June 25, 2011

On the Waterfront (1954)

A rough, boorish and callous film, not always easy to approach or relate to - like many of its characters.  If the bleak, almost cheap-looking photography doesn't make the point, the music should do the rest (by Leonard Bernstein, composer of West Side Story).  It's sparse, but quite overbearing when it appears, almost to the point of absurdity.  Definitely not pretty, but it drives home the point that this is not a refined story about refined characters.  None of them are masters at what they are doing, but instead often flailing about as they take their first steps into new territory.

The plot is easy to summarize.  Dock worker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is urged to testify about a murder, both by the police and the victim's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint).  However, the criminal racket responsible for the murder is also responsible for Terry's livelihood and is the closest thing he has to a family, leaving him reluctant to stick his neck out.  The story rests on uncomfortable political ground.  While largely based on various factual events and people, it was also a clear attempt by director Elia Kazan to defend his "outing" of 8 colleagues before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which remained a sore spot with many until his death.

But of course the main reason to watch this movie is just to see Brando work.  His performance here, along with A Streetcar Named Desire in '51, represents the beginning of the method acting revolution on film  (On film, mind you.  Like Orson Welles, both Brando and Kazan had rich theater backgrounds before coming to Hollywood, which is a better place to refine such skills.).  And I definitely noticed a clear difference from acting we've seen so far.  There are frequent dialogue exchanges where he trails off or speaks in words or phrases instead of complete sentences.  Sometimes he'll start to say it one way, stop to consider, and then rephrase or simply drop it and move on.  All this is most obvious in his scenes with Edie, because she is an intelligent, educated person and he is not, and he knows it, and struggles to express himself.  He also struggles because he's unsure of what exactly he wants to express and how much.

It's not completely natural - one can see a few character "tics" that Brando may have practiced in the mirror a bit, like his characteristic shrug he does whenever he doesn't want to say any more.  And his pronounced gum chewing occasionally borders on a crutch.  But for the most part, whenever he appears to be overtly acting, it's very much the point.  What I found most brilliant about the performance is the way Brando plays Terry as someone putting on a show for the world.  Brando pretends to be Terry pretending to be the cool, aloof tough guy his associates expect him to be.  And he's almost convincing.  But around the edges we can see the uncertain, immature, gentler soul inside, who mostly just likes his pigeons and the peace and quiet up on the rooftops.  I know this is real, because I've met people just like this, who have certain phrases and mannerisms that they've learned to hide behind.  Watch his face, especially around Edie, and how much trouble he has maintaining eye contact whenever he's saying something he doesn't truly believe.

And the payoff is that we can see a clear transformation as Terry's vulnerable inner core begins to find its voice.  In the famous conversation with his brother near the end (the "I coulda been a contender" speech), the actualized Terry finally emerges fully, and his previous defensive mannerisms fall away, and his gaze becomes clear and purposeful.

Concerning the rest of the film, I appreciated the cinematography the most.  Bleak and vaguely documentary-like, the whole movie was shot on location on the docks of Hoboken, NJ - where similar events unfolded.  We haven't really seen location shooting on this level yet, and it brings a lot of authenticity to the drama.  The naturalistic realism of the shooting creates an odd balance with the contrived symbolism of the script, which keeps finding convenient ways to poetically connect the dots.  Most obvious was the jacket of the first victim, which somehow manages to be passed from whistleblower to whistleblower until at the end it almost may as well be a superhero's cowl.  There are also the pigeons Terry cares for and his former life as a champion boxer.  Once again his "friends" running the docks are asking him to take a dive.

I do have some issues with the story.  For one thing, whistleblowing is repeatedly suggested to be a deeply hurtful betrayal among the dockworkers, but given the transparent evilness with which the villains are painted, their continued allegiance gets difficult to swallow.  Showing us the psychological conflict of the workers' position is basically dumped entirely on Brando's shoulders.  The movie also takes too long to end, going on far past the courtroom scene that one might expect to be the capstone.  At first I understood, figuring the movie wanted to show that Terry's choice wasn't going to be a walk in the park and there would be negative consequences.  Which it did, and that's fine.  But then there's a bizarre confrontation with the evil boss.  I don't understand why he felt he needed that, or why the movie did.  Earlier there is an excellent and very tense climax where Terry has a gun and intends to shoot him down in revenge, but the priest intervenes and convinces him to face him in court instead.  But after the court scene he goes down to the dock to confront him again, and again it turns violent, and again violence is not the answer.  This is stupid - the movie is just repeating itself now.  After doing some reading, I learned that Terry was originally planned to be killed in an earlier draft of the screenplay.  I suspect this confrontation is when that was to happen, and they changed it by letting him live and tacking another moment of conclusion on after it.  I think this was a mistake - the scene should have simply been dropped entirely.  One might argue that its purpose is to give the other dockworkers the same moment of revelation that Terry had, but this isn't the first cold-blooded act they've witnessed, so it hardly makes sense that it would convince them where the others didn't.  The point of the movie as I saw it was that they all knew from the beginning how bad it was and that somebody should speak out - they just wanted somebody else to go first.  Once Terry testifies and lives to tell the tale, the story is over.

NEXT TIME: We've been ignoring Alfred Hitchcock for far too long.  Time to fix that.

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