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Ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) earns an inconsequential living working for waterfront crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). But when he unwittingly lures a rebellious dockworker to his death, Malloy suffers pangs of guilt. Through the love of Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the murdered man's sister, and the support of Father Barry (Karl Malden), a crime-fighting priest, Terry finds the moral courage to stand up to Friendly and his goons and accept the violent consequences of his decision.
"The finest thing ever done by an American film actor" was how director Elia Kazan has characterized the performance of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), the classic tale of crime and corruption among unionized dock workers in New York and New Jersey. Brando plays Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer turned longshoreman who witnesses a murder arranged by a union boss and agrees to testify before the Crime Commission.
Kazan, in developing the film from Malcolm Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning articles, originally asked playwright Arthur Miller to write the screenplay. When Miller refused, reportedly because of Kazan's testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that had implicated others as Communist sympathizers, Kazan turned to novelist/screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who also had "named names" for the Committee. Brando later wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, that On the Waterfront "was really a metaphorical argument" by Kazan and Schulberg: "They made the film to justify finking on their friends. Evidently, as Terry Malloy, I represented the spirit of the brave, courageous man who defied evil."
Frank Sinatra, who had been Kazan's original choice to play Terry, sued producer Sam Spiegel for breach of contract after Brando was cast instead, and retained bitter feelings for Brando that surfaced when the two co-starred a year later in Guys and Dolls (1955) - with Brando once again in a role that Sinatra coveted. Kazan had considered Grace Kelly and Rosemary Clooney for the role eventually filled by Saint in her film debut. Rod Steiger, who played Terry's weasel-like brother, shares Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" scene in the taxicab. Steiger also felt a certain bitterness toward Brando because the latter bolted from the set when his portion of that scene was completed, leaving Steiger to play his close-ups to a stand-in.
On the Waterfront won eight Oscars - for Best Picture, Director (Kazan), Actor (Brando), Supporting Actress (Saint), Screenplay (Schulberg), Black-and-White Cinematography, Art Direction/Set Decoration and Editing. No less than three of the film's supporting actors - Cobb, Steiger and Karl Malden, as a priest - were nominated, but the Oscar in that category went to Edmond O'Brien for The Barefoot Contessa. Leonard Bernstein also was nominated for the film's score, his first. Kazan's testimony for the HUAC remained a controversial issue in 1998, when he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar®.
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg, from articles by Malcolm Johnson
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Art Direction: Richard Day
Editing: Gene Milford
Original Music: Leonard Bernstein
Principal Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley "The Gent" Malloy), Pat Henning (Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan), Leif Erickson (Glover, Crime Commission), James Westerfield (Big Mac).
BW-108m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe and Scott McGee