A tour de force for director Elia Kazan, star Marlon Brando and, perhaps above all, cinematographer Boris Kaufman. ON THE WATERFRONT is a gritty, no-holds-barred drama about the corruption-glutted New York docks and the dock workers' excruciating struggle to make a living under the
control of corrupt unions. Cobb is gangster union boss Johnny Friendly, and Steiger his crooked lawyer, Charley Malloy. Charley's brother, Terry (Brando), a former boxer, hangs around the docks and runs errands for Johnny, who gives handouts to those who do his bidding. Already a has-been as a
young man, Terry keeps pigeons on a rooftop and dreams about his days as an promising fighter. Johnny tells Terry to ask a truculent union worker who is holed up in his apartment to meet him on the roof of his tenement. The worker shows up, and two of Johnny's goons push him off to his death as
Terry watches in shock. Later, Terry tells some of Johnny's other thugs, "I thought they were only gonna lean on him a little," to which Truck (onetime heavyweight boxer "Two-ton" Tony Galento) replies, "The canary could sing but he couldn't fly!" Terry later meets Edie (Saint), the murdered man's
sister, and begins to feel responsible for the death. She introduces him to Father Barry (Malden), who tells Terry that the dead man was killed because he was going to expose Johnny and his henchmen. The priest then exhorts Terry to provide the crime commission with information that will smash the
Brando is spectacular as the ex-fighter who finds his conscience and risks his life for his newfound principles. The realistic dialogue is poetic in its simplicity, and the seedy tenements and clammy docks are strikingly captured. Kazan sets every scene with menace and suspense, evoking a pitiless
world where tough hope is requisite for survival. Cobb is a great villain, exercising his power with a payoff, a sneering smile, and a booming voice, and his goons are really frightening characters, many of them former real-life boxers with faces scarred by years in the ring. Saint is an island of
sanity and decency, but the attempt to use Malden as a symbol of good in a troubled world is awfully pat. The film is a draining experience from beginning to end, relentless in its portrayal of inhumanity. And it is all the more grim and hard-hitting because of the steel-gray look of
cinematographer Kaufman's startling, neo-documentary approach.
A controversial film of its time because of its violence, raw language (at one point Terry tells the priest to "go to hell"), and its daring in representing labor unions in a negative light, WATERFRONT enjoyed a surprising box office success to match its critical acclaim, taking in $9.5 million on
a $900,000 investment.
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- Review: A tour de force for director Elia Kazan, star Marlon Brando and, perhaps above all, cinematographer Boris Kaufman. ON THE WATERFRONT is a gritty, no-holds-barred drama about the corruption-glutted New York docks and the dock workers' excruciating struggle… (more)