September 1, 2011

#19: On the Waterfront

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had quite the effect on Hollywood. I know several movies on this list were influenced by or made in direct response to communist accusations being thrown around in America in the 1950s and 1960s, but it seems like no clearer parallels can be drawn between the movie theater and McCarthyism than in Elia Kazan's biting 1954 drama On the Waterfront. You want to spit in someone's eye with a movie, you do it like Kazan and Brando do it. (slow wipe take)

Company: alone on this one again. I haven't been very good about including folks lately, but more coming up, I'm sure, as the movies get even more singular.

Cuisine: I broke down and got some hint of lime chips with queso, and a Diet Coke to wash them down. Papa needs his snacks.

The story chronicles corruption among longshoremen in New York City and the lengths men will go to in order to cover it up. The film's opening sequence details the planned murder of Joey Doyle, a popular dockworker, who's threatened to expose the corruption among the workers' union and testify before the Crime Commission against the crime boss Johnny Friendly (Oscar nominee Lee J. Cobb, such a badass). The job is carried out by a couple of goons on the roof of Joey's apartment, but Joey is tricked into going up there by his friend Terry Malloy (Oscar winner Marlon Brando, the first of his two wins and the only one he actually accepted).

Terry is a simple guy and a former boxer, but he's got integrity that drives the entire plot. Who knows how many other murders he's helped to orchestrate without even thinking about it? The only reason this one's different is because he falls for the victim's sister Edie (Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint), and as he witnesses her grief his conscience starts to plague him. What is he doing it for? He and the other workers have an unspoken D&D ("deaf and dumb") clause, vowing silence when detectives poke their nose around the docks looking for answers. Terry doesn't really understand why, but knows that he'd be an accomplice if the truth ever came out. Edie, however, has no such D&D clause for herself, and vows to find the truth. It's a complicated romance, to say the least.

It speaks volumes to the power held by Friendly, who'll bump off any man who even thinks of exposing him. At one point he laments, "ain't nobody tough any more," as possible justification for his own brand of toughness. The dockworkers are all too poor to lose their jobs, too under-qualified to find any other work, and too scared to stand up to Friendly and his goons.

Malloy's troubled conscience brings him above the rest of the plebeians on the dock when he admits to Edie his involvement in Joey's murder. Most if not all of the other men might have stayed silent, but Malloy fesses up for love. But now there's no turning back: Friendly is onto him, and it's a race to the courthouse.

An interesting element here is the score by Leonard Bernstein, his only film score not based on a musical or previous songs. Its jazz elements give a very contemporary feel to the brooding nature of the story, but at times it feels like there's too much music for what's happening, that it overshadows the action and even overdramatizes it at times. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Bernstein fan, and for the most part it works, but there are times I could have done without it.

Roger Ebert said that Brando and Kazan "changed acting" with this film, and while it's true that Brando's performance especially feels ultra-modern, I'm not sure these two men and this film can be solely credited. First of all, Brando's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, released three years earlier, felt even more primal and naturalistic, although part of that may have to do with the contrast of his acting style with Vivien Leigh's. In this film, everyone's on the same page. Saint and Cobb give incredible performances, as well as Oscar nominees Karl Malden, as a dockside priest trying to conjure morality out of the dockworkers, and Rod Steiger, as Terry's older brother Charlie, who urges him not to testify in one of the most iconic film scenes in history ("I coulda been a contender...").

But you can't argue that Brando, while on the same field, is leagues above everyone else in terms of realism. It's remarkable to watch his style, so commonplace now but so revolutionary then. Watch him talk to Edie in their strolls, how his eyes dart away so often, terrified of saying the wrong thing. It's pretty remarkable. I need to see more of his work. I do have to say too: isn't he ultra-feminine-looking in some lights? Those pouty lips: oh my god.

The conflict here is a simple one: at what price do we inform on others? What makes it worth the danger, and when (if ever) is it better to just stay silent? Kazan had identified eight former Communists in Hollywood shortly before beginning production on this film, and many see it as his answer to his critics. The film depicts the tattler as honorable and righteous, standing up to corruption. No one in their right mind would side with Friendly. In the original treatment of the script by Arthur Miller, a much darker ending sees Malloy murdered, but Kazan wanted the hero to keep his honor as he saw that he had before the HUAC.

The film is interested in depicting the fear and anxiety of knowing too much and saying too little, and the masses who push past Friendly in one final act of defiance says more than their testimonies ever could. I'm so much more intrigued by films that connect so readily to a part of history, especially when placed in a separate context. What a great topic: films that are direct metaphors for a major historical event but that have nothing to do with it plot-wise. Hmm.

Next up: The General, the only Buster Keaton film on the list -- does he deserve only one spot while the Marx Brothers get two and Charlie Chaplin hogs three? We shall see.

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