Oprah Movie Club Pick for May: On the Waterfront

1954 Best Picture

Rating: 17/20

Plot: Following a murder, an ex-boxer, a guy who could have been a contender, begins to question the corrupt union boss he and his brother have been loyal toward. He falls for the victim's sister as he tries to decide whether to testify against Johnny Friendly.

This movie's a weird in-betweener, a transition between Hollywood melodramas of the 40's and something a little tougher and more authentic. Brando's rightfully praised for a more naturalistic performance, and he gives the kind of performance where you don't want to take your eyes off him. It's not even how he delivers his lines or how he builds rapport with the other characters. It has more to do with how he carries this weight. Even before we know anything about his past, you know that the guy is carrying around this pain beneath this tough exterior. Brando gets a few moments to really shine and takes advantage of those, but it's the quieter moments where you get glimpses of something boiling beneath that are most intriguing. Terry Malloy is tough and flawed, brutish and full of heart, and you don't need anything in the dialogue or story to even show us any of that. It's all in Brando's performance.

He almost out-Brandos the rest of the excellent cast. Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint are all great, the latter especially getting a couple of her own big moments. Karl Malden is incredible as a priest, and has a really great scene where he delivers a sort of mini-sermon while having things hurled at him, the kind of thing that would make church a lot more interesting. As the movie is more about the dynamics between these characters than it is the plot, it needs strong performances, and it definitely gets them.

The black and white cinematography is great, the Bernstein score's often a bit too much, and there are plenty of pigeons. I think the story resonates because of the underlying messages, ones about second chances and redemption and the empowering strength of one courageous soul.

I also really liked the setting of this movie. There have been lots of classic films that take place on these docks, but I'm not sure the place has ever looked this misty and bleak on screen. Shots of the Empire State Building shrouded in fog seem ominous. Water's oily, and everything's dirty.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to see this movie. It's a good one!


cory said...

It is a great movie, beautifully made and acted (especially Brando, Cobb, and Malden), but Brando's make-up and the politics of the film distract me. The director, Elia Kazan, and the writer both named names to McCarthy's committee, and this movie was partly their defense for doing so. Judging it purely as a film, "On the Waterfront" is one of the all-time greats, but it is really hard to ignore the subtext of being a canary once it is understood. Still a 17.

Shane said...

Maybe it is Brando's make-up that makes him stand out so much and not necessarily his acting. He does sort of glow ominously in this movie.

Interesting info about the surrounding politics of On the Waterfront. I knew a bit, but I didn't think about this as being an actual response to any of that. It does kind of give it a completely new meaning, doesn't it?