Thursday, December 16, 2021

Soaring Over the Waterfront with Marlon Brando and Company

The opening credits of On the Waterfront are punctuated by the sound of a solo trumpet played in a minor key. It’s Leonard Bernstein at his bluesy finest: this was the maestro’s only original film score, and it earned him one of the film’s 12 Oscar nominations. A later, more gentle track from that Bernstein score is called “Dead Pigeons.” That’s an odd-sounding name for a musical interlude, but it’s one that fits this particular story nicely. On the Waterfront is based on a Pulitzer-Prize-winning series, published in the New York Sun, chronicling union corruption at the local dockyards. The film version (set on the Hoboken docks) is full of ships, and cargo, and tough guys with fiery tempers. But its plot and some of its key images involve pigeons, the kind that slum kids raise on the roofs of their buildings, showing tenderness to dumb creatures that will one day soar high above them and their grim little lives.

 Pigeons? Think of the metaphorical implications of being a stool pigeon, one of the most hated types in the gangster universe. The men at the dockyards well know they’re required to be “D & D.” This stands for ”deaf and dumb”: though the union bosses are ripping them off at every turn, few of them dare complain. When one brave (or foolhardy) idealist shows a willingness to testify in front of a governmental crime commission, he’s lured to his death. That death starts things happening: the gutsy local priest gets involved, as does the dead man’s genteel sister, raised by nuns to be a school teacher but now determined to fight for her brother’s memory. But the focal point of the story is Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando in the role that sealed his reputation as the best actor of his time. Terry, once a promising young boxer, is now a favorite of union boss Johnny Friendly, who runs the docks with an iron fist. At the start of the film Terry is a cog in a smoothly-running machine. But his involvement in Joey Doyle’s murder and his growing interest in Doyle’s sister Edie slowly convince him to rethink his life. It’s a film that puts the spotlight on an evolving hero, though the courage shown here is strictly devoid of phony sentimentality.

 This is the sort of bracing movie in which everything works: a smartly told story, vivid black & white cinematography, that Bernstein score. Hence the film collected 8 Oscars, in a year that saw such major successes as The Caine Mutiny, A Star is Born, and the charming Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In addition to Best Picture, On the Waterfront won for its direction (Elia Kazan), its screenplay (Budd Schulberg), and the performance of Eva Marie Saint in her debut film. Brando deservedly received the Best Actor statuette, and -- yes! –walked to the stage, wearing a tuxedo, to gratefully accept it from Bette Davis. No fewer than three actors from On the Waterfront were nominated in support: Karl Malden as the priest, Lee J. Cobb as the corrupt union boss, Rod Steiger as Brando’s older brother, to whom he famously muses, “I coulda been a contender.” .

 It’s worth noting that when the film was released, in 1954, the U.S. was still caught up in the McCarthy Era, So the idea of testifying in front of a government committee took on a certain coloration, especially because director Elia Kazan had famously named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee two years earlier.  This film’s focus, though, is not politics but honor.


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