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On the Waterfront: Definitely a contender
by Asa Butcher
2009-09-21 07:44:47
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On the Waterfront
Directed by Elia Kazan
1954, Columbia Pictures Corporation

Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando were two Hollywood personalities that could instantly polarise opinion, but whatever your personal stance towards either you cannot help but admire some of the films that they both left behind as their legacy. Gentleman's Agreement and East of Eden are just two of Kazan's, while Brando's list contains masterpieces such as The Godfather , Apocalypse Now and The Wild One. However, together they made three films beginning with 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire, followed by Viva Zapata! the following year, and culminating in the breathtaking 1955 Best Picture winner On the Waterfront.

Even if you have committed a major film sin by never watching On the Waterfront you will still be familiar with the "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am" scene that came third in the American Film Institute's 100 All-Time Movie Quotes. The scene is a mere cherry on top of a film cake loaded with top class acting performances, gritty dialogue, a classic score and gorgeous cinematography; it is also a chance to witness two powers working together in perfect harmony.

Budd Schulberg's Oscar-winning screenplay was based on Malcolm Johnson's 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper series entitled "Crime on the Waterfront" added to which the filming took place on a real New Jersey waterfront infuses the film with so much realism that you begin to forget that On the Waterfront is over fifty years-old. Sadly Schulberg died at the age of 95 in August, but his words will continue to entertain and mesmerise future audiences for decades to come because this film is a true classic.

For those unfamiliar with the film, the story follows Terry Malloy (Brando), a former boxer, who tries to live a quiet life working on the docks. However, Malloy often runs errands for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the corrupt boss of the Dockers' Union, and inadvertently witnesses the murder of a longshoreman about to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission. Malloy meets and falls in love with Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the murdered man, which gradually forces his conscience to recognise his responsibility for the actions of union crime and illegal dockside activities.

Betraying friends, naming names and following your conscience are themes at the very core of On the Waterfront due to Elia Kazan's own unabashed involvement in the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s that led to the blacklisting of many colleagues in Hollywood and their subsequent downfalls, both personally and professionally. It is widely-known that Kazan made On the Waterfront in an attempt to make amends for his own actions two years earlier, but even 47 years later when he was awarded an Honorary Oscar many attendees refused to applaud, such as Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, showing that the anger still ran deep.

Kazan, who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday in September of this year, followed his 1948 Best Director with another for On the Waterfront and also led the way for another seven Oscars. Brando proved that there was Method in the madness by finally winning his first Oscar after three previous nominations for a performance that blends masculinity and femininity, power and tenderness, humour and drama; it is no small wonder that Brando's performance was ranked #2 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.

The film's inherent quality lent itself for superb performances from the whole cast, with Eva Marie Saint proving this by winning the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award in her film debut! Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger were all nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but the winner was Edmond O'Brien for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa, which makes me wonder how amazing he must have been.

Of the three nominees, Rod Steiger's brief role as Terry's older brother Charley deserves extra focus because of his invaluable contribution in the famous "I coulda been a contenda" scene. Brando may have received the accolades for the speech but if it wasn't for Steiger's reactions and own contributions the scene would have been far poorer. There is so much emotion portrayed throughout that sequence that essays and books have dedicated themselves to picking it apart frame by frame, and even then I am sure they miss something!

You may think that my review has exaggerated the unbridled brilliance contained within Elia Kazan's film but I challenge you to watch the film and judge for yourself. I promise you will not be disappointed at one of the greatest films depicting an individual's heroism fighting corruption, one man against the many, a discovery of what a man can do, and perhaps for 108-minutes you can forget about Kazan's betrayal and Brando's later obesity because this is one of the greats of modern cinema -  a definite contender.

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