On The Waterfront (1954) is a classic Hollywood film that portrays the struggle of a man against corruption on the New Jersey waterfront. We share this review by Subhadeep who discusses the powerful performances, especially by Marlon Brando.
How many movies have we seen in our lifetimes dealing with the idea of doing the right thing and standing up and being counted for when it matters? I may assume quite a few indeed since such movies make an instant connection with the ideals of a virtuous life and a righteous self. However, many a times movie representations of some real-life wrongdoings and the fight against evil are characterized by melodrama, overhyped on-screen emotion, and unrealistic portrayals of machoism. However, there stands out one movie from the Classic Hollywood era which shows an in-depth human struggle against odds in a completely nonchalant and matter-of-fact manner. The scenes of ‘On The Waterfront‘ are unrefined depictions of the goriness of life on the low side of the docks and hit the audience straight at the heart to the point of emotional discomfiture, without raising either the decibel level or involving melodramatic music.
On The Waterfront from the year 1954, is indeed a classic in more ways than one could imagine. It is a story about truth and realization and completion of one man’s character arc, which leads him from being a ‘bum’ to becoming the one ‘who made all the difference’. The protagonist of the movie Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) is firmly in the grip of corrupt waterfront union boss Johnny Friendly (a great oxymoronic choice of name) and leads life, not on his terms but on those of Friendly’s and his elder brother Charlie, who is one of the main sidekicks of Friendly. Who would have thought that a movie portraying the corrupt life and times of greasy longshoremen of New Jersey, would become the most-awarded movie of the year in 1954? It won eight Academy awards in a wide range of categories including those of Best Motion Picture (Sam Spiegel); Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Supporting Actress (the gorgeous debutant blonde Eva Marie Saint).
Coming back to the story of the protagonist, one must every bit admire the acting GENIUS of Marlon Brando for his total commitment towards the truthful portrayal of who Terry Malloy really was and how the journey of his life is slowly but poignantly elucidated. Why does he think himself to be a loser? How does he plan to redeem himself, by emerging free from the servile grip of the villainous Johnny Friendly? And finally, the positive influence of a righteous woman (portrayed by Saint) on a man who could otherwise care less, is depicted beautifully, where the conscience of even a so-called nobody, could be awakened to the point of meaningful decision-making and decisive action. After all, even ‘a nobody’ is in actuality ‘a somebody’ and as Marlon Brando enacting as Terry Malloy right implied that being at least ‘somebody’ is a dream, a prize fighter like Malloy is entitled to the harbor.
The most iconic and standout taxicab scene from the movie, features Marlon Brando quoting to his on-screen brother Charlie the legendary line “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am”; which is ranked at number 3 on American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Movie Quotes list. He clearly implied that he had never really taken too kindly at being a compromised paid loser despite his talent at boxing, in order to please Johnny Friendly. The manner of Terry Malloy imploring with his brother Charlie to accept reality as it actually is and not manipulate the truth, speaks volumes about giving vent to a simmering whirlpool of emotions in life and proves that when pushed beyond a point, the inner hero in ordinary souls CAN rise to the occasion. This is best illustrated when in the end Malloy confronts Friendly on rather unfriendly terrain and is able to hold his own and prevail despite severe physical and mental trauma. All in all, On The Waterfront, is MUST WATCH movie for all those who believe cinema to be the highest depiction of art and human storytelling.
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Subhadeep is a scientist by profession, who also has a flair for creative writing. He is an associate professor of chemistry at BITS PILANI Goa. His debut historical fiction novel THE HIDDEN PATRIOT is available on amazon and has been well-received and reviewed positively by readers.