On the Waterfront, 1954, Elia Kazan
Waterfront Week was quite an experiment. This is not something I’ve done before but I’ll most likely do it again for important films as they come along.
Here are the posts from the week:
Kazan Naming Names – This is about Elia Kazan’s experiences with the HUAC and how the film is partly autobiographical.
The Great Performances – The film had arguably the best ensemble, and many (including me) would say had the greatest performance of all time. This piece talks about all of the major actors.
My Favorite Classic Movie – After a week of analysis, this is my summary as to whether this stands up as one of the greats of classic cinema.
Film Rating: 10/10
Commentary: This is one of the rare occasions where I did not listen to the commentary for this release. The reason? I’ve already heard it. This is the same one from the older DVD. Of course it has probably been 15-20 years since I heard Richard Schickel and Jeff Young talking about the movie. I remember good things and it most likely enhanced my appreciation.
Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones: 2012 interview with the pair who had together made the documentary A Letter to Elia.
Scorsese had a connection with this period of American cinema because it reflected the world in which he lived and grew up. Other movies were still just generally correct. On the Waterfront and Kazan films captured the realism.
They talk about the how the performances moved them and, of course, the HUAC. The part that relates to Kazan’s testimony is the least convincing to Scorsese. He was not aware of the political situation when he first saw it, although he knew the paranoia and controversy from growing up during the time.
Elia Kazan: An Outsider: 1982 documentary directed by Annie Tresgot.
This documentary has Kazan primarily telling his own story. It starts with a house in CT that he acquired in 1939 through his acting. He then got another role, another piece of property, and became a director. He joked that his Greek background had taught him to buy land for security, and once he had that, he could take risks.
He talks about his origins in theater with the Strasberg school, calling it essentially human, rooted in psychoanalysis where people train themselves to be in control of their emotions. Objects are essential.
He reflects on his life as a Communist and the HUAC. He recalls the specifics of how he was voted out of the party (22-2). Afterward he had still been enamored with Soviet Union until the truth of what they had been doing came out, especially the German pact.
He says he was not pressured to testify, but instead had conviction. Solzhenitsyn’s and Kruschev’s books had a major effect on him. The experience changed his life and toughened him. Even though he was in pain from the alienation, his films got better after he testified.
”I’m Standin’ Over Here Now”: 2012 Criterion documentary that has interviews with a number of Kazan scholars and film historians.
He began his theater career with Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of My Teeth,” yet later directed Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. One difference between he and other theater directors is that he would engage with the playwright’s on the creation of the play.
The first draft of anything resembling Waterfront was Arthur Miller’s “The Hook” about gangsters in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The studios got cold feet because of Miller’s communism. Miller left project.
Boris Kaufman was chosen as cinematographer. He had worked with Jean Vigo and others, and was chosen because they wanted images of realism. Kaufman and Kazan had a great rapport and cohesion with each other.
As for the allegory of the HUAC controversy and Kazan’s testimony, most people at the time did not make the connection. They say most people today do not make the connection because the time is past (Of course I disagree). Kazan said belligerently that it was about his testimony because he was proud. Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter, argued that it had nothing to do with either testimony, that it was based on a true story.
Eva Marie Saint: 2012 Criterion Interview.
Her routine during the film was that of a housewife. She would go home, make dinner, go to work, come back home, etc. Previously to the film, she and Brando had done improvisations before, but had not acted together before. She was shy about doing the love scene while wearing a slip on camera, but Brando took her aside and whispered “Jeff” – her husband’s name. It worked and she was relaxed.
Elia Kazan: 2001 Interview with Richard Schickel.
Kazan humbly calls it a wonderful screenplay with a wonderful actor, and that’s why it worked. It was a great experience for him and the closest he came to making a film exactly as he wanted.
He talks about the cab scene and how it has become so popular. He takes no credit. All he did was take the two characters in the backseat of a barely assembled set. They knew the characters and they made the scene.
Thomas Hanley 2012 Criterion interview with child actor from the pigeons. His story was interesting because he retired from acting and became a longshoreman. He was the real deal.
His father was killed and was no saint, but he was never sure why. During the emotional scene, Kazan irked him by suggesting his father was killed for squealing. This was before he did the “pigeon for a pigeon” scene, otherwise he would have tried to portray his character with more toughness.
His career choice was to go on the waterfront or enter a life of crime. He forged his documents, got his coast guard pass, and passed through the waterfront boards.
The reality on the docks were as portrayed in the movie. People didn’t squeal. People got killed. Mobster activity existed, but eventually they would rat on each other. Because of this double standard, now Hanley has no qualms with informing to police.
Who is Mr. Big? 2012 Criterion interview with James T. Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront, about the historical basis for the film.
Irish immigrants that came over in the 1820-30s had limited opportunities. Many worked on the docks out of necessity because of danger and it wasn’t a job in demand. They made it their own and achieved political power. Bill McKormick and his family controlled all the ports by early 20th century. McCormick came to be known as “Mr. Big.” People were taken care of as long as they accepted the system, which was not beneficial to them. They had low wages, danger, just as it was portrayed in the movie.
Father Phil Carey tried to achieve social justice for these employees. He received intimidating calls immediately and was warned to stay away. He was even intimidated by the monsignor.
John Corridan was an assistant to Carey who held similar convictions. He spent two years studying the waterfront. He understood the system, bosses, etc. There was a journalist at that time named Malcolm Johnson doing some investigative reporting. Corridan spilled everything to the journalist and blew up the waterfront. Johnson won the Pulitzer and Corridan became a celebrity.
Contender: Mastering the Method: 2001 documentary about the famous scene.
Rod Steiger, James Lipton and others were interviewed.
They really had a makeshift set, which half a taxi, a steering wheel and a seat for a driver. This was a way of cost-cutting. Brando was upset because there was no rear projection, so the instead used blinds because they had seen that in other taxis.
There were three shots. One was straight on both actors together, and then they shot from each actor’s perspective. Brando left for an analyst appointment while Steiger was shooting his part. This bothered Steiger and he wanted to prove himself. That’s part of the reason why he feels he brought such a goof performance.
Strangely enough, Brando did not think he was good in the film. Although a brilliant actor, personally the man was an enigma.
Leonard Bernstein’s Score: 2012 video essay for Criterion featuring Jon Burlingame.
They wanted Bernstein for his star power, not for what he could bring to the movie. He had never scored a film before.
It was rare for the time to start with a single instrument, which was a lone French horn with a few other quiet instruments gradually joining in. Bernstein called it “a quiet representation of the element of tragic mobility that underlies the surface of the main character.”
He composed numerous themes, including ones for Terry Malloy, violent scenes, and the love (or “glove”) scene. He also was able to add music for the cab scene, which was initially going to be played without music. Bernstein’s score begins when gun is pushed away. It is similar to the earlier, sad dirge used at the cargo scene.
Was there too much music? Schulberg said that at times it seemed loud, but he loved the score. The critics loved the score as well, although it lost to The High and Mighty, possibly because Bernstein was not part of the Hollywood industry. The music for On the Waterfront is remembered now far more than any of the nominees.
On the Aspect Ratio: Initially it was projected at 1:85. This was during the origins of the transformation from 1:33, so camera operators framed for both aspect ratios as a way to protect and make sure the film could be seen somewhat correctly in all theaters.
There has been a debate as to which should be the correct aspect ratio. 1:66 is the most common and is on the primary disc. The movie changes at 1:85, with some things being cropped. During the cab scene, the zoom is even more intense and sometimes the faces fall out of the frame during close-ups.
The Criterion disc has all aspect ratios available to watch. Needless to say I did not watch the movie three times for each ratio, but next time I may try a different one.
Even without watching the commentary, this disc has the most supplements that I’ve seen (yet) on a release. It is a worthwhile package that does justice to an historical film.
Criterion Rating: 10/10
On the Waterfront: Kazan Naming Names
Elia Kazan was and still is a controversial figure. Below is a video from his 2008 Academy Awards Lifetime Achievement presentation. Scroll to the 1:15 mark where Kazan walks out on stage. You’ll hear applause and see some people standing, like Warren Beatty who cheers effusively. As for those that remain seated, of which there are many, some politely applaud. There is a candid shot of Ed Harris, seated with his wife, Amy Madigan, looking sullen and offended. Nick Nolte had similar body language, showing no respect for the embattled Director.
People are not protesting his talent, innovation or creativity. They are protesting his actions and politics from what he did 56 years prior. To many in Hollywood, Elia Kazan did the unspeakable. He named names during one of the most volatile periods in film history, not to mention American history. The red scare and McCarthyism reared its ugly head, tried to root out undesirables who were influencing decent Americans, and blacklisted those who had any involvement, real or imagined, with the Communist Party.
Even today, after all these decades have passed, the wound has not healed in Hollywood. They will never forget how the political period ruined careers and even lives. Some in the industry stood in solidarity, most notably the Hollywood 10 who refused to testify. Others caved, named names, and were able to continue working. Elia Kazan was part of the latter category. It does not matter that the people he named had already been named. He betrayed the people who were buried for their beliefs and saved his career by doing so.
I’m not here to defend Kazan’s actions, although to an extent, I can understand why he made the decisions he made. He was in a situation where he could choose not to cooperate and be blacklisted. He loved making movies. He had already been acclaimed for films such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Gentleman’s Agreement. He was just coming off a major success with A Streetcar Named Desire, which had won four Oscars, including three of the four acting categories (many think it should have been a clean sweep, but Brando lost to Bogart for The African Queen). Kazan had proven to be an exceptional director, and the last thing he wanted was stop working in the industry.
He was no left-wing sympathizer either. He is quoted as saying “What the hell am I giving all this up for? To defend a secrecy I didn’t think right and to defend people who’d already been named or soon would be by someone else? I said I’d hated the Communists for many years and didn’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them.” He named names, continued working, and a couple years later produced arguably his finest film, which was itself a defense against his actions.
Enter Terry Malloy ….
In On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy inadvertently participates in a wicked crime. In his mind, he was doing his “friends” at the Longshoremen Union a favor by setting them up to speak to his friend Joey, who had already spoken out against the Union. They went against their word to Terry, and he was not fine with that. “He wasn’t a bad kid, that Joey,” he appeals to them later, wondering why they did such a thing. However dismayed, speaking out was not an option. One of the witnesses says “Keep quiet. You’ll live longer.”
Terry Malloy wrestles with his demons just as Elia Kazan must have wrestled with his. Malloy hated the Union. Kazan hated the Communists. Admittedly, Kazan took it quite a bit further. The Communists were not murdering people, but during the mindset of the time, the rhetoric against the Communists from the political right was scathing. They were seen as absolute scum, deserving of anything they got. Kazan most likely saw things in Hollywood that he didn’t approve of, just like Terry Malloy, and he may not have felt comfortable looking the other way.
There is no question that On the Waterfront is Kazan’s answer for his behavior. He is rationalizing the fact that he spoke out against what he felt was wrong. History was not on his side, and I frankly think he did the wrong thing, but I cannot blame him. In hindsight, we know that people who did not cooperate were able to eventually work again, although for some that was after years of being out of the industry. Some never did work again. Kazan inevitably would have, and we know from history that it would have been sooner rather than later.
Some of those in the Hollywood 10 were successful, some not. None of their stars had risen anywhere close to where Kazan’s was at the time. He would have been the highest profile witness to defy the committee, and there is no telling what consequences he would have suffered. What would you have done in a similar situation?
There are a number of similarities between the fiction and the reality. The reality was that Kazan was served with a subpoena from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) against his will and had to do some serious soul searching as to how to testify. In the end, he decided to name eight people who had already been named. One of the names, Paula Strasberg (wife of Lee), actually permitted Kazan to name her. She was out of the industry so it made no difference.
The fiction was that Malloy was a longshoreman who had worked under the protection of a corrupt Union, and after the Joey incident, was served a subpoena to testify to the Federal Crime Commission. This was not the police. It was a committee that was investigating crime on the waterfront because, as one of those pursuing Malloy says, “the public has a right to know.” There would be consequences to those named at the hearing, we would learn later, but they were not immediate. Down the road they would likely be served with an indictment. Just like the HUAC, the Federal Crime Commission had no actual authority to arrest. They existed merely to weed out and showcase those who were compromising public order.
There are many differences, and Kazan clearly took license with his own situation. Malloy suffered personal tragedies, whereas Kazan’s only risk was professional. He is not literally saying that the Communists, Hollywood Unions, or any individuals were committing violent crimes. By this point, he had become adept at using metaphor, even something as heavy handed as corruption. However, by making such a bold and drastic comparison, he is saying that they are unequivocally wrong. The Commission is right, and by cleaning up the docks, the workers will no longer be victims.
After his testimony, Malloy is rejected by all but those closest to him. People walk by without acknowledging him. A former kid “friend” even kills all his pigeons. He is ridiculed, humiliated, and devastated. Rather than take it on the chin as he did during his boxing career, Mallow does what Kazan did not. He heads to the docks to face his critics. He lets them do their thing, and then he speaks out against those he named. He rails against them for their corruption, for keeping the longshoremen down. He boldly proclaims that “I’m glad what I’ve done! I’m glad what I’ve done!”
Elia Kazan was stubborn to a tee. After his HUAC testimony, he was crucified by his industry. He was shunned just like Malloy was, but he kept working. Malloy also kept working. Kazan most likely wished circumstances had not placed him in this position, but given the hand he was drawn, he might have also said “I’m glad what I’ve done!” Even at the Oscar ceremony in the video above, had he been so bold, he might have said that. Instead, he decided to “slip away,” as he put it.
On the Waterfront is a great film for a lot of reasons. The acting is revolutionary, which I’ll talk about soon. Another key reason is because this was a film of passion from Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, who had also named names. There have been a number of passion projects with themes and conclusions that I have not agreed with, but when the passion is felt on screen through good writing and splendid performances, it is almost always a work of significance. On the Waterfront is Kazan’s explanation for what he did, and exclamation at those who judged him harshly. There is no denying that it is a thing of beauty.
Elia Kazan: A Life, Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan, Richard Schickel