Review: On The Waterfront (1954)


Marlon Brando oozes charisma! I bet you thought I was going somewhere else with that, don’t lie!

Screenplay By: Budd Schulberg
Directed By: Elia Kazan

There is an entire back story to On The Waterfront involving the films director, Elia Kazan, and the infamous HUAC hearings of the late 1940’s. Kazan went before HUAC and threw countless people involved with film under the bus and labeled them as communists. Kazan was never repentant for his actions and has said that On The Waterfront was his way of cleansing his soul and justifying his actions. Personally, I could care less about any of that because I don’t like politics to color the way I view my movies. If people choose to take Kazan’s words into consideration or do interpret it as a statement on the HUAC hearings then that’s fine, but the HUAC hearings didn’t play a role in my interpretation of On The Waterfront.

For me On The Waterfront touched on the most basic of themes, loyalty versus honesty and loyalty in the face of reprehensible action. In every society, but especially America, a large amount of value is placed on loyalty. As kids we are taught in school to be loyal and not squeal on friends over petty things. The downside to this being drilled into our heads is that for a lot of people it morphs into the idea of being loyal no matter what. Your friend who used to make faces behind the teachers back has now risen to robbing people and yet we feel out of a deep rooted sense of loyalty that we can’t turn him in. The theme of On The Waterfront is a masterful take on loyalty and when loyalty no longer serves a purpose and needs to be replaced by honesty and practicality. Then it goes even deeper into the theme, asking why you should stay loyal to people who haven’t been loyal to you in the past. The idea of loyalty has always interested me and On The Waterfront is a great take on that issue.

Over the years Marlon Brando’s performance in On The Waterfront has become a thing of legend, and it is deserves that type of mythic praise. Brando has a certain animal charisma that attracts you from the start. The way he talks, the way he moves, everything he does carries a sense of danger but also a deep sense of charm. That is what Brando does that makes him so special in this role, he provides a deep layer of soft yearning beneath the gruff exterior. Of course the conversation in the back of the cab between Brando and Rod Steiger is the most talked about scene in On The Waterfront and is the stuff of legend. But, the moment I loved even more and that made me realize I was watching something special was when he wears Edie’s glove. It’s such a small thing, but in the action of playing with her glove and putting it on he signals the playful nature that is at his core, the good man that lay within, and symbolizes Edie and Terry are perfect for each other and fit like a glove. It’s redundant to even say it, but Brando is absolutely terrific in On The Waterfront.

The rest of the cast in On The Waterfront is full of great character actors and a debuting female lead I was always fond of. The rest of the world can have the icy cold and emotionless Grace Kelly, I’d much rather have Eva Marie Saint, who can project intense emotion and be a knockout at the same time. Karl Malden has moments where he feels a bit too preachy, pun intended, but otherwise he is better than average as Father Barry. Lee J. Cobb can play a bastard with the best of them and On The Waterfront is no exception. Cobb only needs to utter one sentence and he’s already coming across as a complete and utter creep.

For all the positives in On The Waterfront, it did harbor a few calamities. I read that this won the Oscar for editing and that is just insane, there are far too many moments of downright terrible editing. The best example is the first conversation Edie and Terry have along the gate, Terry is never where he should be, jumping all over the screen and then there’s a sequence where he’s leaning against the fence, then they cut to Edie and he’s not leaning on the fence, then in a final cut back to Terry he’s leaning on the fence again. The speech by Father Barry after the death of KO is a little too heavy handed and his reference of needing to “knock out” the evil in their lives is plain bad. Finally, in the fight between Johnny and Terry, the long shots show two obvious stuntmen in the place of Brando and Cobb.

The gaffes in On The Waterfront stop it from reaching the level most ascribe to it. But, it is still a great film with a nicely delivered message and a performance for the ages from Marlon Brando. I would especially recommend On The Waterfront for people who are looking for a message movie from the classical era that isn’t cut and dry or heavy handed in its delivery. On The Waterfront remains a powerful film and a movie that needs to be seen just for the Brando performance, he was great before Godfather, try and remember that people!




3 responses to “Review: On The Waterfront (1954)

  1. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Why Originality Is Overrated! | Bill's Movie Emporium

  2. danyulengelke

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Pingback: Academy Monday – Watch: ‘On the Waterfront’ (Elia Kazan, 1954) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s