Friday, May 24, 2013

Beyond Palookaville: The Criterion Collection Release of On the Waterfront

"I can't discuss it as a movie anymore," director Martin Scorsese tells film critic Kent Jones in an interview included on the new Criterion Collection release of Elia Kazan's powerhouse 1954 drama On the Waterfront. "It's more of a phenomenon. Are there better movies? Probably. I see how the story is structured to make a point...[Yet] there is something revolutionary about that film." There are few movies that take us beyond the experience of simply watching one. Certainly Citizen Kane (1941) does, with its dazzling sound and visual innovations, where director Orson Welles – having come to Hollywood out of his daring work in theatre and radio – combines the two mediums in order to treat our eyes in the way we often use our ears. In doing so, he distracts us from some of the shallowness and the flaws in the plot and unleashes something boldly new and entertaining. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) is undoubtedly another, where all the rules of genre get broken to create a masterpiece of multiple genres mingling together into something so new that the viewer is both engaged and moved by a picture that defies classification.

On the Waterfront is a straight-forward drama, written by Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run), about a New Jersey longshoreman and ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who comes to tackle the moral dilemma of whether to remain loyal to his mob-connected boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and Terry's brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), who is the mobster's right-hand man, or to talk instead to the crime commission and name names. It doesn't seem to belong in the same category of films that could be described as "revolutionary." But that's only if you seize solely upon the melodramatic structure of its plot. What sets On the Waterfront apart from more conventional melodrama, besides the emotional force of its storytelling, happens between the lines of the story. It even goes beyond the film into the larger world that shaped it. "On the Waterfront is no more about the real business of the docks – working conditions, union racketeering, or reform – than Hamlet is an expose of corruption in the medieval Danish court," writes filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Nadja) in the DVD liner notes. "[On the Waterfront arrives] at an elevated place in our collective consciousness, a place where familiar images and scenes continue to seem urgent, to surprise us, to trigger intense feelings, reaching past the long shadows of politics and the blind wind of success or failure." To define that elevated place Almereyda refers to, you first have to grasp the social and political issues that turned On the Waterfront into the very phenomenon that Scorsese describes.

The film's cogent use of the black-and-white neo-realistic settings, inspired by the movies of post-war Italy, the evocative eye of cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante), plus helped along by a dynamic jazz inspired score by Leonard Bernstein, all inform the picture's empathetic recognition of underclass alienation. On the Waterfront is a culmination of the social consciousness born of the Group Theatre of the Thirties. Elia Kazan, who once called himself "a cosmic orphan," was a Turkish-born Greek immigrant who along with Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford formed the Group Theatre collective with the goal of developing an American artistry that was both forceful and naturalistic. To do so, they pioneered an acting technique – the Method – which was derived from the teachings of the Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, whose emphasis on psychological realism became a key component of their work. For ten years, this group produced many important American playwrights like Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty in 1935) and Irwin Shaw (Bury the Dead in 1936). They had their biggest hit with Odets' Golden Boy in 1937. Due to the social awareness of the Group, however, many (including Kazan) flirted with (if not joined) the Communist Party. Kazan was a member of the Party while in his mid-twenties, when the Depression was at its worst between 1934 to 1936, but would soon reject their dogma and their determination to turn the Group Theatre into its ideological arm. So in 1952, during the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) hearings on Communism, Kazan testified as a friendly witness and gave up the names of eight former Group colleagues who had been Party members. One of them was Clifford Odets, who had left the Communist Party at the same time Kazan did, and all the others were names known to HUAC already. But Kazan's decision would cost him friends and allies, and it would also ultimately lead him to direct On the Waterfront.

On the Waterfront was originally to be a collaboration between Kazan and his friend playwright Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman Kazan had directed on stage in 1949. First developed around the time of SalesmanThe Hook was to be an expose of the corrupt unions in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Both Miller and Kazan were planning it as a movie in 1951, but Harry Cohen of Columbia Pictures was nervous about Miller's leftist views and wanted The Hook to be an allegory for the Cold War instead with the mob replaced by Communists. Miller quickly pulled out of the project and Kazan's testimony would soon follow. Kazan's fateful decision ended their friendship for the next ten years. Miller would go on to write The Crucible, a condemnation of the Salem witch-hunts in 1692, as his own allegorical response to Kazan's capitulation to the HUAC. Kazan's wife, however, baulked at the comparison. She would write Miller afterwards to tell him that "there were no witches in Salem, Arthur, but there were Communists in Hollywood."As tragic and sordid as the HUAC hearings were, she was right. The Communist Party did dominate the politics of the movie industry during the Thirties and Forties right from the era of the Popular Front and beyond the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939.

Arthur Miller & Elia Kazan
Since the Thirties, Stalinist ideology had significantly corrupted American intellectual and cultural life to the degree that it bitterly divided the American left in ways similar to today's post 9/11 era. "Stalinism today is not a point of view but a psychological and sociological phenomenon," critic Robert Warshow wrote in a 1947 essay in The Nation called "The Legacy of the 30s." "The intellectual's problem is to define his own position in the whole world of culture that came into being in the 30's – a world in which he must live and of which he is a full partaker." Kazan had been a partaker as a former Communist, and thus was significantly different from Miller who had never been a member. The question of taking responsibility for one's beliefs then takes on a whole different meaning in the case of Kazan. "And the question to be asked is not: What is my opinion of all this?" Warshow goes on to write. "That question is easily answered, but those who ask only that have fallen into the trap, for it is precisely the greatest error of our intellectual life to assume that the most effective way of dealing with any phenomenon is to have an opinion about it. The real question is: What is my relation to all of this?" On the Waterfront, whether you wish to praise or condemn it on the grounds of justifying Kazan's ratting on his friends, to HUAC, becomes his way of asking what is his relation to all of this.

Budd Schulberg testifies before HUAC
Two years before he made On the Waterfront, Kazan wrote a statement published in The New York Times defending his reasons for testifying. Although he later credited the text to his wife, the voice in the piece seemed clearly to be his own. Along with describing his time in the Party and why he broke with them, he went on to get at the nagging issue that would ultimately become the very tissue of On the Waterfront. "Secrecy serves the Communists," he wrote. "At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of a lot of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by the Communists." Many saw, perhaps rightly, the questionable ethics of Kazan's decision, that his testimony would give strength and validation to HUAC – especially in its ability to destroy the lives of other individuals in its zealous attempt to seek out Party loyalists. But Kazan saw his testimony as simply another outlet for the passionate convictions in which he made his pictures. "[We] must never let the Communists get away with the pretence that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries," he wrote. With Miller out of his life, Kazan turned to another former Communist, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who had also garnered similar controversy. In 1951, when screenwriter Richard Collins testified before HUAC, he named Schulberg as a former member of the Party. So Schulberg responded by testifying himself as a 'friendly witness' that certain Party members had coerced him in the writing of What Makes Sammy Run, his 1941 novel about the backstabbing culture of Hollywood. With Kazan and Schulberg both feeling the sting of having ratted on the people they knew, they went to work resurrecting The Hook, which, in 1954, became On the Waterfront.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy
Watching On the Waterfront today, it's surprising to find that, in the last fifty years, it hasn't lost its ability to overwhelm. But what stirs you isn't the melodrama. Its strength comes instead from what happens in between Kazan and Schulberg's 'big scenes.' Terry Malloy is conceived as an uneducated man, a lumpen-proletariat, who is torn between purgatory and salvation. The way Brando plays him, his instincts are without question rooted in the territorial imperative. But a surprising innate sweetness is also present in him and gradually awakened by Edie (Eva Marie Saint), a young convent girl who happens to be the sister of a man Terry set up to be murdered. Their scenes of verbal sparring in the bar, which begin the spiral of their relationship, are inescapably touching. Their delicate verbal dancing awakens in the viewer a full recognition of how fragile romantic possibility can be. In their performances, as well, Brando and Eva Marie Saint reveal finely tuned desires that yearn with an urgent need to connect. Those moments make perfect sense of Terry's decision to turn his back on the security of the mob life. ("When he plays those scenes with her, I'm broken up," Kazan would later tell film critic Richard Schickel.) However, Karl Malden, as Father Barry, is cast as the tough social conscience of the picture – and he carries its meaning like a billboard around his neck. He uses Biblical scripture as the kind of dramatic liturgy which leaves no mystery or nuance, and substitutes for realism the rousing speeches of a politician stumping for votes. Father Barry may explicitly open the door for Terry's conversion, but it's Edie's implicit urging that allows him to walk through it. And it's the love story that miraculously transcends the melodrama of Father Barry's sermonizing.

Rod Steiger & Marlon Brando in the cab scene
The famous scene of Terry Malloy in the cab with his brother Charlie is still one of the great defining moments of brotherly betrayal in movie history. With Terry now about to testify before the crime commission, his brother Charlie either has to talk him out of it, or kill him. Terry's confrontation with Charlie, in which he accuses him of selling him out, of giving him a "one-way ticket to Palookaville," still resonates despite its familiarity because we've all felt at some point in life the bitter taste of Palookaville. But the scene also goes beyond Palookaville to a more chilling place than perhaps even Kazan and Schulberg imagined. Rod Steiger, who was never given enough credit for his shrewd underplaying of Charlie, is actually the more tragic figure here, a man who has made the idea of Palookaville comfortable for himself to live in. Charlie is the educated brother who perhaps knew better than Terry, but made all the wrong choices for the safety of easy money and sold himself out more completely than he did his own brother. (It's possible that Scorsese had Charlie in mind when he gave the same name to Harvey Keitel's smooth operator in his 1974 Mean Streets, a man who plays the friend to everyone while climbing the rungs of his uncle's criminal organization.) Charlie is the truly damned soul in On the Waterfront and the one for whom death is the only true release. In a later scene, one that is seldom recalled compared to the iconic scene in the cab, Terry and Edie get chased by a truck down a dark alley and emerge from hiding to see Charlie hanging on a ledge from a hook. Kazan doesn't treat that moment as justification for Charlie's sins, or to tell us that he got what was coming to him, but rather as a moment of tenderness between brothers. Terry comes to terms with human weakness in this moment and recognizes that he is actually the stronger man. He literally – and symbolically – lets Charlie off the hook. (Brando is peerless in that quiet moment when he covers his brother's body with his coat and lays his burden to rest.)

Marlon Brando & Eva Marie Saint
If everything that follows that scene is impacted with the conventions of action melodrama, where revenge becomes a sanctimonious desire, On the Waterfront never loses touch with its core of realism. The villain, Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly, isn't a gangster titan like Little Caesar, or an ambitious one like Scarface. He isn't even a symbol to be brought down. Instead, he's no more than a ruthless man who crawled up from his own slum to survive. In bringing him down, Terry is actually rejecting the thug in himself. (When he confronts Friendly, he even says that by being loyal to Friendly he was ratting on himself all those years.) But there is no getting around the improbable ending in which Terry triumphs over Friendly and (despite suffering many broken bones when he's beaten) goes to work and drives the corruption from the docks. (The union figure Terry is based on was not so lucky.) But the fantasy of closure doesn't diminish all that comes before it. "On the Waterfront provides an imaginative experience," Pauline Kael wrote in I Lost it at the Movies. "If one regrets that the artists, having created an authentic image of alienation, failed to take that image seriously enough, one remembers also that most films provide no experience at all."

The picture's attempt at an authentic image of alienation does indeed leave a residue of "imaginative experience" that would carry its influence through the years of American movie-making. Kael would even reference On the Waterfront when she reviewed The Godfather in 1972, in which Marlon Brando plays a gangster this time, a criminal lord who makes choices that ultimately become a corruption of American idealism. "Nothing is resolved at the end of The Godfather, because the family business goes on," she wrote in The New Yorker. "Terry Malloy didn't clean up the docks at the end of On the Waterfront; that was a lie. The Godfather is popular melodrama, but it expresses a new tragic realism." If On the Waterfront lacked some of the courage of its convictions in 1954, or even the boldness to recognize its own underlying tragic realism, it was still real enough to make a movie like The Godfather possible some twenty years later. Produced in the midst of the unresolved currents of Stalinist politics, government hearings and the Hollywood blacklist, On the Waterfront is about a man who discovers his convictions and then attempts to define them in a world where they will always have consequences. Martin Scorsese would go on to say about On the Waterfront in his film A Letter to Elia (2010) that "it was as if the world that I came from, that I knew, mattered." That, and not its melodrama, is what makes this movie both the phenomenon and the revolutionary motion picture that it became.Which is why On the Waterfront still reverberates today as a story that is more unsettling than its triumphant conclusion suggests.

* The Criterion 2-disc set includes a new digital restoration with alternate 5.1 surround and the picture in both its original and two additional widescreen aspect ratios. Besides an audio commentary by critic Richard Schickel and author Jeff Young, there are two documentaries including Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982), plus a new one specifically for the Criterion release. There's a marvellous interview with Eva Marie Saint and one with Kazan from 2001. The liner notes are very rich in content from Michael Almereyda's illuminating comments, Kazan's 1952 defense of his HUAC testimony, the 1948 Malcolm Johnson articles that inspired the film, and a 1953 piece about Father Corridan who inspired the character of Father Barry played by Karl Malden.

 - Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   


  1. On the Waterfront is a great movie, but so is The Salt of the Earth, which came out in the same year and has the opposite view about people who inform on leftists.

  2. It's interesting to note that Schulberg later wrote Waterfront, a novelization of his screenplay for the film. Although the book has the same fight scene at the end between Terry and Johnny Friendly, Schulberg added an epilogue that concludes the story much more realistically. Not to be a spoiler, let's just say it's not exactly an uplifting, "Hollywood movie" ending.