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On The Waterfront

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/28/04 03:40:34

"The things a good woman will make you do."
5 stars (Awesome)

Ten minutes' difference in getting out of work, and this is a completely different review, because it means I catch the train instead of the bus, I reach Kendall Square an hour earlier, meeting up with L plenty early enough to take in the preview we had passes for. Instead, I take three buses and a subway, even after it's clear things aren't going to break just right, because I at least owe her an explanation.

It's a little like that for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront. He's made some bad decisions, and the easiest thing might be just to do nothing, but there's a girl, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and she deserves something. Of course, she's got a dead brother, not just an hour in bitter-cold weather. She knows why her brother's dead, too - he talked to the police about the corruption in the longshoremans' union - so she doesn't need an explanation. She wants action.

In the fifty years since On the Waterfront was first released, perceptions have changed. Marlon Brando went from a working-class, ruggedly-handsome leading man to a bizarre, corpulent eccentric (but without the outsider-genius rep of Orson Welles). Organized crime's influence on labor unions has gone from being something known but unsaid to black comedy to the kind of stereotype that one awkwardly apologizes for being aware of. Malloy often speaks in a peculiar argot (at least, peculiar to a middle-class guy in 2004), and Edie is remarked upon for studying to be a teacher. Lesser movies may age poorly because of such things that root them to a specific time or place, but the ones that endure don't show their age. On the Waterfront is still the
product of a specific time, but it's still young and vital, despite the decades between its time and our own.

Part of the reason for this is that director Elia Kazan never sets out to shock his audience. The corruption of the union isn't surprising in the least; you get the impression that the Crime Commission has been looking for a way to prove something everyone knows is true for a while. When the mob moves to murderously protect its interests, there's no great amount of suspense; that these threats of exposure are eliminated is to be expected. Kazan and company are simply telling a story, and although it's a ripped-from-the-headlines social justice story (literally; Budd Schulberg's script is credited as being suggested by articles by Malcolm Johnson), it isn't an exposť of a corrupt system, but rather a story about the person who stood up.

Whistle-blowers like Terry Malloy are popular subjects, of course, especially for biopics. Even if Malloy isn't based on any specific individual, though, he comes off as more real than many of those pictures' subjects. He captures a lot of basic insecurities - potential he knows he hasn't lived up to, specific chances he's missed, a girl who's out of his league (something he's loath to admit exists in the first place). He's afraid to bring down a system that he knows is corrupt and wrong, which has hurt him specifically, both because he fears reprisal and because his brother is part of it. He's not that smart - it takes him a while to work all this out, despite how his book-smart maybe-girlfriend implores him. He is, however, able to grasp his importance as a symbol toward the end, even if Edie doesn't or doesn't want to.

Modern moviegoers used to location shooting and exact recreations may smirk at the production values, but may not. Boris Kaufman's black-and-white photography is active, always pointing at exactly what the audience needs to see. The sets describe the places they represent well: Cramped living quarters, or work areas overfilled with people. Characters look grimy, or too slick, or pure and virginal almost (but not quite) to the point of exaggeration.

On the Waterfront has a boatload of awards, and it's earned them. The new print struck for the anniversary is sharp. My only real complaint is that the cartoon Landmark attached to it was just as awful as the feature was good.

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