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Criterion works wonders with their unbelievably strong high-def release of this Oscar-winning classic...
Criterion / 108 Minutes / 1954 / Rated PG / Street Date: February 19, 2013
On the Waterfront remains one of Hollywood's most celebrated films, winning eight Academy Awards in 1954, including Best Picture. Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint were recognized as Best Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively. The other Academy Awards it brought home included Best Director for Elia Kazan, Best Story and Screenplay for Budd Schulberg, Best Editing, Art Direction, and Cinematography (black and white). Additionally, Karl Malden, Lee J Cobb, and Rod Steiger were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, although they did not win. Watching this film today, none of this is surprising.
On the Waterfront is stark and gritty, especially for a film of the 1950s. Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who's traded his boxing career for his relationship with the local mob that runs the waterfront union local with the help of Terry's brother Charley (Steiger). The movie is really about the redemption of Brando's Malloy, as he reexamines his life as a mob flunky after he unwittingly assists the mobsters in assassinating a dock worker who is about to testify against them. Terry's redemption is enabled primarily by the efforts of the local priest played by Malden, and Terry falling in love with the deceased dock worker's sister played by Eva Marie Saint.
The performances in this movie are amazing, especially Brando and Saint, both of whom deliver are complex and genuine portraits of strength and vulnerability. Lee J Cobb was as good a bad guy as I've ever seen in Hollywood (and a definite precursor to De Niro's explosive turn as gangster Al Capone in The Untouchables). Rod Steiger is incomparable as Terry's brother Charley, who has to try and balance his love for his brother with his allegiances with his mobster employers.
Of course, the legendary piece of this film is the "I coulda' been a contenda" scene with Steiger and Brando. While that is the famous line, this entire scene is acted with incredible skill, and the line that most lingers in my memory is Brando's Terry pleading that his big brother should have looked out for him "just a little bit." On the Waterfront remains a powerful statement of ideals and filmmaking prowess today. The parallels of this film with Kazan's personal life are compelling as well: Kazan is reviled in many corners today for "naming names" in Hollywood during the McCarthy trials, undoubtedly facing many of the same moral questions the characters in this film faced when deciding if they would stand against the mob that rules the waterfront. If you haven't seen this film, you should; if you have, you'll want to see it again.