On The Waterfront (1954)

Snitches Get Stitches

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

On The Waterfront is one of the most strikingly humble films to ever come out of Hollywood. Inspired by a series of articles on union violence and longshoremen corruption titled “Crimes On The Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson, On The Waterfront doesn’t get classified within the ranks as a gangster film or a film noir even though elements of both genres are present within it. The film has several noir trademarks including a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace however as common with the genre, there is no glamour within its cynicism – there is nothing glamorous in On The Waterfront. Set and filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey where men scrap by making a living, this neo-realist world of dock-side urbanity is absent of any Hollywood artifice. You can feel the chilly atmosphere from the cold breath coming from the actor’s mouths to the smoke emanating from trash burnt by homeless men on the street. Even the rooftops themselves showcase a vast urban jungle of chimneys and TV antennas encompassed within the use of deep focus as the docks, the city and even The Empire State Building dominate the background.

The ecosystem of Hoboken’s waterfront is a world in which no one sees anything or hears anything. The longshoremen who work there operate by a system known as D&D, no not Dungeons & Dragons but Deaf & Dum. The waterfront is controlled by a corrupt union led by Michael J. Skelly aka Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) and his right-hand man Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger). On The Waterfront is a film of four powerhouse performances as the cast attempts to out-Stanislavski each other with Cobb and Steiger making for a very entertaining scenery-chewing combo. The intimidating and manipulative figures with their cigars, fedoras and expensive coats attempt to make their racket sound justified and legitimate (“But my old lady raised us ten kids on a stinkin watchman’s pension!”) and even features some early semi-cursing (“Just too much shhhh, Marquis of Queensbury. It softens him up”) delivered in those thick New York accents (Steiger himself would go onto play a similar character in The Harder They Fall).

On The Waterfront paved the way for the Italian-American dominated DeNiro/Pacino/Scorsese/Coppolla school of cinema, thanks in part to the method acting performance of one Marlon Brando as cooperator turned informer Terry Malloy. One of the aspects which make Brando’s performance so striking is the balance between being macho and tender. Beneath his exterior, Terry has a soft side and a conscience with one of the avenues which really showcases this is his interaction throughout the film with pigeons. It is somewhat wholesome that Terry Malloy spends his free time pigeon-raising as a hobby, once a common practice on the rooftops of New York City although one which has waned since the 1950’s. The pigeons also serve an additional means of being metaphorical of the film’s themes. Early in the picture, Terry describes how hawks perched atop big hotels will occasionally swoop in and snatch a pigeon. The pigeons can be seen as symbolic of the longshoremen with Johnny Friendly and his band of union thugs being symbolic of hawks. This metaphor is best showcased in the harrowing sight of the workers outside the dockyard trying to get the work tokens after one of the bosses throws them up in the air, similar to how pigeons will frantically go after birdseed after it has been thrown on the ground. 

The film’s method acting prowess reaches its height with the famous scene in the back of the taxi (putting to one side the oddity of the taxi having Venetian blinds in the back window). The back and forth between Brando and Steiger is some of the rawest acting ever committed to celluloid. You can really feel the affection between these two brothers and I’m particularly struck by Steiger’s line “When you weighed 168 pounds, you were beautiful”, it really conveys the platonic love between the two. What makes Brando’s most famous line on his squandered career as a prizefighter (“I coulda had class..”) so effective is not only the sheer tragedy it conveys but as a viewer, anyone can apply their own experience to the quote with any great opportunities one could have missed out on in life.

The picture’s female lead comes as Eva Marie Saint in her film debut as the virginal and innocent Edie Doyle, whom acts as a counterbalance to the rough and unsanctified Terry Malloy. A love does blossom between the mismatched couple of the bad boy and the catholic school girl (who cares for a six-toed, cockeyed cat) acting as a form of relief to the otherwise dower nature of the film. The picture’s other face of saintly conviction in the form of the great Karl Malden as Father Pete Barry, a naïve figure at first who goes on a learning journey and acts as a stand-in for the audience themselves to understand how this world operates. Like Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town or Father Jerry Connolly in Angels With Dirty Faces, it’s intriguing to see there was once a time when men of the collar would have been portrayed as heroes in media instead of pedophiles or simply being the butt of jokes (“These are small, but the one’s out there are far away”).

On The Waterfront is widely interpreted to be director Elia Kazan’s response to those who criticized him for identifying eight (former) communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. There are those who deny this, however, I feel the film is too on the nose for this not to be the case with lines such as Father Barry’s monologue in the church (“There’s one thing we’ve got in this country and that’s a way of fightin’ back. Now, getting the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right, against what you know is wrong. And what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you”) to Terry’s angry outburst during the film’s climax (“You hear that? I’m glad what I done!”). In popular culture, a so-called snitch is almost universally presented as a bad person, as indicated by the associated slang (rattattle-talefinknarcsquealerstoolieweaselJudas). However, On The Waterfront is a film in which the informer is the hero.  So what are the ethics of informing or snitching? Since On The Waterfront is a film in which the characters are motivated by biblical morality, what does the good book say on the matter? From GotQuestions.org:

[The Bible] records the accounts of several informers. Sometimes the informers acted evilly; other times, nobly. Examples of evil informers include the Ziphites, who betrayed David into Saul’s hand twice (1 Samuel 23:19–20; 26:1; cf. Psalm 54); Doeg the Edomite, who “snitched” on those who helped David, resulting in a massacre (1 Samuel 21:7; 22:9–19); the Persian satraps who “snitched” on Daniel (Daniel 6:10–13); and, of course, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord (Matthew 26:14–16). Examples of noble informers include Mordecai, who informed the king of a plot to assassinate him (Esther 2:21–23).

To summarize, the difference between good snitching and bad snitching can be interrupted by its effect on innocent people. However, if passing along information can upload justice and thwart evil, then informing or snitching can be seen as a moral good.

I had long assumed On The Waterfront must have been among the last films shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio prior to Hollywood’s mass adoption of widescreen since that was the only ratio I had ever seen the film being presented. However, with the film’s Criterion Collection release I was surprised to discover On The Waterfront exists in three different aspect rations including the widescreen presentations of 1:66:1 and 1:85:1. What is the best viewing option? The presentation on 4:3 is not a pan & scan of a wider alternative but rather the widescreen versions are cropped from the full frame 4:3 version. I didn’t have an issue watching the film in 1:66:1 but the wider 1:85:1 version cuts out too much information from the frame and feels unnecessarily claustrophobic. Personally, I find the near square frame of the 4:3 version to feel more cinematic than its wide-screen alternatives.

On The Waterfront concludes with Terry Malloy striping Johnny Friendly of his authority following a fight with his goons, as Terry pulls off a Christ metaphor as he walks and stumbles three times upon reaching the dockyard entrance, silently demanding to be allowed in for a day’s work despite being blacklisted following his testimony. Multiple factors cause this ending to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Firstly, the music by Leonard Bernstein (in only one of three film scores he composed) with its bombastic use of drums heightens the drama. Furthermore, there is the union man starring Terry in the face and triumphantly shouting, “Alright, let’s go to work!” followed by the men walking behind Terry while ignoring Friendly who is in a fit of rage. Finally, there is the sense of finality which comes from the concluding shot of the dockyard door closing after all the men have entered. According to author James T Fisher, the longshoremen involved in the real-world events which inspired On The Waterfront have stated the film is misleading and not an accurate depiction of real-life events, and watching this ending there is the part of your brain questioning if this would this happen in real life but within the context of the movie, it does not at all feel contrived. An ending which involves men arriving at their workplace in the morning ahead of a shift, yet it leaves one with a sense of euphoria. Workers of the world unite, I guess.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience – the story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive existence despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched Birdman of Alcatraz I only vaguely knew about the story of Robert Stoud and thus I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be as he MacGvyers the little he has at his disposal to create a grand sanctuary. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand not to mention the daunting narration by Edmund O’Brien creates an ongoing sense of foreboding.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half-hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A heartless monster who learns the value of humanity and cares for a creature as delicate and feminine as a bird. It’s a dichotomy that can come off as very corny but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents it from coming off like this. Stroud’s relationship with his mother (Thelma Ritter) even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex. Yet just as compelling is the relationship between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Birdman of Alcatraz is a tale of rehabilitation with a clear anti-death penalty message. Early in the film when Stroud’s mother speaks to First Lady Edith Wilson, she speaks of how she believes the current President doesn’t believe in the barbarity of “eye for an eye”. Due to Stroud’s pardon, the stone-cold killer went on to achieve great things in the field of aviary research and discovering cures for various aviary diseases. Later in the film, Stroud’s birds are taken away from him and he is unable to engage in commercial enterprise following rules from the newly established Federal Bureau of Prisons. The pain of seeing the one thing giving Stroud meaning in his life being taken away from him when he’s transferred to Alcatraz is unbearable viewing.

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real-life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise, I might not have even heard of the man.