On the Waterfront (1954)

“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.”

‘On the Waterfront’, directed by Elia Kazan in 1954, is an American crime drama set in the New Jersey docks. Lee J. Cobb plays Johnny Friendly, a union boss who has close ties with the American Mafia. He controls the docks through intimidation and murder, protected from the police by a culture of silence. Two brothers, Terry and Charley Malloy, work for him. Terry, played by Marlon Brando, is a former boxer who was forced to throw a fight as a way of helping Friendly win a bet, whilst his brother, played by Rod Steiger, is the boss’s right-hand man. When a fellow dockworker who is about to testify is killed, Terry finds himself drawn towards his murdered comrades sister and begins to consider going to the police himself. Terry’s new-found righteous honesty drives a wedge between himself and his brother, and threatens his safety and those around him. It’s a tight, tense movie with a legendary performance from Brando, although the real power comes from the performances of the actors around him responding to the idiosyncratic rising star. The plot is lean, but the political subtext is anything but. Kazan was one of the Hollywood employees who identified communists in the industry during the HUAC investigations, and as such was condemned and ostracised just as much as those he exposed. This film seems to be a robust defence of his actions albeit replayed on a more visceral level. Whatever the political motivation of Kazan, this background does give the film an emotional and personal rawness that shines through.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a classic movie and one that gives in insight into the other side of the McCarthy investigations. Watch in a double bill with any film that gives the other side of the story, maybe ‘Salt of the Earth’, ‘Trumbo’ or even ‘Spartacus’.

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