#263. On the Waterfront (1954)

I first saw this a couple years ago when Turner Classic Movies put it back in theaters for what I guess was the sixtieth anniversary. This was the same week that Lidia, somebody I’d seen casually, got back in touch with me for the first time in a couple years. We met for drinks and she agreed to do a recording for Thousand Movie Project (fell through) and there was a little window there where it looked like we might be starting something up again. Started texting back and forth. I think there was a phone call.

            Nothing came of it, though, we were both too busy and eventually stopped trying. But it was her, this time, who kept inviting me out, unlike the first time we got together; she kept saying, “Hey let’s do this, let’s do that,” and the only counteroffer I made was when I sent her a text saying, “Hey, there’s an old Brando movie from the ‘50s playing tonight at The Falls, wanna meet me?” She responded with what sounded like genuine angst at the fact that she was like fifteen miles away with a friend and wouldn’t be able to make it on time. Then quickly followed it up with some stuff about how she loves old movies and wishes she could make it.

            Looking back on that Tuesday or Wednesday evening, when I was thinking of striking things up with Lidia again, I’m making note of how hard I was trying to titillate her with something cultural. It wasn’t On the Waterfront that was playing at The Falls that evening. No. It was “an old movie,” a “Brando” movie. A “movie from the ‘fifties.”

            But nostalgia’s got a certain cultural cache and I guess it’s forgivable, and not a display of total douchery, to try and sell somebody on a film because it’s black-and-white or cuz the cast is mostly dead.

            Lidia was interested in that kinda thing. Vintage stuff. So was I, even though I’d wag my finger at people who claimed their familiarity with old things as some kind of badge. Also like me, Lidia was more interested in sharing the things that she liked than she was in being exposed to new stuff. When we were first seeing each other, she got me to watch City of God, which I did end up liking a lot.

            She’s interesting but also a bit of a whirlwind. On our first date – I might’ve mentioned this somewhere in an essay – she came over to my house because I was too hungover from the night before to even think of going anywhere. I sent her a few texts apologizing, telling her I really wanted to see her, but that I just felt like shit. That I’d like for her to come over to my house if she was up for it, though no hard feelings if she wasn’t.

            But she did come around. I was in sweatpants and a shirt and she’d dressed pretty comfortably too. We sat on my bed and talked for a while and eventually we were laying down, listening to a playlist on her phone, talking and talking until at one point she turned a certain way and one of her nipples slipped out from her tank top. She didn’t notice, and I didn’t know what to say. It was piereced: had a bar running through it with a ball bearing screwed onto either end. I just got kinda quiet, and she went on talking. I nodded, nodded. Tried not to look at her chest.

            Eventually she noticed it herself and, to my surprise, was totally nonchalant about pulling her top back over it. Maybe that was a tactic. Ahdunno. She had nice breasts and she was comfortable with her body so I wouldn’t be surprised. Got naked when she drank. Free spirit.

            We’d been hanging out for something like four hours when finally we were laying really close under the blankets, though we hadn’t kissed yet, and suddenly we’re jolted by a text that interrupts the music. She picks her phone up and rolls onto her back. Opens the text. Smiles. In retrospect I was totally violating her privacy by looking up to see what the text said, but she was laying in such a way that the temptation was too much; also in retrospect, knowing that she had a flair for exhibition and performance (I’m actually now pretty sure the nip slip wasn’t negligent), I wonder if she didn’t want me to read her text. If she hadn’t planned it.

            The text was from her best friend, who was on a date at the same time, and she was asking Lidia how her date (i.e. her night with your host here) was going. Asking if she needed any bailing out.

            Grinning, Lidia started typing: It’s going wonderful, then lotsa jubilant emojis.

            And it was. We had a really nice time. For the second date we went to the Ale House down the street, kinda the midpoint between our houses, and I drank Jameson neat, tryna look cool, while she drank Patron neat, which was simultaneously a perfect counter-point and one-up, and I had to go to the bathroom twice and both times I came back she was being hit on by a dude in flip-flops and a Marilyn Monroe t-shirt who asked her why she was spending her evening with a dude who looked like Harry Potter and she said, “Better than the dude in the Marilyn Monroe shirt.” She drove us to Key Biscayne after that and we parked by the water facing the city and made out and looked at the skyline and got a little handsy.

            Y’know we were very well-suited for each other. Kinda cute, in an unbearable way.

            We had similar interests, loved to read and write and wanted to do stuff in the arts, but we were also kinda too similar. Argued a lot. I don’t remember exactly how it ended. Or if it even formally did end. We’d commiserated in a guilty way about our penchant for ghosting people and when we finally seemed to’ve done it to one another it seemed like when a balloon finally floats just too far to still be excited about it.

            But I’m glad she wasn’t there with me to see the movie, frankly, cuz I’d have been distracted, trying to seem interesting and cultured and cool, and the movie would’ve gone completely over my head. Even paying total attention to it, in a mostly-empty matinee by myself, a lot of it went over my head.

            Watching it again this week, I caught way more. Maybe that’s cuz I’ve learned a lot in the past two years or because the Project’s made me a better moviegoer. Maybe you just need to have that first dry run under your belt before you really catch the sweep of the story. (Loathe to reveal the sweep of my ignorance, but the whole unionization thing probably left my 23-year-old self in the dark.

            I could also be mis-remembering how drunk I was at that screening.

            Whatever the case: apart from understanding it better this time, I also like it a lot more, and while I’m not that great at picking out the flaws that a seasoned critic and real student of productions might catch, I’m compelled to say that this is maybe a perfect movie. Motivations are clear, there’s very little exposition, iconic performances from Marlon Brando as a washed-up boxer working now as muscle for the mob, and an equally-spectacular (though less-acknowledged) performance by Lee J. Cobb as the mob boss trying to slap out the sparks of a burgeoning labor movement on the docks.

            Brando plays a guy named Terry who one day, working for the mob, calls up to his friend from the sidewalk. His friend raises pigeons in a coop on the roof of his apartment building. Friend’s name is Johnny. It’s late at night and Terry calls up saying he’s got one of Johnny’s pigeons. Says he’ll meet him on the roof to return it.

            But Terry doesn’t go on the roof.

            When his friend Johnny gets up there, some mobsters are waiting to talk with him about a debt. We don’t get to hear what transpires, but they end up throwing him of the roof, killing him. So Terry’s haunted afterward by his culpability in the murder. And when Johnny’s sister, Edie (Eve Marie Saint), starts going around asking questions, trying (with help from the local priest, played by Karl Malden) to find out who’s responsible for the murder she ends up getting close with Terry, who’s revealing less than he knows. He’s got a crush, and wants to be in her good graces, and he’s also riven with guilt, so her curiosity and grief are eating away at him.

            Meanwhile Terry’s brother is a big-shot mobster who ruined Terry’s career by making him throw a fight that he was predicted to win. So going to the police is outta the question for a few reasons.

            It’s a beautiful drama that also plays an interesting role in this moment of Hollywood movies. In the early and mid-1950s we’re seeing cautionary tales about the mob mentality. Stuff like High Noon and The Day the Earth Stood Still. These are born out of paranoia about Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and their crusading interrogations of Hollywood figures they believed to be Communist sympathizers. Those movies show how people’s lives are ruined when, at the behest of a charismatic leader who manipulates people with fear, good citizens do bad things.

            On the Waterfront, however, is about the positive power of groups. The union becomes the entity that defeats the mob at the end. Standing up not for yourself but for the masses. The priest gives a stirring speech about how, if a person is trying to stand up for their tribe, then anything done to suppress or defeat that person is a crucifixion. Suggests that, just as Jesus died for our sins, so do we – in our most righteous moments – submit ourselves for sacrifice in the interest of the group.

            This was maybe a celebration of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who defied HUAC during the hearing and, held in contempt of Congress, were sentenced to half-year stints in prison.

            Maybe the mafia, here, is a metaphor for what McCarthy and his cronies were up to.

            Whatever the case: it’s a powerful movie that speaks to its historical moment in a way that’s a little murky to me at the moment, tough to discern, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the beauty of the photography and the writing and the acting that makes it so compelling. Think I’ll go ahead and buy this one.


  • Actually….the mob were supposed to represent the Communists, and the police were HUAC.

    Elia Kazan, the director, agreed to testify before HUAC in 1952. HUAC tapped him to testify and name names, and he held out at first. But then decided to testify. It pissed off a lot of his friends and colleagues and ON THE WATERFRONT was in part his defense testimony about why he’d spoken up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had no idea! Ok, well that certainly changes things–just about all of the reading I’ve done for ON THE WATERFRONT revolves around Brando, I haven’t really looked into Kazan’s work or biography. It’s tricky, in this era, to look at all of the different kinds of baggage that different actors/directors/writers were bringing to the whole HUAC dialogue.


      • I just got to this film the other day. I knew about the HUAC stuff – in the review I mention remembering watching as Kazan got a lifetime achievement Oscar, and how half the crowd was sitting on their hands – so actually seeing the film was….interesting.


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