Classic Review – On the Waterfront (1954)

Title – On the Waterfront (1954)

Director – Elia Kazan (East of Eden)

Cast – Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger

Plot – Once a contender to be a prized fighter, dock worker Terry Malloy (Brando) now finds himself working for corrupt dock boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb), a tenuous relationship that threatens to break apart when Terry falls for Edie Doyle (Saint), the sister of a man Friendly has just had murdered.

“The only arithmetic he ever got was hearing the referee count up to ten”

Review by Eddie on 01/06/2020

While he’d already made his mark in the industry with noted performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Julius Caesar and The Wild One, 1954 was the year in which Marlon Brando became etched in Hollywood history with his Oscar winning performance in the critically lauded and instantly renowned On the Waterfront.

Teaming up once more with his Streetcar director Elia Kazan (who also won one of Waterfront’s other 7 Oscars outside of Brando’s Best Actor gong), Brando’s much copied and effortlessly cool performance as wannabe pro-boxer turned small-time hoodlum and dock worker Terry Malloy is the type of performance that changed the shape of feature film acting moving forward and to this day remains an impressive piece of work in a film that whilst melodramatic and heavy-handed in parts, deserves its place amongst the classics of American cinema.

From the moment we are first introduced to Malloy, clad in his leather jacket after a hard day’s work on the unforgiving docks of New York City, docks run by Lee J. Cobb’s corrupt docks boss Johnny Friendly, you know that Brando was born to play the role of a man whose tough exterior clearly houses a softer heart, a heart that finds itself falling for Eva Marie Saint’s softly spoken Edie.

There’s nothing ground-breaking as such about Waterfront’s plot, particularly in today’s climate where the set-up and pay-off of the film feels more familiar with various incarnations of this story taking place in the time since initial release, but with Brando front and centre throughout most of the films runtime and his strong chemistry with Saint (in her film debut) a joy to behold, Waterfront is an engaging piece of dramatic film-making that has aged far better than many of its counterparts of the time that don’t have the assured directional hand of Kazan guiding them throughout time or the ageless performances of its leads holding up to today’s standards.

The whole production under the eye of Kazan is one of the highest quality, engaging the services of legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and shot under the watchful eye of Oscar winning D.O.P Boris Kaufman, Waterfront’s impressively constructed world of steamy docks, pigeon-clad rooftops and gritty warehouses makes for a lived in world that feels as alive today as it did all those years ago.

Final Say –

Backed by a legendary turn from one of the all-time greats, On the Waterfront is still a powerful and impressive feat of dramatic film-making that is mandatory viewing for any one that considers themselves a die-hard cinema fan.

4 pigeons out of 5

8 responses to “Classic Review – On the Waterfront (1954)

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’d of given it 5 pigeons. It’s gotta be up there as the best film ever. Seriously. The “I could have been a contender” scene always gets to me.

    • That scene is an amazing piece of acting! The film has really made me want to go back through some more of Brando’s early film work.

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  6. At the risk of bringing up controversial topics, there is something I need to say about this movie. So many movies about that era focus negatively on Senator McCarthy and HUAC. I love how “On The Waterfront “ gives a different perspective on naming names and exposing corruption. I get that Elia. Kazan Angered a lot of people with this movie. In fact I got a big laugh years later when Kazan was honored and many stars like Nick Nolte angrily remained seated and frowned at the proceedings. That of course was their right, but it was also Kazan’s right to do what HE did. Funny how that part often gets omitted. However that situation was much more complex than either side (including Hollywood) cares to admit. As a matter of fact, I find it interesting how “On The Waterfront” and “High Noon” both became part anti-communist Movies, especially when “High Noon” was originally anti-McCarthy and anti-HUAC.

    • It was a very interesting time for Kazan to be operating in mate, I must admit I don’t know a lot about the background in Hollywood at that time but I imagined there was a lot of powerplays and interesting moments playing out behind the scenes.

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