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On the Waterfront (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan
The priest leans over the body of a dead man, who has been crushed to death on the docks — a murder made to look, barely, like an accident. For Kayo Dugan was about to testify against the corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly, and his henchmen, and their protection racket. “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary,” says Father Barry (Karl Malden), who himself can throw a mean punch when the need demands it. “They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle's life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that's a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it's a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead.”
It’s hard for people these days to say anything about our Film of the Week, Elia Kazan’s magnificent On the Waterfront, without appealing to the social and political circumstances surrounding it. Not that they’re wrong to make the appeal. Kazan was a formidable social critic. He took on prejudice against Jews in Gentlemen’s Agreement. He took on racism and its cruelties in Pinky. He was himself the son of Greek parents who had fled from persecution in the Ottoman Empire. He hated communism, and for a very long time he was hated in turn by people who held it against him, that he had testified before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Yet his films are dramas of good and evil as they go to battle in the human soul, and the price we must pay, in our own persons, lest evil should triumph.
And that’s what the young Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) must learn. His philosophy of life, such as it is, such as has been taught to him by experience, is the inverse of the Golden Rule: “Do it to the next guy before he does it to you.” That’s what he tells Edie (Eva Marie Saint, whom Kazan in this black-and-white film has made to look simultaneously plain and radiant). She’s the sister of Joey Doyle, a good kid rubbed out by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). She’s been brought up as it were in two worlds: one, the docks; the other, the Catholic school for girls where she has been taught by nuns. The first world parades itself as the “real” one, and Terry suggests as much when he tells Edie that there are two kinds of birds roundabout his rooftop, the hawks and the pigeons. Yet he keeps pigeons; he loves them.
But it’s the second world, the world that Father Barry appeals to, that is real. The other is as phony as Johnny Friendly’s toothy smile, and the cheap baseball tickets he used to buy for Terry when he was a kid, and the cheap and easy money that Terry was forced to take when he was a young boxer with promise. His own brother Charlie (Rod Steiger), who is Johnny Friendly’s lawyer and confidant, made him take the dives, caring more for the quick cash and for doing what Johnny Friendly wanted, than for his own brother’s welfare. The movie then is about a war between worlds. And that war is not new, nor will it end until the last day.
On the Waterfront is a perfect film. Not one scrap of dialogue is either flat or forced. Not one shot is overdone, and the most spectacular scene of all, the final one, in which Terry, bloodied and hardly able to stand, staggers along his own via dolorosa, is well prepared for, is “earned,” like the finale of a symphony by Beethoven. The performances are unforgettable: from Lee J. Cobb’s slick and malevolent boss, barely above the level of a common thug, to Rod Steiger’s conscience-ridden Charley, to Karl Malden’s combative Father Barry — in my opinion the greatest portrayal of a priest in Hollywood history, to the two principals, Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, winners of the Oscars that year for best actor and best actress, as Kazan won for best director, and On the Waterfront for best film.
The battle line between good and evil, said Solzhenitsyn, runs through every human heart. I’d like to think that Kazan eventually read or heard those words of Solzhenitsyn, and thought, “Yes, my friend, you’ve said what I was about, as well as I’ve ever said it.”
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.