From that startling first image of handful of men exiting a shack, dwarfed by a colossal ship, to the final bloodied Christ-like stumble of the unlikely hero toward the man in the coat hollering everyone to work, there is in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) a steady pulse of the extraordinary. We’re not watching a merely great movie but a transformative one, and that transformation, so layered, complex and electric, is something I believe viewers can sense even without a deep knowledge of film history. This is high drama and gritty realism, a moral tale mired in moral ambiguity. It went aggressively against the aesthetic, commercial and ideological grain of its times—and still won eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
Criterion’s new edition of On the Waterfront is among their most heavily supplemented releases—with good reason. Even after his death, Kazan remains contentious on every front, one of Hollywood’s enduring enigmas: his immigrant background and roots in the Group Theatre; his co-founding of the Actor’s Studio and his ushering of a new wave of actors into the movies; his cooperation with the House Committee of Un-American Activities that destroyed so many careers during the peak of the Red Scare. The film, which concerns a dockworker who testifies against a corrupt union boss, has often been read by many as a defense of Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s naming names to HUAC. Among Criterion’s most interesting supplements is the documentary Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982), shot by the great Québécois cinematographer Michel Brault, in which, decades after the HUAC hearings, Kazan still seems over-eager to justify his actions through a complicated set of circumstantial explanations. In another excellent supplement, produced by Criterion, the critic David Thomson offers his own compelling explanation for Kazan’s choice to name names, even when he knew it would make him an object of considerable scorn in the industry for the rest of his life: “I think that it really came out of a psychological need to be an outsider.” (This same documentary features commentary from scholar Lisa Dombrowski, a welcome addition to Criterion's pantheon of critics. She wrote an excellent book on Sam Fuller a few years back that I can't recommend enough.)
The film’s outsider is, of course, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a disgraced ex-boxer, now dockworker, who begins the story as the darling of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) the lethal union leader with mob ties, and ends it as Friendly’s enemy. On the Waterfront has a dizzying number of wonderful performances, but those of Brando and Cobb make for the strongest contrast because they’re both so damned good, yet so different. Cobb, at times genuinely fearsome, eating with his mouth open, eyes darting around a room as he lectures Terry, gives a gutsy, gorgeous performance, but he’s also a bulldozer, shouting his way through key moments.
Brando meanwhile is a fountain of nuance, seemingly hyper-masculine yet so vulnerable, even effeminate in his tenderness—along with Monty Clift and James Dean, his stardom would instigate an attack on Hollywood gender stereotypes from the male perspective. (And Jesus is he ever handsome here.) In that early scene where Terry realizes he set up a fellow dockworker for murder, he seems caught off guard by his own guilt, absently clutches at himself as though in response to acid reflex. Later he’ll chew gum as a way of transmitting thought. He’s comical, yet touchingly earnest in his scenes with Eva Marie Saint—which are to me the best scenes in the movie—shoving his paw in her little white glove, saying lines like “I don’t like the country, the crickets make me nervous.” Brando does some shouting as well, but behind the shouting there is an almost palpable net of impulse, a psychological busyness, none of it decoration. Brando is a revelation here, and his approach brought out the best in his co-stars, Saint most of all, who is the picture of innocence, yet also feisty, yet also uncertain, yet also fascinated with Brando with a nascent eroticism that rises to the surface in unexpected ways. Crazy to think that this is the same actress who just a few years later would be the sophisticated, sexy Hitchcock blonde in North By Northwest (1959).
What else? Boris Kaufman’s bleak and sumptuous cinematography, Leonard Bernstein’s intrusive yet stunningly beautiful score—a way of telling the story all on its own. I love Bernstein's score, but half wish I could take it out of the movie and just hear the sounds of Hoboken and water, and wintry gasped breaths. But I'll draw this to a close. Just take my word for it: Criterion has given us the best possible home video experience of On the Waterfront, a singular masterpiece from Hollywood’s great transitional decade—and it rewards investigation into who made it, how it works, and how it came to be.