One of the most imitated scenes in movie history.
On the Waterfront is the movie that finally won Marlon Brando a Best Actor Academy Award. I say finally because it was his 4th consecutive nomination. In 1951 he was nominated for A Streetcar Named Desire but lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. In 1952 he was nominated for Viva Zapata but lost to Gary Cooper in High Noon. And in 1953 he was nominated for playing Mark Antony in Julius Caesar but lost to William Holden in Stalag 17. As it turned out 1954 was his year.
On the Waterfront is best remembered today because of one scene that has been imitated a thousand times. Brando’s washed up boxer Terry Malloy riding in the backseat of a car with his brother Charley (Rod Steiger). The blinds in the back window are closed but lights from passing cars flicker across the faces of the two men. When Charley pulls a gun on his brother, Terry gives one of the most famous speeches in movie history. "It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night." My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money. You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley."
This movie is set on the Jersey waterfront just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was shot on location and the docks, parks, streets and rooftops of Hoboken are a fully developed character. There is plenty of symbolism here. Terry keeps pigeons on the roof of his apartment building and it is here where he is most happy. The closer he gets to the river, the more violence and danger he faces.
Terry Malloy sets up Joey Doyle for talking to the cops about Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the union boss and thug who rules the docks with an iron fist. Charley is Johnny’s right hand man and through him Terry is given a cushy job on the docks. Terry assumes Johnny is just going to lean on Joey but the guy is pushed off the roof of a building and murdered. Things get complicated for Terry when a local priest (Karl Malden) and Joey Doyle’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) take a stand against Johnny Friendly. Of course Terry must eventually choose sides, leading up to the climactic fight between him and Johnny on the docks.
The acting is all around superb. Lee J. Cobb is brilliant as Johnny Friendly. He commands your respect even as he earns your contempt. Rod Steiger plays Charley as a gangster nebbish. Eva Marie Saint is quite good as the tough yet innocent Edie. But it is Brando’s performance that really elevates the movie. This is the perfect part for him. Terry Malloy is a loser. He’s not the brightest guy in the room and he knows it. That’s what makes his ultimate redemption so powerful. I can’t imagine any other actor delivering the following line to Johnny Friendly. "You think you're God Almighty, but you know what you are? You're a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinkin' mug! And I'm glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I'm glad what I done!"
I’m sure glad that Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan made this movie.
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.
While the melodrama in On the Waterfront seems a little dated now, Brando's performance seems quite modern. His naturalistic method acting was so far ahead of the style of the time that it almost seems like the birth of modern movies happened when he hit the screen. The famous speech you reference Patrick is a good example. People don't say "Palookaville" anymore, but there are still a lot of actors today trying to be Brando.
Although I'd seen this movie before, it didn't occur to me until this time just how much Sylvester Stallone ripped off the character of Terry when he played Rocky. Not that Stallone is equal to Brando, but both characters are down on their luck, ex-boxers who are now doing small time work for mobsters. Both of them are drawn to the good girl. And both of them end up standing up for themselves to regain their self-respect.
The acting is all quite good, as you mentioned Patrick, but this movie is all about Brando. His performance dominates the film with subtle ease. We've seen this storyline (the lone man standing up against the odds for what's right) so many times since this one that perhaps it has lost some of its impact, but Brando's performance has lost nothing. He stumbles and mumbles through parts of it while at other times seems to move like a boxer. Okay, so maybe he didn't need to wear what looks like eye-liner throughout the movie, but apart from that his portrayal is impeccable.
For those who know the background of this movie and how director Elia Kazan had named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the story of On the Waterfront has a weighted subtext. Clearly Kazan was defending his decision with this film by showing the power of one man speaking out for himself. Although many in Hollywood never forgave him for his actions, surely winning 8 out of an 11 Oscar nominations for this film must have been some kind of satisfaction for him.
Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront
My brothers both mentioned how amazing Marlon Brando is here. I had the same thought as Scott, that it clearly influenced Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Patrick mentioned that this was Brando's fourth consecutive Academy Award nomination. What he did not state was that three of those four nominated roles were from movies directed by Elia Kazan.
Brando is given credit for the modern acting style, then known as "method acting," but Elia Kazan truly deserves some credit. Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. Along with Lee Strasberg, they introduced method acting to a post World War II generation of actors. Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift were the most famous method actors of the decade. Each of these actors made a film under Kazan's direction. His greatest pupil was, of course, Brando.
One testimony to Brando's talent as an actor is how he delivers each line with such sincerity and ease. You would think he was writing the script as he said the words. He speaks with 1950s colloquialisms. Scott mentioned the word, "palookaville." That word was likely humorous to folks in 1954 as well as today. My favorite example is when Brando says to Malden, "If I spill, my life ain't worth a nickel." Brando made every line sound like he created it right then and there.
On the Waterfront is not big on story or plot. In fact, purists be damned, this melodrama can get a bit boring. We know where it will go pretty early on. What keeps us watching is Kazan's direction and Brando's riveting performance. In of the more unique scenes, Brando tells Saint what he knows about her brother's death. We only hear a few words of the conversation, as background noise drowns the dialogue out. However, we see the look of shame on Brando's face and the look of shock on Saints. The acting, especially Brando's, raises this film to lofty heights it otherwise does not deserve to reach.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures Corporation (1954)