After the terribly dated Gentleman’s Agreement, director Elia Kazan has redeemed himself above and beyond with the sublimely beautiful yet undeniably gruff On The Waterfront. While this film has so much going for it (great writing, excellent cinematography, superb music…) On The Waterfront can ultimately be summed up with just one word: Brando.
In my Hamlet review I talked about Stanislavsky, his relationship to realist acting and how acting in the 20th century came to be measured by an actors ability to behave as naturally as was possible. Brando is the product of a succession of masters in the realist movement, where from what I can piece together Lee Strasberg, a close friend of director Elia Kazan, worked with Stanislavsky, the great Russian master. In effect, Brando is the pinnacle of this succession, epitomising in the mid 20th century the most foundational acting movement in living memory.
Here’s me holding this man up like he’s a shining beacon of glory, and that’s because he is. Brando’s acting in On The Waterfront is astounding in it’s detail, sincerity and charisma. He’s a very handsome man and he radiates beyond the screen in every scene. The most fascinating aspect of his performance is how one can read and understand every thought and feeling he has even if his words are expressing the exact opposite. Take the early scene with Eva Marie Saint as an example, where with everything he says he is trying to convince her that he’s not romantically interested, yet his eyes and intonation tell us otherwise. He sits on a swing and fiddles with her mitten and without words we know that he is desperately attracted to her (I hestitate to say in love).
I’m not really sure if I felt that the message of On The Waterfront was particularly successful because the ending was quite problematic. The driving narrative is about bringing down a gangster ring on the waterfront docks of New York, where the people are tyrannised and unable to make their own choices. Bringing down the gangsters becomes a fight for freedom, one of the most poignant and pivotal themes in human history. Brando and his crew succeed in taking them down, which is great, but what’s the first action that these newly freed people take? They go straight to work back at the docks. Freedom, then, equates being a cog in the machine of labour. For me freedom is the opposite of embedding yourself in the financial system, and it is here perhaps that the film shows it’s age.
I haven’t mentioned the contender scene because there’s not much to say, other than that it’s wonderful. On The Waterfront has some of the best actors ever filmed and for that reason it is worth seeing once in your life. There aren’t many girls in the film though, and there are some questionable ideas of freedom, but wow, Marlon Brando has some acting chops good and proper.