Criterion Commentaries: “On the Waterfront”
In On the Waterfront, The Criterion Collection's recent release, the guilt is mounting for longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) over his unwitting involvement in a murder. Time is also quickly running out as he must decide whether to yield to the pressure to testify against the corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb) who ordered the hit, or practice the accustomed response of “D ‘n D” (Deaf and Dumb). Throughout the film Terry's predicament wears on him, as there's the risk of not only alienating loved ones and friends, but hanging in the balance is their physical well-being and Terry's spiritual salvation. No matter what he chooses, the repercussions will be swift and harsh.
It's a dilemma that director Elia Kazan could relate to all too well. “No one who did what I did, whatever his reasons, came out of it undamaged.” Such is Kazan’s assessment of his choice to provide friendly testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. Amid the height of McCarthyism, Kazan provided names of former friends he made at Communist gatherings nearly twenty years prior, and the fallout acutely affected him.
While it’s debatable to what extent 1954’s On the Waterfront was a conscious response to his critics, the film is certainly influenced by Kazan’s choices. At the very least, the film never would’ve been made had Kazan been black-listed as a result of his refusal to cooperate with the government. There’s also a tendency for viewers to infer a parallel between testifying against the corruption pervading the union and speaking out against Communists. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg, sympathetic of Kazan’s stance as he too testified, always denied any correlation between the film and their real life experiences. Kazan, on the other hand, defiantly wrote in his autobiography, “When Brando, at the end, yells at Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ‘I’m glad what I done--you hear me?--glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”
While testifying against violent mobsters is certainly more perilous than participating in what amounted to a witch-hunt, the resistance Kazan met in real life doubtlessly prepared him for the internal soul-searching Terry suffers through. That connection is even more pertinent considering that On the Waterfront was a vehicle for method acting, a style of acting in which actors call on emotions from their own memories and imagination in order to deliver performances which are grounded in the truth of that moment. The cast – Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb – all trained at the Actors Studio in New York, which Kazan co-founded in the late 40s, and which was one of the first establishments teaching this philosophy.
The scenes from this film that linger with us long after a viewing are largely a result of the idiosyncratic choices made by the actors; their actions resonate in ways that transcend a story about unjust working conditions at a wharf, and speak to the nuances of the human plight. When Terry is walking with Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), her glove falls out of her purse. Terry picks up the glove, but instead of giving it right back to her he fidgets with it as if preoccupied, even sensually putting it on his own hand. Brando’s decision in this scene to hold onto the glove, despite Edie’s nervous attempts to retrieve it, prolong the scene in an honest way. Societal norms should’ve dictated that the interaction between these two – a self-proclaimed bum and a prim, educated lady – be kept to a minimum. Instead, the scene continues and is charged with a sexual undertone as they continue to talk, feeling each other out as two lovers might on a first date.
When Terry is riding in a taxicab with his brother Charlie, the scene is likewise transformed by the decisions the actors make. The genesis of the meeting is that in order to save his own life, Charlie must prevent Terry from becoming a cheese-eater. As Terry refuses to assure Charlie that he won’t testify, the tension mounts as Charlie blurts out they’re running out of time, and that he better make up his mind before they “get to 437 River Street”. With that, Terry realizes the score, and Charlie’s desperation boils over as he shoves a gun into Terry’s ribs. Instead of struggling over the gun, Brando chooses to gently brush the gun away; the look of despair echoing the sentiment in his words, “Oh, Charlie”. As it gradually sinks in that Charlie sold-out his brother under the guise of protecting him, we watch as Charlie’s confidence and verve shrivel into acceptance at his impending demise.
We realize yet again that love is a theme of this film, and no matter which path Terry takes, someone whom he cares about will be betrayed and suffer accordingly. The dilemma Terry grapples with is whether he should choose a woman who cares about him despite his flaws, or a brother whose actions thus far have prevented him from amounting to anything other than the aggregate of those flaws.
While Schulberg would disagree, perhaps this film is also a referendum on Kazan's testimony. Perhaps the Communists betrayed Kazan, much as Charlie did Terry, and thus in order for redemption Kazan needed to speak out? Or perhaps that’s reading too much into the film? Are we any the worse as an audience for indulging in a little “D ‘n D” ourselves, and merely appreciating the film for those scenes that haunt us, long after witnessing them?