Reassessing "On the Waterfront"

Last seen: 13 years ago

This week I revisited Elia Kazan’s classic tale of rats and pigeons, a film the position of which within the canon has long been fraught with controversy due to its being bound up in Kazan’s politics and his much-publicized decision to name names before HUAC in 1952.  When I last saw it as a teenager dutifully consuming the films that I was led to believe were important, it left me cold; a moody morality play about organized crime and Irish Catholic longshoremen did not appeal to me at that age, when my tastes leaned toward the lyrical, the visually bold, the anti-realistic.  Bergman, Fellini, Nicolas Roeg—these were the filmmakers who were making a profound impression on me at that time, not Elia Kazan, whose work I found stagy and even boring.  I’ve since grown to like several of Kazan’s films very much, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Baby Doll (1956), and A Face in the Crowd (1957), so I figured it was time to give On the Waterfront another chance.  

The film’s subject matter is less dull to me now than it once was, and it moves much more quickly; it’s fleet, tight, well-paced.  The historical context of the film—Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s prostration before McCarthy, which I didn’t understand or care much about as a teenager—also manages to make On the Waterfront vastly more interesting than it would otherwise be.  It also makes the film more noxious, because we soon realize while watching the film that Kazan and Schulberg’s self-justification for having betrayed their friends and Hollywood colleagues is being shoved down our throats. 

So On the Waterfront has become a more interesting film, but I’m still not sure I like it.  Its sanctimonious, self-righteous attitude, its cheap cardboard villains, its dour masculine ethos…it continues to strike me as heavy, pleasureless, humorless.  But there is one element that I have come to appreciate: the genius of Brando.  It occurred to me watching him here that you cannot understand Brando’s great, tragic performance in Last Tango in Paris without understanding the Brando of Streetcar and On the Waterfront.  It’s a great performance, one in which you can really feel the whole state of film acting begin to shift.  I didn’t really understand what classical Hollywood acting was at fifteen, couldn’t tell when it was good or bad or how it was different in 1955, after Brando and James Dean, than in 1942.  I’m more attuned now to the brilliance of both classical Hollywood acting and the new Method actors of the ’50s, to the significance of what they did.  It seems to me that much of this film’s reputation rests on Brando’s greatness.  But it seems important to me to think about the qualityor the blandnessof the movie that surrounds that performance (or those of its other great actors: Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint).  Could this be another case of great acting trapped in a bad film?  Original rating: ***  New rating: ***    

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