powered by AFI
The working titles of the film were Crime on the Waterfront, Bottom of the River and Waterfront. The title was changed from Waterfront just before the film's release to avoid conflict with a half-hour syndicated television series of the same name that followed the adventures of a tugboat captain. Budd Schulberg based his story and screenplay on Malcolm Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on longshoremen and union corruption, "Crime on the Waterfront," which ran from November-December 1948 in The New York Sun. According to a modern article, he wrote about the film, Schulberg did additional research on New York and New Jersey waterfronts with longshoremen and Father John Corridan (the basis for "Father Barry") of St. Xavier's Church in Manhattan, and attended the New York Waterfront Crime Hearings, which were the basis for the script's climax.
An August 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Twentieth Century-Fox was to bid for the rights to Johnson's series, which were held by independent producer Joseph Curtis, the son of Columbia vice-president Jack Cohn. A January 1951 New York Times article indicated that Schulberg was at the time writing a waterfront crime story for Curtis Monticello Film Corp., which Robert Siodmak was to direct. According to a New York Times article, in December 1952, Schulberg purchased Monticello's rights to Johnson's series and to a script Monticello was working on, then tentatively titled Bottom of the River. According to a Hollywood Reporter article, Elia Kazan agreed to direct the film by mid-April 1953. In his autobiography, Kazan stated that he was especially interested in the story because an earlier project on waterfront corruption, The Hook, on which he was working with playwright Arthur Miller for Columbia, fell through.
Because Kazan was completing a film at Fox and contractually owed them another, he and Schulberg offered head of production Darryl F. Zanuck the Waterfront script. February 1953 correspondence between Zanuck and Kazan, which was reproduced in a collection of the producer's memos, indicates the studio's concern with the story's lengthy diatribes against union corruption. Zanuck suggested other changes in the script (which at that point included "Terry Malloy" having a young teenage son) and stressed that the story needed strong box-office appeal and powerful star personalities before the studio would commit to the production. Zanuck met with Schulberg about the script and wrote Kazan that if Marlon Brando was secured for the part of Terry, the studio could justify the budget for a top production. Brando, a member of Kazan's New York Actors Studio, had worked with him in two major productions, Warner Bros. A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and Twentieth Century Fox's Viva Zapata! in 1952 (see below). A May 1953 Daily Variety item reports that writer-photographer Sam Shaw filed suit for $60,000 against Twentieth Century-Fox and Schulberg, claiming he had served as a "go-between" in the story purchase and assisted in scripting. The outcome of the suit has not been determined.
Kazan stated in his autobiography that Zanuck eventually turned down the film because it was to be shot in black and white, in standard format, not in the new CinemaScope format used extensively at Fox since its introduction in 1953. Zanuck admitted in a July 1954 letter to Kazan that "CinemaScope was responsible...for my decision against the property...We had committed ourselves to a program of spectacles." In various contemporary and modern articles and interviews about the development and production of On the Waterfront, Schulberg stated that after Zanuck's rejection, Warner Bros., M-G-M, Universal and Columbia all deemed the script too controversial and turned it down. In mid-1953, independent producer Sam Spiegel agreed to take over production and arranged distribution through United Artists. In September 1953, according to various news items, interviews and autobiographies of Kazan and Schulberg, Frank Sinatra, a native of Hoboken, NJ, where much of the film was to be shot, was approached to play Terry. Sinatra met with Kazan to discuss the role, at the same time that Spiegel was in discussions with Brando. Kazan stated that Brando returned the script twice without reading it and that Spiegel claimed to be having difficulty convincing Brando to work with Kazan because the actor objected to the director's testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. Kazan's autobiography indicates that Spiegel advised Kazan that Brando would raise more money than Sinatra, whose comeback film, Columbia's From Here to Eternity had just been released and Sinatra was officially dropped from consideration.
A modern Brando biography indicates that before the actor committed to the film, Kazan considered casting Actor's Studio alumnus Paul Newman, who at that time had not yet made a film but in February 1953 had caused a sensation on Broadway when he opened in Josh Logan's Picnic. Kazan cast the film primarily with members of The Actor's Studio, which he co-founded in the late 1940s. In addition to Brando, other members of the Actor's Studio cast included Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb. The picture marked the motion picture debut of Eva Marie Saint, who was hired just before the start of production and had until then worked only on stage and television. The film also marked the debut of character actor Martin Balsam. Kazan also hired former prizefighters "Two-Ton" Tony Galento, Abe Simon and Tami Mauriello to play mob figures working for "Johnny Friendly." Leonard Bernstein agreed to score the film after viewing a rough-cut with Kazan and Brando. It was Bernstein's only film score.
In his autobiography, Kazan claimed that during the entire location shooting on the Hoboken docks, he had a bodyguard on-set out of concern that union members might be apprehensive that the film debased their profession. Kazan noted that many longshoremen were used as extras, thus adding credibility to the scenes. A November 1953 New York Times article also indicates that a young local teen, John McComb, was signed during filming but his participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add Eddie Barr as prop man and Roger Donoghue as technical advisor.
In later years, Kazan repeatedly praised Brando for his spontaneity during filming which he felt elicited great empathy for the role of the conflicted Terry. Brando also delivered one of the most quoted lines in Hollywood history, in the "taxicab scene" in which Terry tells his brother that if "Charley" had not sold him out: "I could'a had class, I could'a been a contender, I could'a been somebody." Kazan praised Brando for insisting on adding Terry's saddened motioning away of Charley's gun before delivering the speech, something the director thought added a richer dimension of poignancy. Brando states in his autobiography that he was so distressed by what he considered a poor performance on his part, that he departed a preview screening without comment. Kazan also frequently compared Terry's action to his own decision to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
According to information contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, after reading the script, PCA officials became concerned about the level of violence contained in the film. As a result, the scenes of Terry's beating were reduced substantially. In April 1954 the MPAA Board of Directors met to discuss the controversy surrounding Terry twice telling Father Barry "go to hell." In earlier correspondence between PCA head Joseph I. Breen and the MPAA New York head Eric Johnston, Breen wrote: "The expression "Go to Hell" is not used in a casual manner, as a vulgarism, or flippant profanity. It is used seriously and with intrinsic validity..." The Board of Directors approved the phrase, which caused some protest from other studios whose similar requests had been denied.
A Hollywood Reporter November 1953 item disclosed that days before On the Waterfront was to begin shooting, UA and Spiegel parted ways over casting and budget disputes and the producer finalized a distribution deal with Columbia. The film marked the first time Spiegel used his own name onscreen rather than "S. P. Eagle." The picture opened to high critical and public praise after its July 1954 New York City premiere at the Astor Theater. The Hollywood Reporter review stated: "This brutal, violently realistic drama set against the sordid background of the New York waterfront, packs a terrific wallop that results in topflight entertainment....The story is as fresh and terrifying as today's newspaper.... Marlon Brando... delivers a performance that grabs your heart in a calloused fist and never lets go." Daily Variety described Brando's performance as "a spectacular show." New York Times called the film "an uncommonly powerful, exciting and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals" and Brando's performance "a shatteringly poignant portrait... beautiful and moving."
In April 1955, after On the Waterfront's successful release and numerous critical accolades, Sinatra filed a breach of contract suit against Spiegel and Horizon-American Corp. for $500,000 for his failure to be cast as Terry. Spiegel and the co-defendants claimed there was never any written deal with Sinatra, only an oral agreement. The outcome of the suit has not been determined. In December 1954 Anthony De Vincinzo, who Schulberg admitted was one of the many longshoremen with whom he consulted while researching the story, sued Spiegel and Columbia for $1,000,000, claiming that his rights of privacy had been invaded. The suit charged that details of De Vincinzo's life were used in the creation of Terry including his boxing past, his work as a Hoboken longshoreman and his enthusiasm for pigeons without his consent. The suit was settled out of court for $25,000 in June 1956.
The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Direction, Best Writing, Best Art Direction (b&w), Best Cinematography (b&w) and Best Editing. The film also received three nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger) and a nomination for Best Music. Two months after the Academy Award presentation, in May 1955, Monticello Film Corp. demanded that the Academy take back Budd Schulberg's writing award. According to a Hollywood Reporter item, Monticello had filed suit in October 1954 against Schulberg, Kazan, Spiegel, Horizon-American Pictures (Spiegel's company), Columbia and Malcolm Johnson, claiming that Schulberg was under their employ when he dramatized Johnson's series. The outcome of the suit has not been determined but the award remained with Schulberg. In 1998, the American Film Institute voted On the Waterfront as one of the top ten best films of the first hundred years of cinema.