January 10, 2010


Karl Malden and Budd Schulberg: Naming Names (ANTHONY GIARDINA, 12/27/09, NY Times)

[M]aybe Malden never accepted the connection between the film and the chapter of American history that has ridden uncomfortably beside it. Not only Kazan but the film’s writer, Budd Schulberg (who died within a few weeks of Malden), named names to the committee before making the film. Kazan, who had a huge part in shaping the careers of Malden and Schulberg, was always open about the relationship between Terry Malloy’s turning “canary” in the film and the director’s own choice to inform. “When Brando at the end yells . . . ‘I’m glad what I done!’ ” Kazan wrote, “that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.” But Schulberg took an opposite tack, insisting that the movie was solely about the struggles of the longshoremen whose trials he witnessed. “To see the film as a metaphor for McCarthyism is to trivialize their courage,” he wrote.

A lot of very smart people have said the same thing, that this particular work of movie art should not have to suffer for the political choices of its makers. The filmmakers transcended those choices, such people argue, in making a magnificent film. But something in the way the crisis of HUAC stays with us, haunting us even 60 years after the fact, makes giving the filmmakers such an easy pass increasingly difficult. In The New Republic, David Thomson called the HUAC hearings “the crisis [that] would never fade away.” By now, the story has taken on the moral dimensions of a tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which those who informed bear the burden of a sin that has never been unambiguously termed a punishable sin. As in Hawthorne, the punishment has to land somewhere, and so it has settled on “On the Waterfront” itself. It has become virtually impossible to watch the film outside of the framework imposed by the actions of its makers.

Except, of course, that the movie makes quite clear that the sin lies in collaborating--even if only through one's silence--with evil. That is why it is only those who approve of the Communist Party USA and its fellow travelers find themselves tormented by their admiration for the film. The average American has no trouble recognizing the similarity between the corrupt union bosses and the totalitarian communists.

What's interesting is that the only other great work of art that is tied to the period carries the same message, though it was written by one who died still collaborating: Dashiell Hammet's Maltese Falcon. While Mr. Giardina is trying to associate himself with the morally repellent standard of E. M. Forster--“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country"--Sam Spade famously makes exactly the opposite choice, Kazan and Schulberg's choice, doing the morally right thing instead of the emotional (and, inevitably, wrong) one.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 10, 2010 1:32 PM
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