Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Two

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#22 — On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
It happens occasionally in this process: I come to one of those titles for which my enthusiasm for celebrating its merits without all that much concern for explicating the reasoning for its specific numeric placement is forcefully countered by a perceived need to justify why it ranks so much lower than conventional wisdom dictates. And here we are. On the Waterfront is one of those films that inspires legions of knowledgable film fans to term it one of the quintessential American features, certainly a movie that in its naturalistic approach to melodrama transformed how narrative storytelling worked, especially in the ways that acting plumbed the very souls of the characters on screen. I’ve already had to sheepishly admit to one reader that the film most commonly cited as Elia Kazan’s truest masterpiece isn’t my automatic choice for the very best of the nineteen-fifties. So let’s take the divide between expectations and my actual comparative assessment head on.

Great as On the Waterfront is — and it is truly great on so many levels — it is also a self-serving apologia for Kazan’s widely reviled, willing testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he cited eight cohorts as Communists. Unappealing motivation and intent doesn’t automatically discredit the resulting art, but On the Waterfront suffers some narrative phoniness attributable to Kazan’s evident desire to reposition his personal cravenness as heroism. The brutish but ultimately kind-hearted dockworker Terry Malloy, played with extraordinary skill by Marlon Brando, is morally conflicted by the corruption he sees around him, particularly the tendency of almost everyone else to willingly let it continue in a collective act of self-preservation. He’s an obvious stand-in for Kazan, Terry’s eventual decision to come forward with damning information despite the certainty that there will be repercussions an obvious parallel to the director’s own sense of nobility and victimhood. However, the villainy Terry confronts — the clear corruption of organized crime, including cold-blooded murder — is far clearer than anything Kazan faced down. More problematically, the vicious reaction Terry faces from the community is deeply suspect, an example of a filmmakers’ desire to heighten the allegorical strength of his work leading to a betrayal of the plot’s internal logic. The levels of retribution and eventual defense Terry experiences both feel out of whack, a twisted act of wish fulfillment as creative process. There’s a reason Arthur Miller’s original pass at a similar story with Kazan was discarded in favor of a new version written by Budd Schulberg, another friendly witness before HUAC.

And yet the embedded achievements of On the Waterfront outpace the problems. Brando had been chipping away at the artificiality of film acting in his still young career (On the Waterfront was only his sixth film, delivering him his fourth Academy Award nomination and first Best Actor win), but this represents the first time his costars stepped up to meet him where he was instead of swirling around him in confusion as to how to react to his unpredictable realism. He’d previously been an aberration. Now he was a trailblazer, bringing his collaborators with him, including the marvelous Eva Marie Saint, who won her own Oscar as Terry’s tender beloved. If nothing else, Kazan deserves credit for shepherding these performances to the screen. That’s not all he brings to it, though. While I can criticize the mistakes Kazan’s defensiveness inflicts on the film, I must also acknowledge the passionate, muscular authority that same quality lends to the storytelling. With a keen eye and uncommonly enraptured intellectual certainty, Kazan directs as if he’s making a necessary statement from his soul. I suppose he was.