Top 100 Movie Review: No. 014 – On the Waterfront (1954)

Ranked 014 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched movie during July 2020.

Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley “the Gent” Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), Pat Henning (Timothy J. “Kayo” Dugan), John F. Hamilton (“Pop” Doyle)
Directors: Elia Kazan
My rating: 8.0 / 10

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a former boxer now dockworker who under instructions coaxes Joey Doyle, a popular dockworker who has been speaking to the Waterfront Crime Commission, into an ambush which kills Joey thus preventing Joey from testifying against local union leader and mob connected Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry assumed that Friendly’s enforcers were only going to “lean” on Joey to pressure him into silence, and is surprised when Joey is killed.  Terry’s brother, Charley “the Gent” (Rod Steiger) and Friendly’s right-hand man, says maybe Joey forced them to throw him off the roof.

Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), angry about her brother’s death, shames “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) into taking action against the mob-controlled union. Friendly sends Terry to attend and inform on a dockworkers’ meeting Father Barry holds in the church, which is broken up by Friendly’s men. Terry helps Edie escape the violence, and is smitten with her. Another dockworker, Timothy J. “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify after Father Barry promises unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.

Although Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey’s death, and despite Father Barry’s impassioned “sermon on the docks” reminding the longshoremen that Christ walks among them and that every murder is a crucifixion, Terry is at first willing to remain “D and D” (deaf and dumb), even when subpoenaed to testify. However, when Edie, unaware of Terry’s role in her brother’s death, begins to return Terry’s feelings, Terry is tormented by his awakening conscience and confesses the circumstances of Joey’s death to Father Barry and Edie. Horrified, Edie breaks up with him.

As Terry increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry, offering him a good job where he can receive kickbacks without any physical work, and finally threatens Terry by holding a gun against him, but recognises that he has failed to sway Terry, who blames his own downward spiral on his well-off brother.

Terry reminds Charley that had it not been for the fixed fight, Terry’s prizefighting career would have bloomed. “I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody”, laments Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.” Charley gives Terry the gun, and advises him to run.

Terry flees to Edie’s apartment, where she refuses to let him in but he forces the door.  After Terry kisses her Edie admits her love for him. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered that night near the apartment and his body hung in an alley as bait to lure Terry out to his death, but Terry and Edie both escape the attempt on Terry’s life.

After finding Charley’s body, Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry prevents it by blocking Terry’s line of fire and convincing Terry to fight Friendly by testifying in court instead. Terry proceeds to give damaging testimony implicating Friendly in Joey’s murder and other illegal activities, causing Friendly’s mob boss to cut him off and Friendly to face indictment.

After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Terry is shunned by his former friends and by a neighbourhood boy who had previously looked up to him.

Refusing Edie’s suggestion that they move far away from the waterfront together, Terry shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry openly confronts Friendly, calling him out and proclaiming that he is proud of what he did. The confrontation develops into a vicious brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly’s thugs gang up on Terry and nearly beat him to death.

The dockworkers, who witness the confrontation, show their support for Terry by refusing to work, unless Terry is working, too, and pushing Friendly into the river. Encouraged by Father Barry and Edie, the badly injured Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other workers. A soaking wet and face-scarred Friendly, now left with nothing, swears revenge on them all, but his threats fall on deaf ears as they enter the garage, and the door closes behind them.

What’s to Like
The acting, the conflicted lead (Terry Malloy), the story of corruption.

What’s not to Like
The scene with Terry forcing his way into Edie’s apartment, refusing to leave and then forcibly kissing her is a little problematic, in the film she likes the forced kiss but in real life it would be breaking and entering and assault.  

The film shows how the mob used unions to commitment crimes and actually hurt the men they supposedly represented.  The film is partly based on actual events. The local union leaders punish anyone who stands against them from simply denying individuals work, to lending them money to have financial pressure over the workers, to physical assault and finally murder.  Those who comply are given the best working opportunities.  The corrupt leaders get away with their actions as the majority won’t stand together, ironically this is why unions exist to stand up to unfair employers or practises.

The film explores the concept of family though blood and though choice.  Terry follows his brother Charley’s direction to throw a fight which kills Terry’s boxing career because Charley puts his crime ‘family’ first, it’s only at the end Charley puts Terry first.  The film also shows the brotherhood of silence and how this ultimately protects the guilty and not the innocent and is rarely good for those without power.

Eva Marie Saint’s character (Edie) is mostly a fierce independent woman standing up to the mob wanting justice for her brother Joey’s death however her falling in love with the individual who lead to his death is difficult to understand.  An enjoyable movie the makes you question loyalty and what you would do in the same situation.  

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Marlon Brando) – winner
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint) – winner
  • Best Director (Elia Kazan) – winner
  • Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – winner
  • Best Cinematography, Black-and-White – winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White – winner
  • Best Film Editing – winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Lee J. Cobb) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Karl Malden) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Rod Steiger) – nominee
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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