On the Waterfront – Marlon Brando’s shadow over New York harbors

by fabioemme
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On the Waterfront 1954 movie

I think there is little to say about Marlon Brando‘s career, a myth of cinema for new and old generations alike, but how many of you remember one of his early cult movies from 1954, On the Waterfront?

In a world dominated by corruption, Brando plays Terry Malloy, a laborer in the New York harbor whose existence is marked by misplaced loyalty to Johnny Friendly, the union boss.

Leading countless illicit activities on the banks of the Hudson River amid the troubled postwar 1950s, Friendly maintains fierce control over the workers, ensuring they remain silent about his illegal deeds.

A former boxer and, in his own way, a romantic man, Terry comes up against the harshness of reality and unwittingly participates in a plot that will result in the death of Joey Doyle, an honest worker who dared to challenge Friendly and his gang, intending to report them to the Waterfront Crime Commission.

Sweet and determined Edie Doyle, sister of the murdered man, becomes Terry’s new moral beacon, who, for the first time, stands up to Johnny Friendly’s brutal methods.

With Father Barry‘s help, Terry intends to free himself from the stranglehold of fear and intimidation and find the courage to stand up to the port’s criminal regime, becoming a hero but also a lonely target navigating stormy waters.

However, every good act never goes unpunished. Before he sees the light, the former boxer will discover that, unfortunately, his fists are not strong enough to fight against the whole world.

Indeed the other dock workers, though admiring his courage, leave him alone when Friendly’s guys beat the hell out of him in front of everyone.

Will Terry be able to escape the clutches of the corrupt system, freeing himself from a life of dread and submission?

With bare knuckles in the harbor

Marlon Brando‘s magnitude looms in the shadow of a complex, multifaceted hero.

His character conveys bravery clashing with his own personal challenge: an almost naive honesty despite a limited education, which nevertheless falters when his temper tests the most crucial hour of his life.

The shade of unattained glory haunts the character: a boxer who could have climbed the heights if he had not compromised the most important fight of his career.

However, this self-doubt is not solely borne out of his weakness; instead, it also finds its roots in the nefarious influence of his manipulative brother, played by Rod Steiger.

Steiger, a calculating individual deeply involved in murky affairs, is the figure who first persuaded his brother to sacrifice his integrity for a fistful of dollars, abandoning his dream of battling for the championship belt.

Alongside, Eva Marie Saint embodies the female face of the plot, posing as a counterbalance to Brando.

While flaunting na├»ve honesty and courageous temperament, her character is unaware of the tragic truth behind her brother’s murder until events spiral, and she becomes the catalyst for Brando’s inner revolution.

As a religious figure, Karl Malden appears as the only beacon of hope in the spiritual desert of the port, stoking the fire of Brando’s indignation and propelling him along a path of redemption.

Lee J. Cobb completes the scenario, playing the archetypal villain ruling with merciless determination over the afflicted souls laboring in the harbor, an absolute ruler in a world where money is the only recognized god.

However, even in this arena, unexpectedly, an anti-hero rises up willing to defend the weakest and fight for justice, not for his own gain.

With premises like that, how can anyone not recognize 1954’s On the Waterfront as more than just a movie?

Love and hate towards Kazan

At the helm of this 1950s cornerstone is Elia Kazan, a historically gifted director of undeniable talent, unfortunately already notorious at the time after getting many colleagues into trouble in the darkest days of horrific McCarthyism.

Indeed, identifying numerous directors and screenwriters as Communist Party members drew praise from America’s most conservative wing and ostracism from much of the Hollywood fellow men.

Although he continued directing until almost the 1980s, this remains undeniably the most flaming focus of his long career.

On the Waterfront arrived in 1954, straddling other landmark movies such as Viva Zapata!, again starring the immeasurable Brando, and later East of Eden, which signed the debut of another absolute movie legend like James Dean.

Despite the protagonist’s vast prominence, this movie is not just a showcase for Marlon Brando‘s titanic talent and charisma.

Here we are talking about a story that combines almost all aspects of an epic tale of pain, fall, redemption, and revenge.

Budd Schulberg‘s excellent screenplay sculpts a few characters with solid and recognizable personalities who stand out amid many other gray shadows subdued by violence.

The result is a masterpiece that has inspired many other filmmakers to create dirtier and stupider heroes, in short, human beings instead of flawless gods.

We could cite, for example, Jake LaMotta, another crude boxer protagonist of Martin Scorsese‘s supreme masterpiece, Raging Bull; where Robert De Niro infuses the same kind of ignorance and power into his character; or even the first chapter of the famous Rocky saga, where even Sylvester Stallone starts out as a simple henchman of a boss.

For me, this movie will always remain one of the black-and-white pillars of a period that no longer exists, for better or worse, crystallizing on the big screen all the power and contradictions of a nation capable of loving and hating beyond anything and anyone you may believe possible.

On the Waterfront 1954 movie
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