Elia Kazan | 103 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG
So much more than one famous scene, On the Waterfront is a movie about a magic jacket, which causes anyone who owns it to stand up for what’s morally right even in the face of oppression, but also to suffer badly when they do.
OK, that’s not what it’s about. But you keep your eyes on that jacket and, I tell you, it may as well be.
The story, based on a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles, is actually about corruption in the dock worker union of New Jersey, with Marlon Brando witnessing what happens to those who attempt to blow the whistle, but deciding to do so himself anyway. Rather than a hollow issue-driven morality play, it becomes a tense and engrossing character drama in the hands of director Elia Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and a capable cast. The latter includes Karl Malden as an initially quiet priest who resolves to stand up and fight the system too, even if he can’t persuade many workers to do the same; Lee J. Cobb as the self-serving man at the top, bitterly clinging to power ’til the last; Rod Steiger as Brando’s brother, part of the corrupt union architecture, but driven to protect his family at the sharp end of the wedge; and Eva Marie Saint, making her screen debut as the potential love interest, whose brothers was murdered doing the right thing but nonetheless persuades Brando to do the same.
The only potential downside to this comes if you dig behind the scenes. Kazan was one of those who testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during its 1940s and ’50s witchhunt for Communists in Hollywood, naming eight men who were later blacklisted. If you consider the film to be Kazan’s answer to critics of his actions (as it “widely” is, according to Wikipedia), then presumably Brando is meant to be Kazan, calling out those who are doing ill to good hardworking Americans. But many a great film has been made with poor motive — just because Kazan thinks what Brando’s character does and what he did are the same thing doesn’t mean we have to. Even then, the issue of Kazan’s testimony is not so straightforward: a former Communist himself, he faced the end of his career if he didn’t testify, and the names he gave up were already known to the committee. The controversy dogged him for the rest of his career, though: when he received an honorary Oscar in 1999, several notable audience members refused to applaud.
While subtext is undoubtedly a meaningful thing, and using one situation to comment on another is a tried and true way of presenting an argument or criticism, I’m not a proponent of offhandedly dismissing work(s) just because we don’t agree with the actions or beliefs of the person who made it. On the Waterfront is a powerful film, exemplarily made by skilled craftsmen. Whatever Kazan was trying to atone for with its message about standing up to bullies in defence of what’s right, the sentiment is true. And you don’t need a magic coat to do it either.
On the Waterfront is on TCM UK tomorrow at 10:45am.