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On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront(1954)

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teaser On the Waterfront (1954)

SYNOPSIS

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.

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.

Why ON THE WATERFRONT is Essential

"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 Un-American Activities Committee 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.

by Roger Fristoe and Scott McGee

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teaser On the Waterfront (1954)

Arthur Miller wrote the play The Crucible as a thinly veiled rebuke to the House on Un-American Activities Committee, its witch hunt for Communist sympathizers, and the subsequent cooperation given by several of Hollywood's leading citizens to the hysteria, including Miller's former friend and colleague, Elia Kazan. To some degree, On the Waterfront was Kazan's response to this.

In his autobiography, director Elia Kazan claimed, "There were four reasons why On the Waterfront was such a success. Brando was one of them. If there is a better performance by a man in the history of films in America, I don't know what it is. Then there was Budd's devotion and tenacity and his talent. He never backed off. I was tough and good on the streets and persisted through all difficulties. But finally there was Sam. After the casting of the main part had been settled, the rewriting process began, and it was here, above all, that Sam showed his worth."

On the Waterfront would be the last film Marlon Brando would do with Elia Kazan, having previously worked together on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Viva Zapata! (1952). However, Kazan also offered Brando roles in Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and The Arrangement (1969).

The series of articles on which On the Waterfront is based won writer Malcolm Johnson a Pulitzer Prize.

Marlon Brando based much of his characterization of Terry Malloy on a New York street kid named Al Lettieri, who would eventually become a character actor in films. He later played Sollozzo, the rival gangster whom Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) assassinates in the pizzeria in The Godfather (1972), which also starred Brando. Lettieri also made a memorable impression as a sadistic thug in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972).

by Scott McGee

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teaser On the Waterfront (1954)

Budd Schulberg based his screenplay on a series of articles that appeared in the New York Sun. Schulberg took a rather unorthodox approach to the material, "applying not a month or two, but years of my life to absorbing everything I could about the New York waterfront, becoming an habituof the West Side Manhattan and Jersey bars, interviewing longshore union leaders and getting to know the fearless and outspoken labor priests for St. Xavier's in New York's Hell's Kitchen."

It was in 1951 that director Elia Kazan suggested to Budd Schulberg that they should collaborate on a movie about the New York waterfront since they both were already in development on the same idea for a film.

Because he owed Elia Kazan a movie, 20th-Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck initially agreed to produce On the Waterfront, as a prestige project, one that he felt would earn his studio the same acclaim and respect that The Grapes of Wrath (1940) had given it fourteen years earlier. But Zanuck eventually backed out, stating that he felt it was an unworthy subject for the Technicolor canvas of the CinemaScope screen. Zanuck admitted his real thoughts about the project, however, to Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan when he complained, "Who's going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?"

After being turned down by almost every studio in town, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan eventually took their screenplay to Sam Spiegel. The tough, veteran producer was looking for a high profile film project like On the Waterfront so he jumped at the chance to produce it.

Sam Spiegel secured distribution through Columbia Studios. Writer Budd Schulberg had earlier refused to work for Columbia at all, because of his intense dislike of Harry Cohn, the studio's chief of production. However, Spiegel finagled a deal that guaranteed no interference from Cohn during the production of On the Waterfront.

Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan based the character of Terry Malloy on an actual longshoreman named Tony Mike deVincenzo, who gave up his reputation, his job, and security from the Mob's violent reprisals in order to testify before the Waterfront Crime Commission.

by Scott McGee

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teaser On the Waterfront (1954)

Nearly every scene of On the Waterfront was shot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, much to the dismay of Columbia Studios' mogul, Harry Cohn; he thought he could exercise tighter control over the picture if it was filmed in Hollywood.

One advantage to filming on location was the brutal reality of the cold, harsh winter weather which lent the production a verisimilitude that could not have been recreated on a Hollywood soundstage.

Even though he considered Elia Kazan a father figure, Marlon Brando was extremely reluctant to accept the lead role in On the Waterfront, since he harbored ill feelings towards the director for cooperating as a friendly witness before the House on Un-American Activities Committee just a year earlier.

Having just earned an Oscar and a professional comeback in the Columbia picture, From Here to Eternity (1953), Frank Sinatra was all set to play the character of Terry Malloy when producer Sam Spiegel convinced Elia Kazan, after several heated discussions, to hire Marlon Brando instead. Brando had already turned down the role several times, mostly because he did not want to work with Kazan, but producer Spiegel and screenwriter Budd Schulberg convinced him otherwise.

Frank Sinatra was extremely bitter about being passed over for the lead role in On the Waterfront and his hard feelings only increased when Sam Spiegel offered him the Father Barry part instead (despite the fact that Karl Malden had already been cast in the role). Elia Kazan, however, refused to dump Malden, and Sinatra settled the matter with a $500,000 lawsuit against Spiegel.

Marlon Brando agreed to star in On the Waterfront with one condition - that he could get off every afternoon at four o'clock to drive across the Hudson River to meet his therapist.

Producer Sam Spiegel was insistent on Schulberg delivering a perfect screenplay for On the Waterfront and harassed the writer constantly with changes and suggestions. One night, his wife awoke to find Budd shaving at three-thirty in the morning. She asked him what the hell he was doing, to which he replied, "I'm driving to New York...to kill Sam Spiegel."

Elia Kazan originally intended to shoot the famous taxicab scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in an actual cab. But producer Sam Spiegel opted instead to use a shabby old taxicab shell. When the crucial rear-projection equipment was not available to shoot the scene, cameraman Boris Kaufman had to put a small venetian blind across the window and small, flickering lights on the side of the cab to create the illusion of movement.

The famous taxicab scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando is now considered one of the great sequences in American cinema, performed by two master Method actors who partially improvised their dialogue with little to no direction from Elia Kazan.

In his autobiography, director Elia Kazan admitted having uneasy feelings about shooting on location near Mafia operated businesses and hangouts. Local hoods connected to the Costa Nostra were constantly watching the production from the sidelines and would occasionally intimidate Kazan and his crew. Kazan eventually employed an armed bodyguard, Joe Marotta, the brother of the local chief of police.

Sam Spiegel and Elia Kazan hired countless real longshoremen to play extras in the film.

Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn did not think the line "go to hell," uttered in an exchange between Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, would get pass the censors. But when the Breen Office approved the line without objection, Cohn angrily barraged their office with questions regarding the censoring of lesser offenses in previous Columbia efforts.

Upon completion, Harry Cohn predicted that the $900,000 production would tank, but On the Waterfront grossed more than $9,000,000 upon its initial release.

In his autobiography, Marlon Brando revealed his initial thoughts about his performance. "On the day (Elia Kazan) showed me the completed picture, I was so depressed by my performance I got up and left the screening room. I thought I was a huge failure, and walked out without a word to him. I was simply embarrassed for myself."

by Scott McGee

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teaser On the Waterfront (1954)

The New Yorker called On the Waterfront "the sort of galvanic movie we used to get when the Warner Brothers were riding herd on Al Capone and his associates."

The Hollywood Reporter concluded, "After so many costume dramas, it may be just what the box office needs, for On the Waterfront is so stark and gripping that it can only be compared with Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931)."

Time raved that, "Brando in this show is one glorious meathead. The gone look, the...vocabulary and the sexual arrogance are still the Brando brand of behavior. But for once the mannerism converge, like symptoms to point out the nature of the man who has them. The audience may never forget that Brando is acting, but it will know that he is doing a powerful acting job."

Life also sang the film's praises, writing "On the Waterfront is the most brutal movie of the year but it also contains the year's tenderest love scenes. Responsible for both is Marlon Brando."

The New York Times hailed it as "moviemaking of a rare and high order."

Along with Mrs. Miniver (1942), All About Eve (1950), and From Here to Eternity (1953), On the Waterfront captured Oscar nominations in all five acting categories. The film also became the first movie to have three people competing in the same Oscar category, Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb all lost to Edmond O'Brien for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

Many critics and industry insiders felt that Eva Marie Saint deserved a Best Actress nomination, but producer Sam Spiegel listed his leading lady as a supporting actress, in order to pull her out of the tight Best Actress race which included such likely winners as Grace Kelly and Judy Garland.

In addition to winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Story and Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction (Black and White), and Best Editing, On the Waterfront also garnered awards from the New York Film Critics, National Board of Review, and the Golden Globes.

On the Waterfront received the Golden Cup at the Venice Film Festival.

Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic wrote that On the Waterfront "had been criticized on several fronts: by those who are angered by its contention that the longshoremen's union was corrupt in 1954 (as suggested by the film's source, newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson); by those who consider it anti-union; and by those who are angered by how Kazan and Schulberg, two HUAC informers, manipulate viewers into admiring those who inform to the police and the government."

Author and film scholar Robert Sklar wrote "Critics continue to debate whether On the Waterfront conveys democratic values or an image of dockworkers who are passive followers of whoever leads them - the tyrannical boss or the informer. Is it a true exposr one that leaves the actual holders of corrupt power (briefly glimpsed in a quick shot of "Mr. Upstairs" during Terry's testimony) untouched? If nothing else, On the Waterfront is a monument to the artistic aspirations and the political compromises of its time."

by Scott McGee and Jeff Stafford

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teaser On the Waterfront (1954)

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

back to top