On the Waterfront (1954)

A drawing of a man sitting against a chimney on a rooftop overlooking the docks with pigeons flying by
The Criterion Collection cover art for the 1954 Elia Kazan movie On the Waterfront.
About the movie
  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
  • Yes or no?: Yes
  • Links: on Letterboxd, IMDb page
Other reviews:

I’m a bit torn by this and not sure if I even know enough to form an opinion on Elia Kazan.

I watched this without having any idea of the context. I prefer that if I can do it. Then I like to read up and at least form a basic picture of the world in which the movie was made. The message here was a very strong one—anti-corruption, power to the workers over those who have power. Plus, the opportunity to do something both righteous and empowering because of its righteousness.

Brando is an absolute star. I was prepared not to be impressed, mainly because he isn’t someone I think of when I think of the greats. He’s just generally not for me. But the young version of him, in love, and torn between right and wrong, was a great thing for me to see.

Brando’s age was the real eye-opener. I have always viewed him as a bit more of my younger years than well before them. Except this was made 20 years before I was born and he is tremendous, so I now have a fully different understanding of him as an actor, and will probably be looking for more with him in it as a younger man.

That age, however, hit me shockingly when the opening credits gave us an “Introducing Eva Marie Saint.” Compared to Brando, I had her painted as distinctly of that era (in my mind it was 40s-50s for her) but that was incorrect. Anyway, the two of them together worked quite well. I also loved that her character really took no shit. She disliked his negging and didn’t respond when he was being shitty.

The ending was a good one. To read later that Orson Welles disliked the film because he said it was a rat making a movie about a rat made me stop to think about it. That’s why I can’t really fully grasp how I feel about the movie in the fuller context. But as a watch, I enjoyed it and understand what makes it well regarded.

Some other notes:

  • Boxers and pigeons—I remember something about Mike Tyson having pigeons really early in his career. Is that a bullshit myth making thing or did boxers really have some connection to pigeons?
  • The score weirded me out. I wonder if anyone at the time thought it was a bit overbearing and maybe inappropriate? I don’t know a better word, but the mood simply did not match. But it was Leonard Bernstein, so maybe I’m the fool.
  • During Brando giving his “I coulda been a contender” speech, he was looking off camera, definitely at cue cards. Maybe this is well known, but it was clear as day he was moving his eyes from her to the cards and back.

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December 12, 2023
Tags: criterion collection
Categories: Reviews