Marlon Brando is often considered one of the greatest actors of all time. That could be open to debate, but there is no denying his skills when watching him on the screen. This month saw a release of the 1954 film On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. This release is part of Turner Classic Movies re-releasing classic films for the public to view once again. When I was young I often watched the old time films because my mother always said, “If you want to appreciate the new, you have to appreciate the old.” Granted, I’ve never seen On the Waterfront until this time and my, what an experience. It’s always nice to see an old film on the big screen for two reasons. First, to just experience a film before I was born is an experience. It really shows you how different films were made and what was shown during that era. Second, to see who else is in the theater. I often wonder about the people I see in the theater. I want to pull them aside and ask them questions about the film and get their feedback. Only three people were present at my showing of On the Waterfront; perhaps not many people are aware of it’s showing.
Watching a film in black and white is a unique experience. Something about the color really gives the film a great feel and great setting. Marlon Brando plays a man named Terry who works on the docks in New Jersey. His past is often talked about when he used to be a prizefighter but times for Terry have moved on. Terry spends his days working on the docks then going home but not before paying a visit to a man named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Friendly is a local mob boss who controls the docks. The workers are not protected by a Union and end up suffering while Johnny collects their money and lives the good life. Everyone has a code, they are deaf and dumb. They say nothing and nothing will happen to them. Something tragic and terrible happens in the opening of this film, Terry meets a man named Joey and shows him a bird. Joey likes birds and even has a bird’s nest on the roof of his apartment building. Terry says he will meet him on the roof but when Joey arrives he’s thrown off by two men. We clearly see the two men on the roof before the scene plays out but are still shocked once it happens. Terry himself is shocked and beside himself after witnessing Joey’s death.
Terry knows what to do, be deaf and dumb. But one man isn’t playing that card and that is Father Barry (Karl Malden). Father Barry is furious with the working conditions and urges the workers to make a stand and do something, but everyone plays a deaf ear. Then another thing happens where a dockworker is killed. Again Father Barry urges the men to say something, do something, anything and yet everyone turns a cold shoulder. Father Barry’s monologue is this scene is very well written and executed.
Terry ends up running into a beautiful woman named Edie (Eva Marie Saint), Joey’s sister. Terry knows about his death but says nothing. He likes Edie and they even get a drink together and eventually become close. She is looking for information as to who killed her brother, but Terry is focusing on just her without revealing the truth. Things start to progress when Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger), who works for Johnny Friendly, threatens his brother when a subpoena is issued to Terry to testify about the murder of Joey. It’s very interesting to watch both brothers in this film. Charley is associated with the mob boss and is so cruel to threaten his brother while Terry is just a regular guy trying to make it in the world. A scene arrives between the two brothers and it’s definitely a gut-wrenching one. What happens I won’t say but what transpires during that scene is one that is hard to forget especially Brando’s monologue.
What Terry does next sets off a series of events that by the time the film ends I felt like I needed to give it a second viewing because of all that happened. I was very surprised that a film of this era was pretty violent and some of the subject matter that was presented. The lack of action is also nice because the acting is just superb, every scene keeps our attention. The dialogue is top notch and feels real. By today’s standards the storyline and even the romance part would be overlooked because it’s been used so many times. Films from this time frame are way different from the films of today. Perhaps the audience is expecting action or a lot of thrills, but this film doesn’t need any of them. Every actor in this film captures the screen and even the music that plays during crucial scenes is enough to excite us or sadden us.
Watching this film brought back old memories of when I would watch some of the great classics. Films like this aren’t around anymore, and being able to see them on the big screen is sure honorable. What’s interesting is that Terry is the hero in this film, but a strange and unusual hero. When we think of hero, we may think of someone who is strong and can lead the way. One who isn’t afraid to lead the pack and take charge, one who doesn’t accept no when an injustice is happening. Terry is like this but not exactly. He’s not the type to lead the way and take full force to make a statement. He feels like any one of us, a person who just doesn’t know what to do until he figures it out. He brushes off the investigators when they question him, and the way he interacts with Edie is very unique and unlike any character I’ve seen before. The words he says, his physical reactions, and the look in his eye tell us everything we need to know about him.
On the Waterfront won 8 Oscars and it sure deserved it. This film is glorious by it’s dialogue, its acting, and just the setting. Marlon Brando shines in every scene even though his character is nothing of the sort. He is a hero to the people around him by the choices that he makes, but will people who see this film understand that? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that this film really does need to be watched twice just to study each character. We know the characters and can clearly read their facial expressions and understand how they really feel, we hardly see that anymore with the current films. Watching this film a second time will get us a better understanding that we didn’t have the first time around and for a film to make us sit down to see it again is a staple that this is a fantastic film that will be hard to forget.