A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

While not the masterpiece that it was once thought to be, On the Waterfront has held up in spite of the charges that director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg made it into an apologia for informing -- as both of them did when they appeared as "friendly witnesses" before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in spite of the fact that its once-praised "grittiness" has been surpassed in the era after the Production Code ceased to hold its grip on Hollywood filmmakers. What it has going for it is the Oscar-winning performance of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, even though Brando can't quite overcome some of the inconsistencies in the script: Is Terry a punch-drunk, self-pitying "bum" or just an average guy who, after knuckling under to pressure, rises to heroism? Eva Marie Saint, also an Oscar-winner in her debut picture, and Rod Steiger, also shine. Less convincing are the scenery-chewing Lee J. Cobb as the mob boss Johnny Friendly and Karl Malden as the two-fisted Father Barry, a character that almost seems designed to please the Catholic-dominated Breen office. Richard Day won a well-deserved seventh Oscar for his art direction, and Boris Kaufman's cinematography also took an award. Leonard Bernstein's only original score for the movies was nominated, but didn't win. An uncredited contribution to the film was made by James Wong Howe, who was called on for some shots that Kazan felt necessary after production had finished. In the concluding scene, in which Terry Malloy, having been savagely beaten, struggles to walk toward the warehouse, Kazan wanted a point-of-view shot that would show how difficult it was for Terry to make the walk: Howe gave the cameraman a hand-held camera, then spun him around to make him dizzy, so he couldn't walk straight. Editor Gene Milford, another of the film's Oscar winners, then cut the unsteady point-of-view shot into Kaufman's shots of Terry walking toward the warehouse.

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