On the Waterfront review – Marlon Brando’s wounded masculinity rains punches down

On the Waterfront review – Marlon Brando’s wounded masculinity rains punches down

‘The Romans found out what a handful could do, if it’s the right handful,” says Karl Malden’s priest Father Pete Barry to the crowd of sullen, nervous New Jersey longshoremen he’s persuaded to come to his church, like the early Christians hiding in caves; they are wondering whether to stand up to the crooked union mob boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J Cobb. Meanwhile, ex-boxer Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, sits at the back of the church, smirking and eavesdropping; midway between Judas and Jesus, he is the washed-up fighter who gets cushy dockworker jobs from Johnny in return for shameful dirty work, his stevedore’s hook hitched over his shoulder. It’s same kind of hook that Johnny will use to crucify his consigliere, Terry’s brother Charley, in a back alley; Charley, who betrayed poor Terry at a vital moment in his boxing career, just as he was going to be a contender.

Elia Kazan’s viscerally powerful tragedy from 1954 is now rereleased for its 70th anniversary; it was written for the screen by Budd Schulberg, inspired by Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning journalism about postwar US dockyard corruption, and with a clamorous, brass-heavy musical score by Leonard Bernstein. Its raw passion and wounded masculinity rain down punches on its audience, creating a myth revived and recreated 26 years later in a series of visual and verbal echoes by Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull.

Brando’s face as Terry has the bruised and wounded look of someone who is only just recovering from a catastrophic defeat in the ring. He is still fit and alert physically, but aimless and depressed; as the drama starts, the truth about what he has become has only just started to dawn on him. Some years earlier, Terry sacrificed his title shot in return for deliberately losing against an inferior fighter, having been persuaded to do so by his brother (Rod Steiger) to allow Charley’s employer Johnny to make a fortune betting against Terry. Now the dazed Terry does odd jobs for Johnny, including luring a certain worker to his death because the man was threatening to testify to the authorities about corrupt union officials. Now poor hopeless Terry wonders if he can reclaim his dignity by doing the same thing while tending to his pigeons – who have a piquant consider-the-lilies innocence, as well as being metaphors for the hated stool pigeons and the terrible taboo of talking to the cops. It is all because Terry has fallen in love with the dead man’s sister; a dignified, delicate performance from Eva Marie Saint.

Is it noble or ignoble to squeal? No one watching or working on the movie could have been unaware of Kazan’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, which put him on the wrong side of history – although perhaps the same side as George Orwell whose own “red list” was revealed in 1996. Yet Kazan’s decision to testify, his lack of hindsight-benefit, is part of what drives the agony, the turmoil, the indecision in Terry’s heart. Snitch or martyr; which is it? The performances in the film have a magnificent intelligence and strength, shaped and guided incomparably by Kazan, a master of Broadway and Hollywood.

Source: theguardian.com