The Good: Good acting, Good writing, Some character development
The Bad: Dated, Politically homogenous, Sound quality.
The Basics: A dated film that is engaging enough to watch, but not so extraordinary as to become part of my film vault.
So, you've probably wondered where the jokes pretty much every series does at some point where someone dons an accent and says, "I coulda been a contdenda,'" well, they come from On The Waterfront. Marlon Brando utters them and if that's your only reason to watch On The Waterfront, don't bother. In all seriousness, I sat down to On The Waterfront with two hopes in mind: 1. To hear that line spoken in context and 2. That the film might be better than Citizen Kane. Well, I accomplished both and this film is better than Citizen Kane (reviewed here!). What did surprise me was that when the famous line is spoken, it's almost in the middle of a monologue; it doesn't stand out. How or why that particular line has become part of our collective consciousness baffles me. Honestly.
That said, On The Waterfront is a fine enough film. It tells the tale of dock workers who basically are slaves to the worker's union. The dock workers wait for work and make little money working loading and unloading ships while the Union leaders sit back and get fat off easy money. Enter Terry Malloy, a prize fighter who threw two fights as he was told to and now has ended up working at the docks. Terry inadvertently is an accomplice in a murder of a worker who is prepared to identify union workers and their corrupt practices.
What follows is Malloy's personal and professional struggles. He gets involved with Joey's sister, until she learns he was an accomplice in her brother's death. That's okay, it's a pretty one-sided relationship anyway. Then, egged on by Father Barry, Terry is encouraged to step forward and do the right thing, to testify against Johnny Friendly, the union boss.
Well, the acting is there, but it's not with Brando. He's fine, he's good. But great? Nah. For the truly great acting, you have to look at Karl Malden, who plays Father Barry. He's pretty fabulous as Father Barry. You'll see in a moment that I seem to contradict that, but the truth is Malden plays Barry excellently, with vigor and zeal and realism. Rod Steiger is also notable as Charley. And, simply because I can't imagine having a chance to ever recommend his work again, Leif Erickson plays Glover well. Okay, I don't remember Glover, but I couldn't resist using "Leif Erickson" in my review. And yes, he is in the film and he does play Glover.
The film is well written; many memorable lines and such. It's fairly well directed, though that's hard to say at some points; the film quality is poor in some spots. I mean, there are times things are happening in the dark and you can't tell what's going on because, well, it's dark. Really dark.
The real setbacks of the film are in its datedness. The reason in my "pros" it says "some" character development, instead of "lots of" is because Edie Doyle (Joey's sister) and Father Barry fit dated roles, archetypes of a time long gone by. And thankfully for that! Edie is a flat character, a weak-willed woman waiting around for a man to come in and tell her what to think and feel. She doesn't read as a very real person at all. Father Barry, on the other hand, reads like a real person, but seems dated in some respects as well; the public displays of Christian zeal he makes are somewhat shocking for us in the twenty-first century to see. We're used to religion being a mostly private thing. To see a man publically enforcing morals in the name of Jesus Christ is somewhat off-putting. It's disconcerting to believe the nation is such a homogenous place. The truth is, today it's not.
The reason I'm not panning the film on those grounds is, I think it paints well the dominant culture of the time. This film is a time capsule in some ways. While Terry's quest is a good one, one still relevant today, the methods and idealism here are antiquated.
Also annoying is the sound quality and this might have been corrected on the new dvd version. But on the video tape I watched, it took me half the film to realize Terry was Terry and not "Charlie." Given there was a Charley in the film, you might understand my difficulty.
On The Waterfront is like a 1930s (yes, I'm aware the film was made in the 1950s) or 40s version of a crossover episode between NYPD Blue and The Practice, well, except there are almost no police and the law aspect doesn't come in until the end and then is solved a different way. Well, maybe it simply is what it is and that's why it deserves to be seen.
As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here!
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© 2011, 2009, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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