On the Waterfront (1954)

Directed by Elia Kazan


There’s a story behind On the Waterfront, that Terry Malloy’s guilt (Marlon Brando) is Elia Kazan’s guilt.  Kazan testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, giving them the names of eight people suspected of being communists, and though he adamantly defended his decision, many people were highly critical.  When Kazan was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, there were protests outside the theatre and famous attendees who refused to acknowledge him.

On The Waterfront is a thinly veiled story of Kazan’s decision.  You might look at it from the perspective that Terry Malloy is atoning for something he knows was wrong, thus a sort of confession on Kazan’s part, or you might see Malloy’s decision to turn on the mob (led by Lee J. Cobb) as a representation of what Kazan thought he was doing.  Is he the victim or a self-aware flawed human being?

In the context of this film, Malloy is almost purely perfect, even despite his past crimes, all of which can be traced to his mistreatment and manipulation at the hands of his older brother.  Malloy’s haunted expressions make him even more heroic.  Like the other dockworkers, he is complicit with the dealings of the mob because they control who works and who doesn’t.  Like all the other workers, Malloy doesn’t speak out on the mob’s activity because it would jeopardize his own life.

But when a friend, Joey Doyle, is killed, Terry starts to think.  He quickly falls in love with Joey’s sister,  Edie and is convinced to do the right thing.  It’s almost a wonder that Terry could ever have been as complicit as we’re told he has been because after Joey’s death, Terry becomes something like Jesus Christ.  He essentially dies for the other dockworkers’ sins, at least metaphorically.

Terry is the hero, and the opposition, the mob, is a large and absurdly villainous force.  Everyone knows they’re bad, but no one acts simply out of fear.  It’s Terry who takes a stand, giving his brother that famous “I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody” speech when his brother reveals that he’s tasked with killing him.  Terry is heartbroken by the world around him, and he labels himself as the victim, hardly acknowledging his own culpability in this widespread problem.

The only reason Terry really takes a stand is because he’s in love with Edie who wouldn’t be able to look at him if he did anything else.  When Terry’s brother, Charley, is killed for refusing to kill Terry, he decides he’s had enough.  A priest convinces him to testify against the mob leader, Johnny Friendly (Cobb), and Friendly calls him a dead man.  The rest of the dockworkers, afraid to touch Terry with a ten foot pole for fear of being associated with a dead man walking, avoid him.

Terry’s at his lowest point, so he decides there’s nothing left to do but head down to the docks and confront Friendly, shouting, “…I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that?”  Even when everyone around him turns their backs, Terry doesn’t back down.  As an audience, we know he’s right within the context of this story, but the question kind of has to be whether Elia Kazan himself considers what he did, his testimony, to be on par with what Terry has done?

Kazan presents the opposition to be a fearful hive mind, one we recognize as truly despicable.  The other possibility is that Kazan presents his own testimony in the same vein as Terry’s silence on the mob dealings before he finally does the right thing?  Is Kazan criticizing himself, owning up for what he did?  Or is he doubling down, drawing a line of comparison between the mob mentality and the people who derided his testimony to the HUAC?

It’s hard not to keep in mind this real world context while watching this film if only because there are so many similarities.  And beyond that, the reception to this film is just as fascinating.  Despite the criticism of Kazan’s actions, On the Waterfront was nominated for twelve oscars, winning eight, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay.  It cleaned up, is what I’m saying.

But if so many people were critical of Kazan, the awards bestowed onto this film suggest they are capable of overlooking someone’s personal views and focusing on their work.  It’s the same reason someone like Mel Gibson can get nominated for an Oscar for Hacksaw Ridge despite his tumultuous, anti-semitic views expressed in the past and, even more glaringly, despite the atrocity that is Hacksaw Ridge as a movie.

There are also the allegations made against Casey Affleck who won Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea and faced a quiet protest by many people in attendance.  There’s even someone like Marion Cotillard who has received several awards nominations, and not that this is reason for her not to be nominated, but she questions the truth of the September 11th attacks as well as the moon landing.¹

The point is that we seem to be in agreement, at least when it comes to awards recognition, that you should separate the person from the art.  And I suppose I do the same thing.  I mean, how can you be an NFL fan today?  Every other player has some crazy charge against them if not something more substantial.  It’s like playing bingo with the terms “gun charge,” “history of abuse,” and “DUI.”

On the Waterfront is a very well-made movie.  It’s engaging, with fantastic performances full of energy, vulnerability and pain.  Brando does a tremendous job as Terry Malloy.  He’s both cocky and haunted.  Lee J. Cobb, as Johnny Friendly, is equally as fantastic even though the character he plays has less to work with.  He’s the typical bad guy, the one who is firm in his beliefs only because it benefits him.  Cobb played a similar role in 12 Angry Men, and he just has the right voice and face for these types of roles.

This film is one of those movies that might be misunderstood only because of the ridiculous fame of that Brando speech with about thirty minutes left in the movie.  You know this is a character who has regrets, but you don’t know why.  The degree to which Terry is the victim feels a little misleading too, because after watching this movie, and learning of the historical context, I can’t help but see Terry Malloy as someone who has hardly owned up to his actions, even if it does get him beaten to a pulp in the end.  He is punished for those earlier actions, but his character never has to do anything to convince the audience to join his side.  He might as well be a saint.

I also think that Malloy, in this way, acting with more self-involvement than we’re initially led to believe, makes his character more complex.  This idea of a protagonist playing the victim card comes back in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which ends with an older, wilting Jake LaMotta reciting the famous Brando speech to himself in the mirror before a publicity appearance.  The scene makes it clear that LaMotta, a despicable character prone to violence, sees himself as the victim, even though we see him as quite the opposite.  Then, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams similarly practices a speech to himself in the mirror, calling back to Raging Bull.  Though this 1997 movie is further removed from On the Waterfront, the subtext is still there, of a man who has experienced a severe fall from grace but avoids acknowledging his own role in that fall.

Terry Malloy, like LaMotta and Eddie Adams, is the victim.  The only difference is that the movie agrees with him while the latter two undercut the protagonist’s perspective, keeping him honest.  Kazan’s agreement with his protagonist’s plight feels like a justification for his own behavior, and thus the movie feels a little flawed, a little more subjective.  The entire story is presented through the lens of an anguished, ridiculed person, but maybe that perspective, whether right or wrong, adds more to the film.  Kazan feels what Malloy feels, presumably.  You don’t have to agree with him to like the movie, but it’s important to keep in mind the outside factors that go into creating a film. Movies rarely exist in a vacuum.


  1. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/09/20/a_primer_on_the_philosophies_of_marion_cotillard_no_this_has_nothing_to.html

Further Reading, which explains the situation better than I ever could: https://theamericanscholar.org/the-director-who-named-names/#

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