Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Waterfront (Horizon/Columbia, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to do an envoi to Budd Schulberg and run the most famous film he worked on: On the Waterfront, the 1954 melodrama about corruption and organized crime on the New York waterfront directed by Elia Kazan and written by Schulberg — and largely interpreted as an apologia by both men for their decision to testify as friendly witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee and a piece of propaganda about how it’s a citizen’s moral duty to be an informer. Incidentally, the Los Angeles Times obituary on Schulberg mentioned this controversy and its author, Dennis McClellan, quoted both Kazan and Schulberg on whether or not the film was an attempt to justify their own informing — and the two men made opposite statements on the subject. Kazan said he did mean the film as a justification for his own actions (“I put my story and my feelings on the screen, to justify my informing”), while Schulberg equally strongly insisted he didn’t (“I was interested in social conditions on the waterfront and drawing a truthful story, not in justifying my position. Can you imagine Kazan asking me to write something that would justify our friendly testimony? It’s a shame that an inaccuracy like that has become a ‘fact’ when it simply couldn’t be more wrong. … Let them say what they want, but they’re missing the point of the film, which was not about informing but about men standing up to the mob for their rights on the docks”).

On the Waterfront had the sort of tangled production history that became more and more common as the studio system broke down and film production was gradually taken over by the makeshift combinations of studio executives, agents, “independent” producers and talent that have made (or not made) most movies ever since and given birth to the late John Gregory Dunne’s infamous mal mot that the true art form of Hollywood is the deal. It began as a series of articles in the New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson in 1948 that exposed the endemic corruption behind the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) on the New York docks. Johnson’s series of 24 articles won him a Pulitzer Prize and were given additional credibility when a union hiring boss was murdered while the series was running.

The first attempt to make a movie inspired by Johnson’s reporting was begun at Columbia Pictures in 1951, when studio head Harry Cohn hired writer Arthur Miller to do a script on the waterfront that Miller called The Hook (after the grappling hook longshoremen use — or at least used in the era before container freight — to extract cargo from ship’s holds). Cohn was appalled at the general tenor of Miller’s script, which was about workers being abused by a corrupt combination of exploitative employers and gangster unions, and he put pressure on Miller to change the bad guys running the union from the Mafia to the Communist Party. Miller said on a PBS-TV interview late in his life that Cohn had actually submitted a copy of his movie to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover for political vetting, and this had appalled Miller so much that he had quit the project. When that show ran, the Los Angeles Times received a letter to the editor from Roy M. Brewer, who in the early 1950’s had been one of the key people involved in enforcing the Hollywood blacklist — he was the head of the motion picture projectionists’ union and he had ordered his members never to show a film with blacklisted talent (thereby showing some of the same brutal high-handedness of the union bosses in this film!) — who said that Miller was mistaken; that it was he, not Hoover, to whom Cohn had sent Miller’s script for vetting. (It’s an indication of Brewer’s power over Hollywood that Miller could have interpreted Cohn sending him the script as equivalent to him sending it to the head of the FBI.)

The project lay fallow until Budd Schulberg picked it up, hooked up with Elia Kazan, and wrote a script based on the Johnson articles and his own researches around the dock. Kazan, who up to this point had made most of his films for 20th Century-Fox, offered the project to Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck — not realizing that Zanuck had just contracted to make all his films in the new CinemaScope wide-screen process and was steering his slate in the direction of historical romances, sex comedies and other genres that would suit themselves to wide-screen and color. On the Waterfront didn’t qualify — Zanuck told Kazan, “Who’s going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?” — so Kazan and Schulberg ended up selling the project to Sam Spiegel’s Horizon Pictures, who placed it back at Columbia, where Cohn once again asked that the people corrupting the union be changed from gangsters to Communists. (Apparently the usually savvy Columbia head had been unmoved by the box-office failure of RKO’s The Woman on Pier 13 — formerly called I Married a Communist — in which Robert Ryan plays a longshoreman in San Francisco who resists the Communist thugs who dominate his union.)

The project went forward but with further difficulties, mainly relating to casting — John Garfield, the actor Kazan and Schulberg had had in mind when they started the project (and another apostate Leftist!), was already dead; they signed Frank Sinatra for the part, but then Spiegel decided that Marlon Brando would be a bigger draw and signed him, leading Sinatra to sue for breach of contract. In some ways Brando made a lot more sense — the supporting cast, including Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint (in her first film) and Rod Steiger, was practically an Actors’ Studio all-star list; and Kazan had successfully worked with Brando before in A Streetcar Named Desire (on stage and film) and ¡Viva Zapata! — but, though he won his first Academy Award for this film, his casting adds a level of problems to an already good but flawed movie that’s far from being the classic it’s usually acknowledged as or its makers were obviously trying to create.

On the Waterfront went for Quality with a capital Q: not only a star director, a prestigious writer and the hottest young actor around but a great cinematographer (Boris Kaufman, who’d shown himself a master of the docks two decades earlier in his native France with Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante) and a great composer (Leonard Bernstein, writing his only film score for a non-musical), as well as location shooting (in New Jersey — the forces that had made the New York docks so corrupt in their story were still operating and they wisely decided to shoot somewhere else, albeit close enough that it would look right) and an overall aura of prestige. The odd thing is that they were shooting a story that could have been done as well or better, and far less pretentiously, by Warners two decades earlier, with James Cagney — a much greater actor than Brando could ever have dreamed of being — in the lead. (Cagney was still around in 1954 but would have been too old for the lead — though he could have still played one of the union gangsters and added badly needed energy and a genuine sense of proletarianism to the film.)

The plot gets underway when Terry Malloy (Brando), a former heavyweight contender who ended up on the docks after he agreed to throw a fight he easily could have won, is prevailed upon by union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his brother Charley “The Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), one of Friendly’s lieutenants, to finger Jimmy Doyle (Arthur Keegan) before Doyle goes to testify before the Waterfront Crime Commission (pretty obviously modeled after the real-life Kefauver hearings on organized crime, the first major government hearings about anything to be televised). Terry figures that Friendly’s thugs are only going to rough up Doyle, but in fact they pitch him off the roof of the New York apartment building where he lives (and has a pigeon coop on top of the roof, which is supposed to be considered a moving symbol of his and Terry’s sensitivity but is hard to take seriously after The Producers), killing him.

The good guys are Father Barry (Karl Malden), the priest at the local Roman Catholic church where the longshoremen attend; and Jimmy’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who’s naturally determined to avenge the death of her brother no matter what the danger to herself or everyone else around her, including her elderly father (John Hamilton) who’s barely hanging on to a longshoreman’s career himself. Father Barry calls a meeting of longshoremen to organize a resistance to the union’s corruption, and Friendly and Charley order Terry to go to the meeting and spy on it — though they hardly seem to need him to because they’ve got a more brutal response in mind: their thugs just surround the church where the meeting is being held and, as the attendees emerge from the basement to go home at the end, the thugs set upon them and beat them up.

Terry narrowly escapes the beating and gets Edie safely out of the situation, and the two of them start to fall in love — only to break up when Terry levels with Edie that he fingered his brother for Friendly’s hit squad and, naturally, she turns on him in a fury and refuses to see him again. Realizing they’re losing their influence on Terry — that he’s about to turn from a “D&D” (“deaf and dumb”) to a “canary” and that Father Barry and Edie may actually persuade him to testify before the Waterfront Crime Commission — they decide to intimidate the hell out of him, first by murdering all his pet pigeons and then by tracking him when he meets with his brother Charley in a taxi. In this, the famous “I coulda been a contenda” scene, Terry pours his heart out to Charley and the brother himself breaks down (doing some remarkably subtle acting we don’t usually associate with Rod Steiger, even though he had to shoot the scene on an otherwise empty set with someone else feeding him Brando’s lines because it was in Brando’s contract that he could leave the set at 4 p.m. each day to see his analyst), whereupon Friendly’s thugs (working with the cabdriver, who’s part of the gang) kidnap Charley and kill him, leaving his body on a hook to scare Terry into shutting up.

Not surprisingly, the death of his brother has exactly the opposite effect (aside from giving him a point of commonality with Eva Marie Saint’s character — one wonders how much of a basis that’s going to be for a future relationship when the biggest thing they have in common is their brothers were both murdered by the same gang); he testifies (though the actual testimony is shown surprisingly briefly), and as he’s on TV naming Johnny Friendly as the man who ordered the hit on Jimmy Doyle, Kazan cuts to a middle-aged man who’s otherwise unidentified in the plot turning off the set and telling his house servant, “If Johnny Friendly calls, tell him I’m out! I’m always out to Johnny Friendly!” — indicating that he’s a higher-up in either the union or the Mafia and therefore the corruption will continue even though Friendly himself is about to get either arrested or killed. Nevertheless, the stage is set for a final scene of redemption in which Terry Malloy is beaten by Friendly’s goons and he can barely stagger back to the docks for work — the scene is carefully staged to evoke parallels to the Crucifixion, an especially odd symbol for a film written by a Jew — but eventually he makes it and the film drags itself to at least a semi-happy ending. (This also inspired a joke around Hollywood among producers and agents to the effect that if you wanted Brando for your movie, you wrote a scene in which his character got beaten up; not surprisingly, the longest and most brutal beating a Brando character ever got was the one in One-Eyed Jacks, the film Brando directed himself.)

On the Waterfront is an acknowledged classic and one hesitates to pick it apart, but there are some pretty deep problems with it. The whole conception is so bombastic and over-the-top — for all the association of the Actors’ Studio with relatively subtle, inward-looking “Method” acting, when Kazan got hold of its graduates he generally cast them in shrieking melodramas in which all the emotions are set at 11. The best parts of the film are the ones that vividly dramatize the corruption of the waterfront and how utterly dependent the workers are on people who are out to exploit them (though, given that this is a 1954 movie and therefore one made at the height of anti-Communist hysteria, we never see a shipping owner or any other sort of capitalist and the culpability of the employers in allowing this racket to continue is blatantly skirted) — and though the people running (and corrupting) the union remain gangsters instead of Communists, the regime they’ve created on the waterfront has a strong similarity to the Stalinist terror, with people afraid to go against the system or even voice their dissatisfaction lest they get an early-morning visit from one of Friendly’s goon squads. The scene in which the union’s straw boss gets fed up with the crowds of longshoremen waiting for work and simply throws out the medallions that entitle their wearers to jobs for the day, and lets them dive for them like zoo animals at feeding time, still packs a wallop and is one of the best and most chilling moments in the film, one of the few times it actually dramatizes the evil of the Mob regime on the docks instead of simply telling us about it.

For all Schulberg’s professed dedication to researching on the real waterfront and bringing it to life realistically, he was too much a child of Hollywood (literally and figuratively) to avoid trotting out old-movie clichés when he needs them to keep his plot going. The I’ll-show-you-you’re-not-so-tough scene in which Father Barry punches out Terry was done a hell of a lot better with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in MGM’s San Francisco 18 years earlier (and Tracy looked a lot more credible than Karl Malden as a priest — though that’s at least partly a function of Malden’s subsequent career; early on, when he’s trying to rally the longshoremen to resist the gangster union bosses, I joked, “I want you to help yourselves! I want you to make enough money that you can have American Express cards!”), and the patness with which Schulberg maneuvers Terry and Edie both in and out of love (and then back in!) is too old-line to be convincing in what’s supposed to be a gritty drama about proletarian life.

The other problem with this film is Marlon Brando; though there are a number of Brando performances I actually like (notably in some of his less-regarded films like One-Eyed Jacks and the Mutiny on the Bounty remake), he’s never been one of my favorite actors, partly because I find him a turnoff physically (he seems to look crude, barely in charge of his body, and though he was clearly a better actor than Rock Hudson, like Hudson he looks like he was baked out of Wonder bread dough) and partly because I find him almost unbearably mannered, relying on schtick to get his performances across — albeit state-of-the-art (for 1954) Method schtick rather than old-Hollywood schtick. I’ll give him credit for trying to play up Terry’s “sensitive” side — he obviously didn’t want to do Stanley Kowalski all over again and he wanted to make it believable that this rough-and-tumble proletarian had a deep, kindly soul inside — but he way overdoes it; his face is discernibly whiter than the actors playing his fellow longshoremen (a major lapse of visual credibility in a movie about people who spend a lot of their lives outdoors) and time after time his Terry Malloy emerges as an Actors’ Studio creation rather than a living, breathing human being; Brando is a good enough actor to nail both the roughneck and “sensitive” sides of his character, but not a good enough one to bring them into balance and make them believable as belonging to the same person.

One aches through this whole movie at what James Cagney, a more straightforward performer but also a much more powerful and charismatic one, could have done with this part if he’d been able to play it in his youth; his old-line Broadway and Hollywood acting would have done a much better job at making Terry Malloy a believable character instead of a screenwriter’s abstraction (as Cagney did, come to think about it, in a somewhat similarly plotted movie, City for Conquest — which wasn’t about the waterfront but did cast him as a boxer whose career is ruined by corruption; it too had its share of heavy-handed symbolism but Cagney rose above it and made his character live in a way that eluded Brando in On the Waterfront). Add to this a bombastic Bernstein score that perfectly matches Kazan’s visuals — he was able to write beautifully lyrical music for the love (if you can call them that) scenes between Brando and Saint, and tough, loud music symbolizing the docks (though in the opening, as the ship the longshoremen are about to unload comes in, Bernstein assaults the ear with so many drums one half-expects the film to show the longshoremen working in strict unison and the scene to take on the air of a cross between a Busby Berkeley number and a Soviet proletarian musical!

On the Waterfront is a good movie but it’s been incredibly overrated; it tells a moving story but too often hits us over the head with the obviousness and banality of its symbolism, and whatever political agendas its director and writer had in mind (Kazan actually said he thought of On the Waterfront as a pro-HUAC response to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and though Schulberg — unlike Kazan — disclaimed any intention to make the film a pro-HUAC parable, he did say his decision to testify as a friendly witness was based on his opposition to the Communists forming a secret cabal to take control of the Screen Writers’ Guild, much the way organized crime secretly or not-so-secretly runs the longshoremen’s union in this film), they get communicated with a sledgehammer force that only — paradoxically — makes it obvious how muddled they are.