On the Waterfront is relentlessly grim until the strangest moment in the finale. As the film finally reaches the point of savage, physical violence–it opens with the implication, but not the visualization of such violence–a supporting character (familiar but mostly background) makes a wisecrack. Until that point in the film, director Kazan forcibly pushes even the possibility of a smile away.
And even though Waterfront is desolate–gorgeously desolate with Boris Kaufman’s photography–there’s still positive emotion among its residents. Eva Marie Saint’s compassion and tenderness, not to mention she and lead Marlon Brando’s love story, aren’t grim but Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg don’t let any light in. There’s no beauty in tenderness, just the inevitability of it being taken away. With prejudice.
But Kazan acknowledges this level of negativity. Leonard Bernstein’s score booms and quiets, races and slows, drawing attention to grim realities (and the film’s willingness to confront them) while giving the viewer the illusion of a comfortable distance. That distance gets smaller and smaller throughout until it becomes clear the distance was itself a mirage.
All the actors great. Brando and Saint transfix. They work on a plane elevated from the grime of the waterfront. Co-stars Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger seem natural inhabitants of the waterfront, which makes them different to watch. Brando’s got to do so much in every scene; without him, without his conflict, there’s no movie. He’s got to sell every second.
Directed by Elia Kazan; screenplay by Budd Schulberg, suggested by articles by Malcolm Johnson; director of photography, Boris Kaufman; edited by Gene Milford; music by Leonard Bernstein; produced by Sam Spiegel; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley Malloy), Pat Henning (Kayo Dugan), Leif Erickson (Glover), James Westerfield (Big Mac) and John F. Hamilton (‘Pop’ Doyle).