I coulda been a contender...
On the Waterfront is a 1954 crime drama starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger, and is directed by Elia Kazan. It won 8 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations.
Terry Malloy (Brando) works on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, alongside his brother Charley. Terry has good relations with the dockworkers union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb), who has connections with the mob. One night, a man named Joey Doyle is killed, and Terry is confronted by Joey's sister Edie (Saint) and Catholic priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), believing that Terry is a witness to Joey's murder and can help testify against Friendly and his thugs, who are suspected of killing Joey.
It might surprise you to learn that Brando initially turned down the role of Terry Malloy, which Kazan was going to give to Frank Sinatra. But Kazan believed that "an actor like Marlon Brando" could truly pull off the role, and with enough persuasion, Brando reconsidered and decided to take on the role. Who would've thought that a performance most memorable for perhaps changing the landscape of American cinematic acting almost never happened?
Terry Malloy is maybe one of the most important characters in cinematic history. Most of this should be credited to how miraculously that Brando portrays him. But another part of it should be how the character of Malloy really opened the gateway for Hollywood to present more consistently to us troubled, flawed, and, dare I say it, human characters. This is a post-war time where the former joys of watching theatrical lovebirds on screen are growing more humdrum. Now, at least in upcoming Best Picture winners, the focus is transitioning more towards examining the psychological depths of characters that we can sympathize with. We'll still get Best Picture films that center on love stories every now and then, but the emphasis on such films is starting to lose its grip.
So there's sufficient reason to claim that On the Waterfront is an important film. Is it a great film too? I find it hard to formulate an argument as to how it's not.
- Marlon Brando, if you couldn't guess. Most people might remember Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but his performance as Terry Malloy might just be too good to top. His inflections, tone of voice, and body gestures are all superb. Malloy is vividly displayed to us as frustrated and hesitantly aloof. He tries to dismiss ratting on Friendly's criminal deeds, and when Father Barry confronts him in a bar, Malloy angrily lashes out with, "Mind your own business!" In the film's most famous scene, Terry laments to his brother Charley on a foregone boxing career, with the infamous "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." His chance at the American Dream shattered, Malloy just lays it all out to Charley.
- The screenplay by Budd Schulberg. It provides a story that is wisely constructed and never over-complicates itself. Hardy themes of union violence and corruption are ambitiously tackled, and characters are noticeably human. The mobsters seek pride and wealth with no nagging gimmick. The dockworkers are normal, hardworking individuals, spearheaded by an imperfect Terry Malloy. The best characters are typically the most relatable ones.
- If I'm forced to develop a low point, it might be that the film is slightly uneven, trying to balance romance with gangster crime. A supposed murder mystery transitions into a fixed attention on Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle falling in love, then later back into the dockworkers fighting the union mobsters. But looking at the film as a whole, and knowing how strong that the screenplay is, I fail to see this as a major complaint.
In my review for the previous Best Picture winner, From Here to Eternity, I pointed to the fact that that film has no unique quality to make it a truly great film (or a memorable Best Picture winner). This is not true at all for On the Waterfront, which features an actor and character in Marlon Brando and Terry Malloy, respectively, that would forever change the way acting and film-making are approached. With a sharp script to boot, On the Waterfront is a film that gives its all. It is truly powerful film-making that is essential viewing for any lover of film and/or acting.
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