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.

Trouble Along the Way (1953)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Duke Is Ziggity!

Westerns have never been a favourite genre of mine unless one is really exceptional or unique. So it should come as no surprise what ends up becoming my favourite John Wayne movie was his foray into Cary Grant-esque style comedy, something much more up my alley.

The Duke isn’t a favourite actor of mine yet I’ve always found to be strangely charismatic and engaging; although coming from Ireland, John Wayne is the one classic actor most people have not only heard off but have seen a movie from. Trouble Along The Way shows he was capable of a larger range than he’s given credit for although judging from the movie’s success audiences much preferred seeing him doing his usual stick of westerns and war movies. It’s apparent the studio must have put a lot into this movie hoping for it to be a big success, employing a top director and top cast, plus it feels like this role was written for Wayne. Despite the film being a chance of pace for him, the role still feels like a very John Wayne character; very American, very macho and very much an individualist.

The movie’s plot revolves around two things I’m not a fan off, sports and religion. I am informed the subplot involving the economics of college football (not to be confused with the sport of soccer, which in Europe is also called football, go figure) is more relevant today in a world where the financing of college athletics has gone out of control than it was in 1953. As for religion, although I am an atheist and staunchly anti-religious I can still enjoy movies about religion. Trouble Along The Way manages to express religious themes but never feels like I’m being preached towards. The movie even takes advantage of its religious based plot with some great religious jokes (“Couldn’t have booked one Protestant school for a breather”).

Charles Coburn’s role as Father Burke is an archetypal representation of Catholic clergy in old Hollywood films as an entirely trustworthy figure of respect such as Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town and Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. This being an attempt to appease the legion of decency; have a film condemned by the legion and you lose out on box office intake. I’ve always found this representation of clergy in classic Hollywood films fascinating as it provides a complete contrast to the media reports of today of priests molesting young boys. Trouble Along The Way provides Coburn with one of his best roles and a showcase as to why he’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors.

You can believe Wayne’s daughter played by Sherry Jackson really would be the daughter of a John Wayne character. Most movie kids get on my nerves, so whenever one does manage to impress me I have to give a special shout-out. I just wish Donna Reed could have had more screen time. In fact, my reason for watching this film was my enjoying of the other Wayne-Reed pairing They Were Expendable. Her character could easily have been a real “love to hate” role as a heartless social worker but brings sympathy to the role partially due to the character’s surprising backstory.

The other thing I must address which makes me wonder if John Wayne had much input into the film’s production is the speech Charles Coburn gives at the end of the film in which he discusses Steve’s unethical practices when assembling a football team in which Coburn states “He did it in his way, perhaps the only way”. Accompany this with the statement Steve makes when he’s been caught out that “I don’t regret what I did” makes me ask the question is this in any way referencing (and possibly defending) Wayne’s then-recent involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist, or am I just looking into it too much?

From the outset I was expecting Trouble Along The Way to be some light, enjoyable fare; but to my surprise, it proved to be a film with deep and complex story and characters. At nearly two hours it may seem lengthy for a comedy but the length is justified as there is so much going in the plot but never feels overbearing. The film is brave enough to leave questions unanswered. It’s not a depressing ending but unlike other light-hearted Hollywood films of the time, it doesn’t wrap everything in a neat bow. At the end of the film, the main characters have to learn to let go of something important in their lives. It’s disheartening seeing Sherry being taken away from her loving father to live with her mother and having to drop her tomboyish lifestyle in order to be integrated with other kids her age, but I guess the movie is just telling us that life is tough and you don’t always get what you want.