In A Letter to Elia, his 2010 tribute to Elia Kazan (codirected with Kent Jones), Martin Scorsese recounts seeing On the Waterfront for the first time and being dazzled by “the faces, the bodies, the way they moved . . . the voices, the way they sounded. They were like the people I saw every day. It was as if the world that I came from, that I knew, mattered.”
Nearly sixty years later, it’s still possible to be captivated by the tough-minded verisimilitude of Kazan’s approach, to see how On the Waterfront could inspire a sense of recognition and validation in the young Scorsese, and in thousands of other receptive viewers, in 1954. The hard faces and heavy bodies of real longshoremen move through locations that are insistently actual—real piers, real bars, real tenement interiors in Hoboken, New Jersey—and the severe winter weather contributes its own measure of realism. As Kazan reports in his disarming, corrosive autobiography, A Life: “The bite of the wind and the temperature did a great thing for the actors’ faces: it made them look like people, not actors.”
Even so, the film’s abiding power has everything to do with Kazan’s ability to temper and heighten a style of realism, in the movie’s visual design and through his unrivaled sensitivity to actors—real actors. On the Waterfront earns its status as a masterwork and a classic by breaking free of strict realism to tell a story that is, finally and enduringly, a poetic fable.
“Don’t be objective! This is not a Documentary,” the director wrote on the first page of his Waterfront shooting script, below the following passage in red ink:
The inner experience
Terry, of course, is Terry Malloy, given life by Marlon Brando in one of the most mesmerizing, pitch-perfect performances in the history of film. Terry is a low-level dockworker, failed prizefighter, and pawn in a wharf-side racketeering operation ruled by a boisterous thug named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), whose right-hand man, a cold-blooded accountant, happens to be Terry’s brother, Charley (Rod Steiger).
In the opening scene, Terry casually lures a union snitch out of hiding, making it possible for shadowy hoods to toss the man off a roof. Soon enough, Terry is served with a subpoena, called to testify against Johnny, Charley, the whole waterfront clan. Terry’s conscience is awakened and, by degrees, tormented by a chain-smoking priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), and a convent-educated blonde, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the man Terry helped to kill.
When he plays those scenes with her, I’m broken up. I break up. That one person should need so much from another person in the way of tenderness and all that. We all do, don’t we?
—Elia Kazan, interviewed by Richard Schickel
On the Waterfront was Kazan’s tenth feature (of an eventual nineteen). It was self-generated, an independent film produced outside of studio control, but it evolved from Kazan’s proven aptitude for delivering “hard-hitting” melodramas for 20th Century-Fox, movies that earnestly scratched the itchy surfaces of identifiable social issues—anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), racism in Pinky (1949), and, more ambitiously, the nature of revolution in Viva Zapata! (1952).
After Kazan hit a wall with an earlier waterfront project—The Hook, a “play for the screen” by Arthur Miller—he discovered that the novelist-screenwriter-journalist Budd Schulberg had also cooked up a waterfront story, this one centered on an Irish loner in Hoboken rather than an Italian family man in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Kazan guided Schulberg through extensive revisions, and the writer continued to immerse himself in on-site research, frequenting waterfront watering holes to soak up details of incident and slang. Both Terry Malloy and Father Barry are based on vivid living prototypes.
For all that, On the Waterfront is no more about the real business of the docks—working conditions, union racketeering, or reform—than Hamlet is an exposé of corruption in the medieval Danish court. There’s only one scene featuring real labor, during which the foreman, Big Mac, exchanges an ominous nod with a mug working a winch and—oops!—a ton of whiskey crates come crashing down on loose-lipped Kayo Dugan.
That is to say, it’s a movie, marked by conventions and clichés. But it was in obeying convention, with the insertion of the inevitable, invented love story, that Schulberg’s script provided Kazan with the basis for a transcendent movie.
Eva Marie Saint—in her first film role, twenty-nine years old but seeming younger, raw-nerved, fragile, blazing—plays Edie. She’s virtually the only woman in the picture, an apparitional beauty—not unlike Brando, for that matter—surrounded by hulking dockworkers, characters named Moose and Truck and Slim. Terry is featured in nearly every scene—Schulberg deftly channels the story through him, tracking his uncertainty, his growing sense of shame and responsibility—and he shares more screen time with Edie than with any other character. Saint holds her own with Brando, matching him moment for moment. In their scenes together—Kazan’s favorite scenes in the film, he said—we see impossible distances closing between two people separated by barriers of temperament, breeding, guilt, grief, and fear. In the central, heartbreaking bar scene, the movie settles into a volley of “simple” over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups, during which Brando and Saint register attraction and resistance, yearning and bitterness.
EDIE: Isn’t everybody part of everybody else?
TERRY: You really believe that drool?
EDIE: Yes, I do.
These lines trump the earnest Christian sermonizing that Father Barry unloads elsewhere in the film, and they set the stage for the sacrifice that Terry doesn’t yet realize he’s capable of. And it’s here, in the bar, that Saint lowers her face and her voice sinks to a moan—“Can you please help me, for God’s sake?”—and Brando, cupping his chin in his hand, reveals a matching anguish—“I’d like to help, but there’s nothin’ I can do”—and Leonard Bernstein’s music kicks in, his first and only film score, crystallizing their tenderness, their pain; and Edie touches Terry’s face—“You would if you could”—and forgives him. The scene is simply one of the absolute glories of American filmmaking.
It’s hardly easier to talk soberly about the contribution of the great Russian-born cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Jean Vigo’s essential collaborator almost twenty years earlier. Kaufman had done second-unit work on Viva Zapata!; Waterfront was his first American feature film as director of photography, and Kazan enlisted him, it seems, on a hunch, without a concrete appreciation of his brilliance. On the Waterfront is one of the most hauntingly beautiful black-and-white films ever made, rivaling Vigo’s L’Atalante. And yet in A Life, Kazan confesses to an initial skepticism about his cameraman, doubting his fortitude, his ability to work in “the ice-fanged wind.” At the start of the shoot, Kazan, by his own account, was in a rage:
How much more bad luck will I get on this fucking film? Here we are, with the coldest and the grayest and the shortest days coming, up on a damned rooftop facing toward a skyline I’d counted on to be . . . a dramatic contrast to the degradation we’d show on the waterfront—and you could hardly see the damned skyline.
But soon enough, Kazan recognized that the weather was perfect, with Kaufman adapting to the uncontrollable conditions and providing a remarkably unified palette of spectral grays, a visual translation of the inner experience Kazan was aiming to capture, a waterfront where mist, factory smoke, people’s breaths, and seething trash-can fires combine with meshed cages, black metal fences, and spiked railings to give off the feeling of a dangerous dream.
I am not a cosmic orphan.
—Elia Kazan, “The Actors’ Vow”
Why coin a term to describe what you are not?
For Kazan, a Turkish-born Greek immigrant, a self-described outsider, cosmic orphanhood was a natural condition, an ongoing state of mind. Before becoming a filmmaker, he found a home in the theater, first as an actor, then as the preeminent stage director of his generation. But his autobiography provides a candid inventory of disadvantages, resentments, hurts, and doubts experienced long before and after the central calamity of Kazan’s career—his call to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. After initially refusing to cooperate, Kazan reversed himself, renounced his brief affiliation with the Group Theatre’s Communist Party unit some seventeen years earlier, and gave up the names of eight old friends.
It was the height of the cold war, the Red scare, and it could be said that Kazan, the eternal outsider, was the most prominent and successful American citizen to yield to the despicable, inescapable committee. His crossover had a tumultuous impact on the era’s cultural landscape, and the fault lines became even more jagged when he bought space in the New York Times to publish a strident “statement,” urging others to follow his lead.
Of course, it’s a bit absurd to equate the ideological skirmishes of Communist administrators in an avant-garde theater troupe with the behavior of thugs throwing people off roofs or hanging them from cargo hooks, but Kazan clearly felt more than a little identification with Terry Malloy, and On the Waterfront can be read as a self-justification for the dirty act of naming names.
Kazan, in A Life, chronicles the anguish that went into his decision to capitulate to HUAC, detailing his humiliation, shame, self-disgust. He also admits how, faced with public and private scorn, he developed a growing defiance, a refusal to apologize. Scorsese’s Letter to Elia withholds judgment, deferring to Kazan’s own declaration that his decision was “disastrous,” and that the abiding damage was stamped into his face. (The film cuts to a black-and-white photo of Kazan in later life in which his flesh seems made of cracked cement.)
It may be more to the point to recognize that the quality of personal peril we feel in On the Waterfront, Terry’s sense of being split, his vulnerability and defiance, were intensely felt by Kazan and can hardly be deducted from a consideration of the film. Self-exposure and risk were hallmarks of the acting style Kazan pioneered and nurtured at the Actors Studio in New York, which he cofounded in 1947—the testing ground where Brando, Saint, Malden, Steiger, and Cobb received their primary training, with Kazan providing a kind of call to arms in “The Actors’ Vow”:
I will admit rejection, admit pain,
Admit frustration, admit even pettiness,
Admit shame, admit outrage,
Admit anything and everything
That happens to me.
This credo was carried forward into a new idiom of American acting, a style at once physical and introspective, and distinctly more nuanced, immediate, unpredictable—more truthful—than most acting that preceded it. It’s the style of poetic realism that informs the great performances in On the Waterfront. Kazan virtually invented this style, and refined it in this film, and its power remains undeniable.
The only good and original films I’ve made were made after my testimony.
—Elia Kazan, A Life
After Terry fingers Johnny Friendly in court, his decision to return to the docks is an unlikely show of principle and pride, a fantasy, as Scorsese concedes in his Letter to Elia, yielding to a Hollywoodish dramatic convention, a cathartic mano a mano slugfest.
All the same, on these familiar visceral terms, On the Waterfront’s final surge grants Terry a stirring apotheosis, a call for redemption answered through epic suffering. Once Terry tangles with his nemesis and is taken down by half a dozen thugs, we’re left with another of the film’s indelible images: Brando’s magnificent face streaked and blotched with blood (one of the most pulverizing in a career-long series of lavish beatings). Edie, formerly the central catalyst, has nothing left to say or do. A woman’s love becomes irrelevant, measured against such exalted violence. As longshoremen mill and rally behind Terry, a handheld camera delivers his dizzy, lurching point of view—Kazan works up to the end to get inside the character—and Bernstein’s music lifts the scene past any need for strict plausibility. And so the half-dead hero, propelled by sheer righteousness, leads his newfound brothers back to work.
The two-shot of Malden and Saint linking arms as they exchange satisfied smiles may be the film’s one false note, but the last image, of the corrugated metal warehouse door sliding shut, offers a suitably brutal touch of ambiguity, far from any complacent triumph.
On the Waterfront was a hit, swept the Oscars, and revitalized Kazan’s career, commencing a run of exceptionally ambitious, iconic films, some of which, like Waterfront, have arrived at an elevated place in our collective consciousness, a place where familiar images and scenes continue to seem urgent, to surprise us, to trigger intense feelings, reaching past the long shadows of politics and the blind wind of success or failure. Within these films we are granted, in Kazan’s words, “a final intimacy.” They are films that—again quoting Kazan—bring us face-to-face with “that genuine thing.” We watch with astonishment, and we do not feel safe.
Michael Almereyda’s films include Nadja, Hamlet, and William Eggleston in the Real World.