My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: On the Waterfront
Over the last week, I’ve dedicated myself to re-evaluating a single film for Classic Film and TV Cafe’s “My Favorite Classic Movie” Blogathon. This is the official post for my choice of film, but I’ve already written about the film at length. I began the week introducing this adventure that I dubbed “Waterfront Week.” I then explored the history of the HUAC and how Elia Kazan’s testimony materializes in the plot in Kazan Naming Names. Finally, and most importantly, I looked at The Great Performances in On the Waterfront. Since the acting is the most groundbreaking aspect of the film, the latter was the post that I dedicated the most time and energy towards. If I were to recommend reading one post on the topic, that would be the one.
One thing I wondered at the start of this revisitation was whether the film would resonate as well upon yet another viewing and deeper exploration. The answer is an enthusiastic and emphatic YES. Even though I had already seen the movie a few times before, including seeing the Contender scene probably a dozen times, I still found myself as engaged as every other time, perhaps even more so thanks to the wealth of extra materials on the Criterion release.
On the Waterfront is among my favorite movies of all time. If I had to cobble together a list, my guess is it would be in my top ten or top five. It is in the conversation for my favorite American film of all time. At the moment I cannot think of many American films that comes close. Of course Citizen Kane, Sunset Blvd, The Third Man and others are in the conversation. On the Waterfront belongs right with them, but it is also different. You cannot compare it with Kane, which was more groundbreaking with cinematography and artistic narrative. Kane has a realism and humanism that so many films lack.
It stands on its own because it is an investigation of the human spirit. We can identify with Terry Malloy because we are him. I don’t care who or how successful you are, you’ve had your low points, regrets, and someone in your life has let you down. There are several occasions in my own life where I can relate to Malloy’s predicament. Part of the reason it works so well is because it is such a realistic portrayal of someone who has come to terms with his life’s disappointment, and decided to take action against those who kept him and others like him down. T
We adore Terry not just because he is one of us, but because through Marlon Brando, he is both charismatic and naive. He is an everyman that has walked the tightrope when it comes to his own morality. He has participated, directly or indirectly, in a corrupt system for most of his life, unaware or perhaps in denial how monstrous the system actually was. His slap in the face is the murder of his friend, the effect that had on the family, including a love interest, and the fact that his brother has some involvement with the criminals. His brother is the major obstacle between him doing the right thing or continuing to live his life of blissful ignorance.
The taxi cab scene is so effective because it is the pivotal moment of realization for both characters. Terry realizes that if the system prompted his Charley to threaten him with a gun, then that system isn’t worth saving. His brother understands that it was, in fact, him that let Terry down. He did compromise long-term success for short-term gains for his cronies. During those few minutes, they reconcile a lingering issue that had transformed both of their lives.
When Rod Steiger exhales and looks away after putting the gun away, you know the situation has forever changed. The ending, however spectacular, is inevitable. Again, we like Terry for being relatable, but we admire him for being brave and going against the criminals. I’ve had some brave moments, but I cannot say that I’d do the same thing in his shoes.
On the Waterfront is one of my favorite classic movies of all time. Thanks again to Rick at Classic Film & TV Cafe for planting this seed.
There will be one more post where I evaluate the Criterion release, and next week I’ll move on to other films.