1954 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor / Best Supporting Actress

Film #177: On the Waterfront (1954)

As we’ve seen in our past Brando posts, the star had lost three consecutive shots at winning the Best Actor prize. His luck finally changed a year later where he reunited with Streetcar director Elia Kazan and co-star Karl Malden. The film was Best Picture winner On the Waterfront, a piece that was based on the experiences of real long shoremen had deling with their mob-run business.

As the film starts Brando’s Terry Malloy is instrumental in the death of long shoreman Joey Doyle. Doyle’s death was supposedly due to the fact that he was about to testify against gangster Johnny Friendly, the man who runs the docks and trades illegally. Terry’s connection to the murder is cemented by the fact that his brother Charley works as Friendly’s accountant. The relationship between Terry and Charley is an odd one especially seeing as the latter got the former to throw fights in his days as a prize fighter. Events get complicated when Terry falls for Doyle’s sister Evie who, along with Malden’s priest Father Barry, tries to convince Terry to testify against Friendly. Worried that Terry is being swayed Friendly sends Charley out to set Terry straight where Terry delivers the still famous ‘I Coulda Been a Contender’ speech. Eventually Terry testifies and Friendly turns the rest of the dockworkers against him and has him beaten up but Friendly is then discredited with all the longshoremen turning their backs on him.
There’s so much to praise about On The Waterfront and thankfully for once a great film gets recognised by the Academy winning Best Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint as Evie. Saint is great in the film so much so I think this was almost a Lead performance which would’ve seen the film scoop the much-touted ‘Big Five’. If Streetcar was Brando’s breakout then this was definitely his star-making turn playing a conflicting character wanting to do what’s right but not wanting to test his loyalty against his brother and the men who have been giving him the job. There are also so many great cinematic moments from the aforementioned contender speech, to the final scene in which a beaten Terry makes his way to work despite being light on his feet and having blurred sight. But my favourite scene is probably Terry telling Evie about his involvement in Joey’s death which we don’t hear as a big steamship comes past making their conversation inaudible. On the Waterfront also clinched three deserving nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category with all three men ultimately losing to The Barefoot Contessa’s Edmund O’Brien. Of these three I think that Karl Malden was my favourite as the caring yet realistic Father Barry. However, Lee J Cobb was great as Friendly and Rod Steiger stole a few scenes as the manipulative Charlie. Leonard Bernstein’s score was similarly fantastic as it leant to the overall atmospheric tone of the piece. The Oscar-winning cinematography is just a thing of beauty with the shots of Hoboken, New Jersey adding to the realism of the piece. This realism is enhanced by the fact that certain members of the cast were non-professional actors which is particularly true of the real-life prize fighters who portrayed Friendly’s goons. Ultimately, On the Waterfront has to go down as one of the greatest films of all time and one of a handful of films that deserved its Best Picture win.


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