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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

On the Waterfront (review)

Film Comes of Age

A powerful drama with the flavor of Shakespearean tragedy, On the Waterfrontis a timeless story of corruption and those who fight it. Terry Malloy (a mesmerizing Marlon Brando) is a former boxer who works as a goon for union racketeers running the docks in the harbors of New York. Malloy inadvertently helps kill a longshoreman who was talking to the crime commission, and when he meets the dockworker’s sister — Edie Doyle (Eve Marie Saint in her debut), who’s determined to find her brother’s killers — he starts developing a conscience. Initially he’s leery of helping her and Father Barry (Karl Malden), the Catholic priest who wants to clean up the waterfront and get longshoremen fighting for themselves. Eventually, though, his growing guilt and his romantic feelings for Edie win him over to their cause.
On the Waterfront‘s gritty realism and sense of workmanship marks the passage film was making in the 1950s, growing into an art form as much as medium for telling stories. There’s a deliberateness behind director Elia Kazan’s camera angles and the composition of shots. The use of black-and-white film was now a conscious choice, and it feels it here: the images of Terry’s harsh world would not have had the same stark power in color. Nor could Hollywood backlot settings have had the down-to-earth, matter-of-fact feel of On the Waterfront‘s real-world locations. And just as actors’ performances were becoming more passionate and earthy — Brando’s raw mystique is well deserved — characters were becoming more mythic and at the same time more realistic.

Kazan also directed 1947’s Best Picture, Gentleman’s Agreement. Visually and dramatically, there’s a world of difference between these two films: On the Waterfront is more artistic, more symbolic, rougher, more potent. It was film maturing into a sturdier, more robust representation of the world.

Best Motion Picture 1954
AFI 100: #19

unforgettable movie moment:
Brando moans, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am.”

previous Best Picture:
1953: From Here to Eternity
next Best Picture:
1955: Marty

previous AFI 100 film:
18: The General
next AFI 100 film:
20: It’s a Wonderful Life


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb

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