3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Hollywood Acting Masterclass,
This review is from: On the Waterfront [DVD] (1954) (DVD)
Elia Kazan's 1954 masterpiece of New York dockland crime and corruption is a true Hollywood classic (back in the days when such a concept wasn't a rarity) and contains some of the finest acting performances to originate from that bygone era. The film rightly won eight Oscars, including that for Best Film, Best Director (Kazan) and Best Actor (Marlon Brando).
The film's main protagonist Terry Malloy (Brando) is torn between, on the one hand, his loyalty to the dockland 'mafia gang' run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb), whose members include chief henchman Charley (Terry's brother played by Rod Steiger), and, on the other hand, his burgeoning love for dockland new arrival Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), whose brother Joey has recently been murdered by Friendly's gang. At the prompting of local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) Terry is persuaded to testify in court against Friendly's gang with predictably tragic consequences.
In addition to Brando's career-best performance, there are also outstanding performances from Karl Malden (nominated for Best Supporting Actor) and a remarkably assured film debut performance from Eva Marie Saint (at the surprisingly mature age of 30), a performance which garnered Saint the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But, for me, the two outstanding acting plaudits go to Rod Steiger in a brilliantly underplayed role as Charlie, and the much underrated Lee J Cobb, who exudes menace as the ruthless Johnny Friendly. Cobb's performance ranks alongside his other career-crowning glory that was his film-stealing role as the anonymously-named Juror No. 3 in Sidney Lumet's 1957 courtroom classic 12 Angry Men. Both Steiger and Cobb were (along with Malden) also unsuccessful in the Best Supporting Actor category.
The final, but absolutely key, component to Kazan's film is the terrific score composed by Leonard Bernstein. Reminiscent in parts to some of the incidental music he wrote for West Side Story, the score brilliantly tracks the film's tension and high-octane action sequences.
Of course, the film is also justly famous for the seminal scene in the back of a New York cab between brothers Terry and Charley, as Charley confronts Terry with the ultimatum either not to testify against Johnny Friendly or to face the consequences. This scene represents pure gold in screen acting. (As a slight aside, the DVD also provides fascinating additional detail on the making of this scene - including the fact that producer Sam Spiegel would not provide Kazan with an actual cab for the shoot and so Kazan was forced to improvise using one half of another vehicle! .. and that Marlon Brando decided to leave the shoot midway in order to make an analyst's appointment, leaving Steiger (somewhat annoyed) to complete his half of the scene alone!)
As a final word, On The Waterfront is often cited as Kazan's answer to those who criticised him for testifying to HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) against (alleged) Communists working in Hollywood at the time. I think it slightly fanciful, if true, of Kazan to equate the gangster activities of a character like Johnny Friendly with those of many creative Hollywood artists such as Edward Dmytryk, Lillian Hellman, Elmer Bernstein and Dalton Trumbo, whose careers were effectively ended by this witchhunt.
Still, this reservation aside, Kazan undoubtedly made some great Hollywood films, of which On The Waterfront is the finest.