August 6, 2009


On the Waterfront: One of the most significant films in American cinema history Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront was not only a commentary on its times, but reflected the director's own crise de conscience as he turned against his former colleagues and testified to the House UnAmerican Activities hearings. (Brian Neve, 17th October 2001, American Studies Today)

In the late forties Kazan became a successful two coast director, working on both large budget social problem films and smaller budget semi-documentary films at Twentieth Century Fox, while directing the key work of Arthur Miller (All my Sons and Death of a Salesman) and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire) on Broadway. His cinematic ambitions increased as he planned a series of more independent productions, including the film version of 'Streetcar', and scripts with John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata) and Miller. 

Arthur Miller's script, The Hook, was based on a pre-war case of rank and file action against six Brooklyn ILA locals which had been long been controlled by notorious criminals, including members of the Anastasia family. When Kazan and Miller proposed the script to Columbia Pictures in 1951 there were political objections which may have contributed to Miller's withdrawal - to Kazan unnecessary - from the project. Meanwhile the novelist Budd Schulberg, who had also been a Communist party member in the thirties (1937-1940), had begun researching his own waterfront script, in particular by talking extensively to Father Corridan and a number of rebel longshoremen including Tony Mike deVincenzo, who had testified to the New York Crime Commission and declared himself 'proud to be a rat'. When Kazan contacted Schulberg the writer worked up a script which was offered to and rejected by all the major studios; only with the support of the independent producer Sam Spiegel, whose previous films included The African Queen (1951), did the production proceed, with filming beginning on location in Hoboken in the bitter winter of 1953. 

Before the film went ahead both Kazan and Schulberg had been involved in appearances before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had begun a second series of hearings in 1951. The Committee, working with FBI information, called before it individuals who had a Communist Party record, and some fellow-travellers. In the late forties witnesses who had refused to answer questions on the basis of the first amendment to the Constitution (the 'Hollywood Ten') had served periods of up to a year in prison. In the new hearings witnesses who declined to answer questions about their political pasts needed to plead the fifth amendment, but such action led to their being blacklisted in the film, television and radio industries. Kazan, who had previously stated that he would refuse to testify, 'named names' before the Committee in April 1952, to the shock of his friends and admirers. (He named those fellow members of a Communist Party cell in the Group theatre). Budd Schulberg had similarly been a 'co-operative witness' in 1951. [...]

On the Waterfront presents the labour conflict and corruption of the time in terms of the experiences of one docker, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who begins to have doubts about his life from the moment he is forced by his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and by Johnny Friendy (Lee J. Cobb), the leading officials of the union local, to set up someone to be murdered. The man had been talking to the Crime Commission, and with this opening scene the film introduces the notion that such testimony is considered to be informing, 'ratting on your friends' by the men and particularly the union bosses.

What is presented as Molloy's moral reawakening is encouraged first by Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the man killed, and then by Father Barry (Karl Malden), the 'waterfront priest' character. Terry's dilemma remains the pivot of the film, in part because of the emphasis of the script, which itself fits Hollywood's own preference for individual heroes, but also because of the power and originality of Brando's performance. Only with the murder of Charley, following a taxi cab journey in which he fails to get his brother to 'dummy up' (ie not to testify to the commission), does the tension drop. Now Terry's testimony to the commission can be seen as revenge for his brother's death, and after Terry gives evidence against the union leaders he goes down to the dock to take his revenge personally on Johnny Friendly. [...]

The way Terry is shunned by the boy from his old rooftop gang, following his appearance before the Crime Commission, reflects Kazan's own experiences following his testimony. Kazan's desire to justify himself pushes him in the film to change the context of informing: Terry Malloy testifies of murder, while Kazan named fellow members of the Communist Party cell that he belonged to sixteen years before, and left acrimoniously. When Terry approaches the union shack and tells Friendly that he is 'glad what I done to you', there is clearly a sense of Kazan's feelings about the Communist Party.

Terry's final walk to work, following his fight with Johnny Friendly, was seen by the British film director Lindsay Anderson as fascist, involving a sudden transfer of loyalty to a new leader by the watching, apathetic crowd. Although the 'walk', with its suggestions of religious symbolism, overstates the sense that there has been real change On the Waterfront, Malloy hardly behaves as a leader, while Friendly is seen shouting that he will be back, and the men are shown to be little more than cautiously admiring of Terry's exhibition of his old boxing skills.

Kind of reminds one of the infamous Stalin quote: "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Terry Malloy has a more legitimate reason to testify because of one murder than Schulberg and Kazan who had been members of an organization that murdered millions?

[originally posted: 3/22/04]

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2009 12:55 AM
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