Saturday Night Cinema: On the Waterfront

With his electrifying performance in Elia Kazan’s thought-provoking, expertly constructed melodrama, Marlon Brando redefined the possibilities of acting for film and helped permanently alter the cinematic landscape.

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema masterpiece is Elia Kazan’s, “One the Waterfront” starring Marlon Brando is a performance. Kazan is Hollywood’s greatest director, robbed of the respect he so richly deserves, because he told the truth to the House Un-American Activities Committee about the communist (left) infiltration of Hollywood. But they won you see, so don’t hold your breath.

“Almost fifty years later, the sympathizers of leftist dictatorships still want to cover up the fact that the real defenders of freedom were not the “martyred” Hollywood Reds but the courageous men who acted to expose them.”


by Robert W Tracinski | Sep 29, 2003 |

Almost without exception, the obituaries of Elia Kazan–while praising his enormous talent as a director–are critical of his testimony against Hollywood communists. According to some, Kazan, a former member of the Communist Party, should never be forgiven for naming names of fellow party-members before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

But Kazan deserves to be honored, not despite his testimony, but because of it. He is worthy of respect and admiration not because we should separate his politics from his art, but because his politics helped preserve artistic freedom for everyone in America. Kazan was the one defending freedom–while it was the Hollywood communists who were betraying their fellow man.

The search for Hollywood communists was not a hysterical witch-hunt. There were real communists in Hollywood (as numerous reports, such as Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s recent book, Hollywood Party, have shown). Thus, the injustice of which Kazan is accused is not that he made false accusations–but that he was an anti-communist.

Yet there is nothing unjust about exposing the supporters of dictatorship. The Communist Party was not merely a political organization like the Democratic or Republican Party. It was a totalitarian network. Its goal was not to win an electoral majority but to eliminate free elections and institute a one-party dictatorship. The Party’s charter called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, and its officials took orders from Soviet despots.

With brazen effrontery, however, the Hollywood communists painted themselves as martyrs for freedom. In an attempt to conceal their dirty secrets, they claimed that their political rights–the very rights that had been systematically exterminated in the slave state they admired and worked for–were being violated by the House investigations and by the Hollywood “blacklist.” And, amazingly enough, history has believed them.

It is perfectly legitimate for Congress to investigate any organization that declares its active intent to overthrow a free society on behalf of a foreign dictatorship. It was not the communists’ ideas which were the inquiry’s target, but their actions–or threatened actions.

As to the “blacklist,” why *shouldn’t* private employers, such as the Hollywood studios, refuse to give platforms to people whose views they find repugnant? The communists claimed the right to free association in order to shield themselves from the disapproval of others. Didn’t the studio-owners have the same right not to associate with advocates of totalitarianism?

The morality of congressional investigations and private blacklists would not be challenged if the targets were, say, the militia movement or some neo-Nazi group. Such entities would be clearly recognized as threats to individual freedom. The left would surely support an anti-Nazi blacklist, but somehow regards an anti-communist blacklist as unpardonable.

Further, “whistleblowers” are hailed today as protectors of our rights when they disclose that corporations are circumventing minimum wage laws or Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations. Yet a man who blew the whistle on a genuine evil–on a movement bent on establishing an omnipotent state–is condemned for “selling out.”

What can explain such perversity, except the belief that communism is not an evil, but anti-communism is?

Kazan’s own defense of his testimony provides the most revealing analogy. His 1954 film, *On the Waterfront*, portrays a young hood who becomes disillusioned with the gangsters who control the local longshoreman’s union. The rule on the docks, enforced by terror, is that union members are supposed to be “deaf and dumb”–to pretend they don’t know anything about the gang and to refuse to speak to the police. The hero of the film is the one man who has the courage to break this code of silence and testify against the gang. Kazan intended the film as a metaphor for his decision to testify against his former comrades in the Party.

Almost fifty years later, the sympathizers of leftist dictatorships still want to cover up the fact that the real defenders of freedom were not the “martyred” Hollywood Reds but the courageous men who acted to expose them.

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July 29, 1954 REVIEW | ‘ON THE WATERFRONT’ Brando Stars in Film Directed by Kazan By A. H. WEILER

A small but obviously dedicated group of realists has forged artistry, anger and some horrible truths into “On the Waterfront,” as violent and indelible a film record of man’s inhumanity to man as has come to light this year. And, while the explosive indictment of the vultures and the meek prey of the docksides, which was unveiled at the Astor yesterday, occasionally is only surface dramatization and an oversimplification of the personalities and evils of our waterfront, it is, nevertheless, an uncommonly powerful, exciting and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals.

Although journalism and television already have made the brutal feudalism of the wharves a part of current history, “On the Waterfront” adds a graphic dimension to these sordid pages. Credit for this achievement cannot be relegated to a specific few. Scenarist Budd Schulberg, who, since 1949, has lived with the story stemming from Malcolm Johnson’s crusading newspaper articles; director Elia Kazan; the principals headed by Marlon Brando; producer Sam Spiegel; Columbia, which is presenting this independently made production; Leonard Bernstein, who herein is making his debut as a movie composer, and Boris Kaufman, the cinematographer, convincingly have illustrated the murder and mayhem of the waterfront’s sleazy jungles.

They also have limned a bestial and venal boss longshoreman; the “shape-up” by which only his obedient, mulct, vassals can earn a day’s pay; the hard and strange code that demands that these sullen men die rather than talk about these injustices and a crime commission that helps bring some light into their dark lives.

Perhaps these annals of crime are too labyrinthine to be fully and incisively captured by cameras. Suffice it to say, however, that while Mr. Kazan and Mr. Schulberg have not dug as deeply as they might, they have chosen a proper and highly effective cast and setting for their grim adventure. Moving cameras and crews to the crowded rookeries of Hoboken’s quayside, where the film was shot in its entirety, they have told with amazing speed and force the story of Terry Malloy, ex-prize fighter and inarticulate tool of tough, ruthless and crooked labor leader, Johnny Friendly. The labor leader is an absolute unregenerated monarch of the docks who will blithely shake down his own men as well as ship owners; he will take cuts of pay envelopes and lend his impecunious union members money at usurious rates and he will have his pistol-toting goons dispatch anyone foolish enough to squeal to the crime commission attempting to investigate these practices.

It is the story also of one of these courageous few about to “sing” to the commission–a luckless longshoreman unwittingly set up for the kill by Terry Malloy, who is in his soft spot only because his older brother is the boss’ slick, right-hand man. It is the tale of Terry’s meeting with the dead man’s agonized sister and a fearless, neighborhood priest, who, by love and reason, bring the vicious picture into focus for him. And, it is the account of the murder of Terry’s brother; the rampaging younger man’s defiant testimony before the commission and the climactic bloody battle that wrests the union from the boss’ tenacious grasp.

Journalism may have made these ingredients familiar and certainly more inclusive and multi-dimension, but Mr. Kazan’s direction, his outstanding cast and Mr. Schulberg’s pithy and punchy dialogue given them distinction and terrific impact. Under the director’s expert guidance, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy is a shatteringly poignant portrait of an amoral, confused, illiterate citizen of the lower depths who is goaded into decency by love, hate and murder. His groping for words, use of the vernacular, care of his beloved pigeons, pugilist’s walk and gestures and his discoveries of love and the immensity of the crimes surrounding him are highlights of a beautiful and moving portrayal.

In casting Eva Marie Saint–a newcomer to movies from TV and Broadway–Mr. Kazan has come up with a pretty and blond artisan who does not have to depend on these attributes. Her parochial school training is no bar to love with the proper stranger. Amid scenes of carnage, she gives tenderness and sensitivity to genuine romance. Karl Malden, whose importance in the scheme of this drama seems overemphasized, is, however, a tower of strength as the militant man of the cloth. Rod Steiger, another newcomer to films, is excellent as Brando’s fearful brother. The pair have a final scene that is a harsh and touching revelation of their frailties.

Lee J. Cobb is muscularly effective as the labor boss. John Hamilton and Pat Henning are typical “longshoremen,” gents who look at home in a hold, and Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and Abe Simon–erstwhile heavyweight boxing contenders, who portray Cobb’s chief goons–are citizens no one would want to meet in a dark alley. Despite its happy ending; its preachments and a somewhat slick approach to some of the facets of dockside strife and tribulations, “On the Waterfront” is moviemaking of a rare and high order.


With Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, John Hamilton, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, James Westerfield, Tony Galento and Tami Mauriello

Screen play by Budd Schulberg; based on an original story by Mr. Schulberg and suggested by the series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by Malcolm Johnson; directed by Elia Kazan; produced by Sam Spiegel; a Horizon picture presented by Columbia; at the Astor.

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