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.

Seven Days In May (1964)

Olympus Has Fallen

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Seven Days In May is a film which tapped into cold war paranoia but still has relevance for today’s increasingly unstable political world. Now that we have arrived in the age of Trump and many people would shockingly actually like the premise of this high concept political thriller to play out successfully in real life, what better time to revisit Seven Day In May. A military coup in the United States? This is the kind of thing that happens in banana republics, not in the most powerful nation on Earth. The fantastical set up is the appeal of a movie like this; the idea that the so-called haven of democracy could potentially crumble. The big question though; could it happen in real life? Are the events in the movie plausible? To the laymen viewer, they are at least.

Seven Days In May has some powerhouse actors with serious charisma talking some serious politics; no action, just heart-pounding wordy exchanges. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is a believer in a nuclear deterrent and doesn’t trust the Russians to hold their side of the deal. Is he someone who has a genuine concern or is he a megalomaniac taking advantage of a situation or both? The pairing Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas couldn’t be a better combo as military personnel with a mutual respect for each other. Their relationship is where much of the film’s emotion is drawn from with Douglas looking up to Lancaster and his eventual betrayal of him. Ava Gardner on the other and is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar cast. I’ve never thought much of her as an actress and this comes through here with a performance which is serviceable not much more.

The scene in which Kirk Douglas is pitched with the task of explaining to the President there may be a military coup to overthrow his administration is one of the best examples of expository delivery I’ve ever seen. I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly Kirk Douglas’ sheer screen presence and charisma and secondly, the tension is drawn from him embarrassing himself while trying to explain such a fantastical military coup. He delivers the lengthy monologue nervous and under pressure but while still remaining dignified. Plus that camera zoom and head tilt when he summarises his monologue makes the hairs stand up.

John Frankenheimer is one of the most visually striking directors in black & white with his use of shades of tones, he has a very striking style. The Saul Bass-style opening credits on the other hand show why the 1960’s was a golden age for title sequences as Hollywood attempted to draw audiences away from the TV and into the theatre.

Fredric March makes for a convincing leader as President Jordan Lynman. He is not a Trumpain figure, no he’s far humbler than that. His course of action over the last year bordered on criminal negligence, or at least according to General Scott. He has a 29% approval rating and the public has voiced “a universal rejection of your entire political philosophy” according to Gallop poll; he is a man who is not upholding his democratic mandate. Should there still be a respect for the office of the president if the country is against him? What’s more important, protecting a country against its government or loyalty to the constitution? The viewer is left to make up their own mind and the movie does not take sides. We never know the political ideology of any of the characters; the words republican, democrat, conservative or liberal is never mentioned. Seven Days In May is a movie with no clear-cut hero or villain; both sides believe what they are doing is for the best of America and by extension the world. By the end the answer as to who Judas is not so black and white (“Yes I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform”).

12 Angry Men (1957)

…and Justice for All

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I don’t think I can bestow a higher statement of praise on a film than to call it a life-changing experience. 12 Angry Men influenced me not to believe everything I hear, instead to question things and ultimately turning me into a more skeptical person; there is more to life than meets the eye (or ear). It’s one of few films which helped shape who I am as a person.  When watching it I constantly visualise the details in my head of the events and locations of the murder case being described. At the beginning of the film, all the jurors bar one believe the boy in question is guilty of murdering his father. By the end of the film, they all change their vote to not guilty. How is this possible? Why just the most incredible 90-minute exhibition of human psychology and argumentation. I enjoy never knowing what really happened; did the kid commit murder or not? – It’s up for the viewer to decide. 12 Angry Men is a movie that is hard to write a review for; I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back to add more since I find myself watching 12 Angry Men at least once a year. With layer upon layer upon layer, this is a movie I could talk about hours, and always finding new aspects to discuss on each viewing. As the exposition reveals more details of the case I am left saying in the words of Milhouse Van Houten, “Tell me more!”. – Ah the pure joy of an engrossing, wordy, civil debate.

On every viewing of 12 Angry Men I find myself focusing on a different character. I’d have to watch the 12 times in order to fully explore every character, all representative of personalities we’re likely to encounter in real life’; I’m sure I’ve encountered each one at some point in my life. This is a movie that needed a cast comprised of character actors (aside from Henry Fonda) in order to create such distinct personalities – the characters are believable without being two-dimensional stereotypes. Not all of them leave prejudice at the door; it’s more obvious with some than others. Not all of them really take much interest in the case or have much pride being part of a jury and even treating it as a bit of a joke at times; even the judge at the beginning doesn’t to be very enthusiastic about the case at hand. They even display different levels of confidence and surety in their opinions – when every juror announces they have changed their mind you can see on their faces how difficult that admission is.

12 Angry Men provides possibly the best cinematic insight into group conflict and argumentation. Like with a jury or a classroom full of people, this large variety of personalities are unlikely to converge elsewhere in a small space for a period of time in which they have to communicate with each other, such as what John Hughes would explore with his teen detention drama in 1985 with The Breakfast Club. You really get a sense of who likes who and who doesn’t as the heat beats down in that claustrophobic space. Director Sidney Lumet made the cast spend time with each other before filming and it certainly helped. I don’t feel like I’m watching actors, I feel like I’m watching a group of everyday people in a jury. As not all US states at the time opened their doors to having womenpresent within juires; the film is not 12 Angry Men and Women. I imagine the feminine point of few would have influenced the examination of the proceedings; just think of Grace Kelly’s female instincts from Rear Window.

The cast:

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam):

The Jury Foreman. He doesn’t express any opinion or reasons for changing his vote, taking a neutral stance and moderates the proceedings.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler):

Nerdy and socially awkward; reminds me of Rick Moranis. I find it interesting that he is placed sitting beside Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3 as the two are polar opposites. He finds it difficult to articulate an opinion at first but grows confidence and later stands up to the other jurors.

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb):

Lee J. Cobb is my favourite of the cast, in my view being the most interesting and complex character with the biggest ark as the opinionated and brash antagonist, Juror #3; ultimately stealing the show. He seems fair and rational at first until we gradually discover he wants to boy on trial found guilty for personal reasons. He is by far the most confrontational juror as he contests every single rebuttal thrown his way and never concedes a good point. This is a strategy that even leads him to shoot himself in the foot when he destroys his own argument by frantically stating “he was an old man, half the time he was confused, how could be positive about anything?” Juror #3’s breakdown at the end is a highlight in a film full of awe-inspiring performances. His angry outburst to Fonda that he’ll kill him followed by Fonda’s response of “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”, is surely one of the greatest zingers in cinema history.

Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall):

A cold-hearted individual which is reflected by his wearing of a jacket throughout the whole 90 minutes despite the heat. He is a metaphorical representation of cold, hard facts. He is arguably the most competent and restrained debater and also a bit of a ‘know it all’ which makes it all the more interesting and satisfying when he changes his vote. Likewise, the movies and stars mentioned during his cross-examination by Juror #8 are not real (yes I looked them up)

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman):

Comes from a slum background although his appearance doesn’t suggest this. He even votes guilty on two occasions despite the boy on trail coming from his same background. His decision to change his vote could have been influenced by the accusation from Juror #3 (both still being a member of the guilty party at this point) that he had changed his vote due to sharing the same background the boy on trial, when in fact he hadn’t changed his vote.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns):

The most normal juror, doesn’t stand out – a very regular John Doe. He even states he’s not a “supposing man” and that his boss does all the supposing. He doesn’t have anything to add when asked for his opinion, just repeating points that have already been made in an unsure manner.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden):

Clearly doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t care about the case and even bullies and tries to intimidate other jurors. He has no respect for the grounds with his gum-chewing and litter throwing and although he never outright says he wants to leave and go to the ball game which he has tickets for, it’s painfully obvious from the beginning what his true intent is.

Juror #8/Davis (Henry Fonda):

The film’s protagonist and the outsider of the jury. A soft-spoken and rarely confrontational man who is brave enough to stand up to the collective and going against popular opinion, even when the rest of them get frustrated with him. Fonda like in many of his movies is a beacon of truth and justice here, but he doesn’t come off as unbelievable saintly – even with his wearing of a white suit. The scene in which he puts his knife in the table is a gasping moment if there ever was one.

Juror #9/McCardle (Joseph Sweeney):

The most elderly member of the jury. Juror #1 states he should be respected because of that, and I believe this is deserved because of his knowledge as well as his confidence in Juror #8.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley):

The most obviously bigoted member of the jury and thus ultimately doesn’t prove to be a huge help to the proceedings with talking out of turn multiple tie, his prejudiced rants or his hypocrisy in defending the woman’s statement despite her also being “one of them too”. At one point he even suggests telling a funny story he heard rather than discussing the case and eventually gets expelled from the table when his bigotry is denied an audience

Juror #11 (George Voskovec):

An Eastern European immigrant (possibly from behind the Iron Curtain) who takes more pride in the American justice system as well as democracy than any of the American members of the Jury, even defending it such as when Juror #10 demands that Juror #5 reveals his voting choice. Likewise, I love his statement to Juror #2 in response to what side he is on: “I don’t believe I have to be loyal to one side or the other, I’m simply asking questions”. Juror #11 is a watchmaker who regularly points out the time. Ah, I see what you did there movie!

Juror #12 (Robert Webber):

A huckster in the advertising business which makes sense as he himself has a very manufactured look. I get the impression he represents 1950’s conformity with his appearance, looking like a character from a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy with his very 50’s glasses and hair. He goes along with the crowd, even changing his vote more than once.

Is Jury Duty really this incredible in the real world? At the end of 12 Angry Men I wonder if the jurors are aware that they’ve just experienced probably the most incredible 90 minutes of their lives.