Elia Kazan films are instantly recognisable as his work, and ‘On the Waterfront’ is no exception. It tells the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who works on the gang-run docks on New York. He is involved in the set-up of the death of a young man who refused to cooperate with the gang and becomes guilt ridden, when he spends time with the man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint). The film looks at his relationship with the gang leader (Lee J Cobb), his brother (Rod Steiger) and the local priest (Karl Maldon) whilst he battles with both his own sense of morality and the force of the gang.
It is a film with many complex levels as the viewer is put into Malloy’s position, and is forced to ask the question of whether to take the easy route of going along with something knowing it is wrong, or to stand up against it and risk everything. The film also draws religious comparisons, through the involvement of the priest and through the messianic ending in which Malloy really does refuse to go back on what he thinks is right.
Filmed in moody black and white tones in bleak surroundings, Kazan really uses all techniques to bring the desperation of the situation to life, and each shot, despite being bleak is perfectly taken and it is a beautiful film in a tragic and bleak way. The Bernstein score is also powerful and like the cinematography is both beautiful and tragic, and used well. I think the way that Kazan makes films on small stories about normal people and makes them into productions which manage to be both elegant and intimate shows what a fantastic director he was.
Moving on the acting: what can one say? It is easily one of Brando’s greatest roles, and when you have one of the greatest roles from one of the greatest (if not the greatest) actors ever, then you know that you are in for something special. He is everything that this role should be: tough, vulnerable, honest, and he lives the role. Whenever I see a Brando performance, I don’t think that he is playing a part, but that I am actually watching that person in that situation. This is one of the greatest performances and one of the greatest winners of the Leading Actor Oscar.
Eva Marie Saint also shines in her role, as the grieving sister torn between her feelings for her brother and her feelings for Malloy. Her need to be loved is beautifully honest and I think that the scenes between them are among the best in the film. She also won an Oscar for her performance.
The three supporting men all got nominations for their roles, but I think that the greatest of the three was Karl Maldon, who delivered a good a performance as he did being the nice guy in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, adding a sense of hope to the desperate situation. Maldon is such a consistent actor who never overacts and like Brando, I feel he becomes a role rather than just acting it.
In short, ‘On the Waterfront’ is not the easiest of films to watch but it is one of the most important and relevant of the Best Picture Winners: a film that truly has stood the test of time and should be watched by all.