Terry Malloy dreams about being a prize fighter, while tending his pigeons and running errands at the docks for Johnny Friendly, the corrupt boss of the dockers union. Terry witnesses a murder by two of Johnny's thugs, and later meets the dead man's sister and feels responsible for his death. She introduces him to Father Barry, who tries to force him to provide information for the courts that will smash the dock racketeers. Written by
Colin Tinto <email@example.com>
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My comments here are written in light of having watching the film for a second time. While I liked 'On the Waterfront' a lot the first time round, I appreciated it even more the second time. There are some slight negative points - the music is at times overbearing and the religious side it tries to bring forth does not quite work - but there is not anything significant that I would flaw the film on.
The acting is definitely the film's strongest point. Marlon Brando gives and intense and realistic performance. It is not just because of the famous car scene, or the well-known scene in the bar with Saint, that makes his performance great. It is everything that he does throughout, in particular the facial expressions that he captures on his face. Towards the end there is a scene in which he stands alone and just stares at his fellow workers. His expression is unflinching without being unrealistic. Eva Marie Saint is quite good too, also giving off a performance in which her face is central. However, there is less to talk about with her than there is about the supporting actors.
When I first viewed the film, it was Karl Malden's acting that stood out the most to me. His performance and character are powerful, however on a second viewing it seems a bit over-the-top, as does the whole religious side of the film in which he is involved. On the other hand, Lee J. Cobb is brilliant as Johnny Friendly, providing a fierce performance while not letting his character turn into a stereotype of evil. Then there is Rod Steiger, whose acting, after only one viewing of the film, I did not take much notice of. He is hardly there, and until the point when he instructed to talk with Brando, he does not have much to do. Indeed, Rod Steiger has very few good scenes in the film, however he is excellent in those scenes. It is incredibly realistic acting, the way he interacts with his brother, and the way he is torn between the mob and his family.
The next thing to mention is that this film could never be as effective in colour. The bleakness of the black and white prints is used well by Kazan. There are many shots of the characters, which just show their heads against a white sky: a bleak white sky. We cannot even see if it is cloudy or sunny day. The sky is as plain and as barren as what the future holds for each of the characters. Leonard Bernstein's music deserves a mention too. It is an electrifying score and often fits the actions very well. It is at times a tad overbearing (note the scene where Brando goes to Saint's house) as it has a tendency to over-ride the dialogue and the action. However, this does not subtract much from the overall picture.
The sound recording is very realistic. The dock noises can often be heard, which helps to set up the waterfront atmosphere, and there is one scene in which the noise of a ship plays a key element in a conversation between Saint and Brando. In that conversation it is metaphoric, and it could even be argued that it is only heard through perceptual subjectivity. The other noises are sharply recorded too, such as banging at the basement of the church. The photography is excellent, using shadows very well to set up the atmosphere, all of which is captured well with some glides and tilts.
One can praise a film for many different reasons, but it is not worth much unless one can explain what the film is about. I would say that 'On the Waterfront' is a drama about struggling against the restrictions of society, and of what it takes to stand up for what one believes in. However, I also see it as an exciting thriller about fighting corruption and the harshness of stevedore life in a community that is effectively run by gangsters. Perhaps it is about love and how relationships develop, and the events that help them to grow strong. I think different viewers will take some different out of it. And it is perhaps that, more than the artistic and cinematic qualities of the film, which makes it a great piece of cinema.
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