Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
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Elia Kazan is, for a range of very good reasons, one of the most remarkable and influential directors to have ever graced Hollywood. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he introduced audiences to James Dean, produced some of the earliest big-budget films that addressed racial inequality in the US, and brought Marlon Brando into the mainstream.
But for me, all three fall secondary to Kazan’s greatest achievement as a member of Hollywood’s most revered: the man single-handedly redefined what it meant to act. Before Brando and Kazan, actors and actresses merely occupied characters on-screen, and had done so for half a century. With On The Waterfront, they changed the job role of the actor, they gave it a gravity and an intensity that audiences had never seen before. It would be no small understatement to claim that this film altered the trajectory of Hollywood altogether.
Let’s backtrack for a moment. On The Waterfront is, as well as a landmark moment in Hollywood history, a gangster film that laid the foundations for the biopics and gangster epics directed by Scorsese and Coppola. It follows the exploits of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a prize-fighter-turned-dockworker, brother to Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger), who is the brains behind a waterfront racketeering ring controlled by corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
After the opening sees him inadvertently assist Friendly in silencing a witness - permanently - Terry spends most of the film’s modest 108-minute runtime ruminating on where everything went wrong in his life.
This is a simple film that tells a basic story, even for its time. But this doesn’t diminish the film’s significance. And I’ve danced around the reason for this during this review, so, let me explain: this film changed acting forever, and to some extent, brought method acting into the mainstream.
On The Waterfront showed audiences that subtlety and nuance were just as valuable as bravissimo and volume in your lead character. Kazan and Brando both dabbled with these ideas in A Streetcar Named Desire, but this really brought them to the big screen.
It’s the little things, like how in a conversation with Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), Terry plays around with one of her gloves while still drawing 100% of the audience’s attention with his words. The little tweaks and anxieties we see in Terry - not those that he tells us about, but those that he shows us - are what make him three-dimensional and truly complex.
Before Marlon Brando, before Terry Malloy, more often than not, we learnt from the overt in Hollywood. Events, symbols, and images that revealed or unpicked more about a character would generally be given centre stage. But in On The Waterfront, Kazan and Brando showed audiences that acting alone could convey subtext and teach us about character in quieter and more unusual ways. They showed us that the things at the edge of the frame and in the background could tell us just as much. They showed us that sometimes, less could be more. In this film, the two of them turned away from decades of acting tradition to bring audiences something fresh.
But beyond its subtleties, this film also succeeds in great measure when it chooses to be direct. There are no shortage of excellent passages of dialogue, especially in the film’s most important scenes, but one stands the test of time above all else. You likely all know it, whether you’ve seen the film or not; it’s Brando’s heartfelt exchange with his brother Charley in the back of a taxi, talking about what could have been: “You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am." If anything, it was this film that marked Brando’s rise from a contender to prove he was the best actor of the 20th century.
Image Credit: Trailer screenshottrailer at IMDB, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons