On the Waterfront was not only an important American film, it was also a game-changer for Hollywood. The early 1950s had begun to see the gradual disintegration of the studio system that had served Hollywood well for three decades. The rapid expansion of television sets in every American home vastly depressed Hollywood both financially and spiritually.
Hampered by a strict moral Production Code since 1930, the major film studios had by and large aimed their productions at an all-age audience from six to sixty. This was demonstrated in the main core of its films to a commitment to family-friendly subjects invariably with happy endings. But following WWII, American culture and attitudes had changed significantly. Cinema-goers began to ask themselves why should they have to pay to see such movie stories when there was now an abundance of similar shows beamed into their parlours every evening? The continual decline in audiences – which caused hundreds of cinemas to close across the US – made the production of a high volume of movies inefficient. Subsequently, it was no longer economical for the major film studios to maintain the now old-fashioned factory-like studio system. However, the collapse of the system generated the rise of the independent film producer who, unlike the old movie moguls, would challenge the Production Code head-on by financing movies with more hard-hitting adult themes. This was the background of the independent production On the Waterfront.
The idea for the film began with an exposé series written in 1948 for The New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. The New York commercial waterfront was a cesspool of corruption and violence run by the Mob. Brooklyn-based Albert Anastasia, who came up through the mafia as the top enforcer of Murder Incorporated, was the boss of bosses of the eastern seaboard crime fiefdom. It was a three-way criminal collusion of the Mob, corrupt union leaders and the shipping companies – all greasing the palms of local New York politicos. Johnson’s heroic series pulled no punches describing in detail bribery, beatings, thievery, kickbacks, extortion and the brutal murder of the longshoremen hiring boss Andy Hintz, who was executed for refusing to let the Mob muscle in on his pier. This unholy trinity controlled the lives of all the employed longshoremen and stevedores by enforcing the law of D’n D (Deaf and Dumb) – to talk was to rat and to rat was to stand exposed and unprotected, which would inevitably result in violent retribution.
Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg had already taken on organised crime in his novel The Harder They Fall, which dealt with the then endemic boxing rackets. He was convinced that Johnson’s waterfront expose was fertile material for a ground-breaking movie. Director Elia Kazan agreed with Schulberg and work began on a script. When the first draft of a screenplay was completed, Kazan made the rounds of all the major film studios. Hollywood was a capitalist organisation and during its early years had been extremely anti-union. This had led to a firm belief by the movie moguls that trade unionism and labour organisations were dangerous fields to tread for motion picture subjects. Furthermore, this was 1953, the height of anti-communist hysteria in America, and financing a movie seen as a justification for informants was deemed far too controversial for the studios. Consequently, every single studio rejected Kazan and Schulburg’s proposed movie story outright.
With the project totally snubbed, it was eventually rescued by maverick independent film producer Sam Spiegel, who not only agreed to finance the production but also struck a distribution deal with the New York office of Columbia Pictures.
Kazan wanted his protégé, the pioneering method actor Marlon Brando, for the lead role but Brando turned the part down. Spiegel then suggested Frank Sinatra, primarily because the movie would be shot in and around the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey – Sinatra’s hometown. According to Sinatra, he had “a handshake deal” but no formally-signed contract. Consequently, he was furious when he heard that Brando had changed his mind and was now cast for the lead. Sinatra filed a lawsuit against Spiegel which was later settled out of court.
The plot of the film revolves around Terry Malloy (Brando), a likeable loafer who had an unsuccessful career as a boxer. He hangs around NYC’s docks carrying out favours for union boss-racketeer Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Following one of Friendly’s orders, he realises too late that he was used to set up an uncooperative docker to be murdered. His guilt is compounded when he meets the dead man’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Unaware of Terry’s involvement in the act, she and Father Barry (Karl Malden), a tough-minded waterfront priest, ask him to help them to bring the racketeers to justice. He tells them that if he talks his life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel. One of the racketeers is Terry’s older brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a crooked lawyer working for the Mob. Friendly instructs Charley to see to it that his kid brother keeps his mouth shut or else.
This leads to the movie’s iconic scene of the two brothers meeting in the back of a taxi-cab. As they talk, Terry begins to see things more clearly than before and suddenly realises the true character of Charley, who had consciously manipulated him into losing his crucial boxing match years earlier.
Brando now delivers his famous lines of agony and regret: “You was my brother Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. It was you Charley”. A now thoroughly chastened Charley passes Terry a hand-gun telling him, “Here take it – you’ll need it”.
Friendly has Charley murdered and his body is hung up in an alley as a warning to Terry. After finding his dead brother, Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry convinces him to fight Friendly by testifying against him in court. Terry’s testimony will spell the end of Johnny Friendly. However, a brief scene in which an affluent looking man watches the hearings on television and switches it off when Friendly makes a fool of himself on the witness stand, clearly implies that it is far from being the end of high-level racketeering on the docks.
On the Waterfront is a skilful piece of American film drama. It is Kazan at the peak of his career, at a time when he was most capable of getting significant and compelling performances from his main cast of actors (who had all studied at Kazan’s prestigious Actors Studio in New York) – especially Marlon Brando’s ingenious and electrifying portrayal of Terry Malloy. His anguished interpretation of a passive dockworker, who transforms himself into a crusader against mob-controlled trade union tyranny, elevated Brando from a gifted newcomer to the most important actor in motion pictures. The movie was a critical and commercial success and received twelve Academy Award nominations.
In a rare breakthrough for an independent production, it amassed five acting nominations and was the first ever to boast three nominees in the same category. Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, which unfortunately split their votes. However, the film won a total of eight Oscars including ones for Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Elia Kazan, Bud Schulberg and Sam Spiegel.