loosely translated, this project was entitled ‘Rathole’ in Chile, ‘The Port’ in Lithuania, and during pre-production, it was given four working titles, ‘Crime on the Waterfront’, ‘Bottom of the River’, ‘The Hook’, and ‘Waterfront’. (4) One of the taglines used to promote this picture, states, ‘The Man Lived by the Jungle Law of the Docks’. (5) The majority of this movie was shot on location in Hoboken, situated within the American state of New Jersey. This includes Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Our Lady of Grace Church, Court Street, Hudson Street, Stevens Park, Willow Avenue, The Hoboken Railway Station, The Hoboken Waterfront, and the 5th Street Pier. (6) According to the screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, most of the lead characters featured in this film were based on real-life people. Terry Malloy was based on Anthony De Vincenzo [a longshoreman who became a whistle-blower]; Father Barry was based on John M. Corridan [a waterfront priest]; and Johnny Friendly was based on Albert Anastasia and Michael Clemente [a local mobster and the boss of the International Longshoremen’s Association]. (7) During pre-production, a couple of major Hollywood actors were considered to play the three main leads in this movie. Frank Sinatra, John Garfield, and Montgomery Clift, were all considered to play the part of Terry Malloy; Grace Kelly, Rosemary Clooney, and Elizabeth Montgomery, were all considered to play the part of Edie Doyle; and Lawrence Tierney was considered to play the part of Charley Malloy.

On the Waterfront - Eva Marie Saint, John Hamilton, and Karl Malden

In closing my review of ‘On the Waterfront’, I‘m now going to rank each key performance in order of preference. So, at the top of my list, I would like to select the star of the show, Marlon Brando, because he portrayed Terry Malloy as if he were a simple-minded brute with a heart of pure gold, always trying his best, regardless of the situation. Up next, I‘d like to single out Lee J. Cobb and Eva Marie Saint. Although, in their case, my adulation derives from the way Lee represented the negative in Terry’s life while Eva represented the positive. Almost as if they were both perched upon either side of Terry’s shoulder, telling him words of love (Edie) or screams of hate (Johnny Friendly). And as for the rest of the cast? Well, more or less, nigh on everyone did a marvelous job at portraying their respective characters. Most notably, Karl Malden, for playing Father Barry with a dash of righteous conviction; Rod Steiger, for playing Charley Malloy with a modicum of redemptive swagger; as well as John Hamilton, for playing ‘Pop’ Doyle with all the luck of the Irish. Namely, no luck at all.

On the Waterfront - Docks
Now, in regards to the overall style of this film, and visually, everything we see on screen was bold, brassy, and tinged with a sense of realism. In many ways, the photo-realistic look that the entire production conformed to was groundbreaking for its time, because unlike many of the other movies developed throughout this era, this one tried its best to capture real life, as opposed to prefabricated sets staged within a studio (ranging from the waterfront itself, all the way to Father Barry’s Church, 'Pop' Doyle’s dilapidated apartment, the rooftop hideaways, and the urban landscapes that blended into the background).

That said, however, one of the most famous scenes to come out of this film was actually shot within a studio, not on location. Well, according to legend, the infamous, “I could've been a contender” scene, was originally going to be shot in a real car driving through the streets of Hoboken. But due to budgetary constraints, it had to be shot on a soundstage with the use of back-projection and a fabricated car-shell. Not that this mattered, mind you, because at the end of the day, the acting and the intent of the scene took precedence over its visual style. So much so, in fact, that when I first watched this sequence, I didn’t really notice the change between what's real and what's false, as I was more fixated on the words spoken by Terry. These words.

On the whole, I would just like to say that this film is a marvelous film, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves drama, romance, and gritty urban crime thrillers with a slice of political intrigue.


ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) Reviewed by David Andrews on December 30, 2019 Rating: 5

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