Winner of 8 Academy Awards and hailed one of the greatest films of all time, it is perhaps no great wonder that On the Waterfront (1954) still packs a punch. Made on the tail end of Hollywood’s traumatic bout with McCarthyism and directed by a key witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee–Elia Kazan–On the Waterfront navigates with a special urgency the ethical, political, and existential conflicts that arise amidst gangsters, a longshoreman labor union, a priest, a pair of lovers, and a lot of pigeons. Perhaps this story’s betrayals and heroism still ring true because we, in 2012, still haven’t figured out how to make all these divergent urban interests get along. Perhaps we still have a political and economic system which so often capitalizes on average Americans’ conflicting loyalties. Or perhaps On the Waterfront is just a classic story, so expertly told that it–like Shakespeare–seems to cast new light in whatever time and place it appears.
The one thing about this film that is unmistakably brilliant, almost jarringly timeless: Marlon Brando. As a gangster and a lover, a longshoreman and a pigeon keeper, an ex-prize-fighter and a loyal brother, he is the living breathing nexus of all conflicting forces in this film. But how then does he wear it so gracefully? Or more pointedly, how does he make us believe he really is all these things without falling prey to the actor’s darkest death: incoherence.
There is a famous scene in this film when Brando’s Terry Malloy first gets acquainted with his love interest, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint). Terry is broad-shouldered, his brows look as though they’ve been pummeled for years, and he says “I don’t like the country; the crickets make me nervous” with the cadence of a tough guy–but his tone is gentle and he moves through the afternoon with the aimless sincerity and haphazard sweetness of a sleepy puppy. Edie drops a glove as they’re walking, he picks it up, but instead of giving it back he holds onto it and eventually slips it over his own weathered paw. It’s a little thing, like when he crosses his legs for a moment or takes a few beats before responding to a question, but it evidences Terry’s engagement with the materials of this world–the same peripheral realm of texture that hums alongside the plots and dialogues of all our days. He is one of us, it seems, and in this realization the whole miracle of the movies comes crashing forth all over again: he is real, just one of us, sitting there talking to a girl (me?) on a blustery day. And yet at the very same time, we know he is different. Not only does Terry wear a checkered jacket unlike the rest of his gangster / longshoreman crowd but he, like Brando, strolls with a self-assured comfort that everyone wants to be around and few possess. So memorable is this performance, so joyful an experience to be taken in by it, that there is a particular polyvalence at work when Marlon Brando’s endearingly brutish Terry says, “Well there’s some people, they just got faces that stick in your mind.”