Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront



Elia Kazan


Budd Schulberg


108 min.


Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, Eva Marie Saint

MPAA Rating

Approved (PCA #16916)

Buy/Rent Movie




The only way out of the New York City slums was death. On the Waterfront examines the lives of two families whose lives are threatened by their own existences.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had ambitions. He was going to be a celebrated prizefighter but fate intervened. As was typical with life in the slums, fate was personified in his brother Charley (Rod Steiger). The dockworkers union for which Charley works as a bookkeeper, serves the community by ensuring its members find work. If you don’t pay dues, you don’t work. Nevermind that the dues are high and the operation, run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), is little more than a group of racketeers.

Events are set in motion that push Terry into a dangerous position. He can either turn on the union and help stop their influence on the docks or keep quiet and let the murders and other illegal activities continue. Opposing Friendley and his goons are a catholic priest and the sister of a man the union killed.

Father Barry (Karl Malden) doesn’t try to influence Terry specifically, but is hoping to encourage those who are being stepped on to stand up for themselves. Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), on the other hand, discovers Terry knows more about her brother’s death than he lets an and does everything she can to convince Terry, with whom she falls in love, come out and testify.

Though his character opined that he “coulda been somebody”,Brando was anything but a nobody. With his celebrated performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando matured further as an actor in On the Waterfront.His act even earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor, which he didn’t refuse. Saint was also singled out for her brave and emotional performance. However, the film really belonged to the men. Brando was simply marvelous. Even when he found success, it was easy to see Terry tortured by his past. He wanted to be that “contender” before but was crushed by his brother’s greed.

Cobb was equally stellar and, had he not been nominated against this cast mates Malden and Steiger, he probably could have won. Cobb’s Friendley was anything but. He created an absolutely unlikable character that lives on long past he fades from the screen.

The film also took awards for Best Picture, Director, Writing, Editing, Art Direction and Cinematography. It was one of the biggest victories in Oscar history at the time and it’s not difficult to see why. When the film wraps at 108 minutes, you don’t feel that any amount of screen time was wasted. Every character, line of dialogue and scene folds perfectly into the package.

On the Waterfront has several themes crisscrossing throughout. Director Elia Kazan deftly weaves the story in a dramatic and engaging way. Redemption, revenge, love and faith each play an important role in the film. Though the audience knows the film takes place in the past, it’s still like looking at the modern world in a black-and-white mirror.

Instead of racketeers keeping people from making a decent living in a safe and open environment, we have politicians, businessmen and religious leaders acting in the same capacity. On the Waterfront may be about one aspect of life in the past but its message is still pertinent in our modern landscape.

Review Written

November 6, 2006

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