some people like movies

reviews and reactions to the wonderful world of film

why i love On the Waterfront (1954)

with 2 comments

“You don’t understand, I coulda had class!  I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Everyone’s heard this quote before.  Everyone.  It’s been torn apart and parodied endlessly, and much of its magic has been lost by over use.  This scene, however, between Charlie and Terry Malloy is magical.  It’s one of the most finely crafted scenes in all the movies.  Everyone also knows that Marlon Brando is an excellent actor but he is not just an actor.  He was a person, a creator, an artist.  His spontaneity and sincerity are so genuine and truly unique for the time.  This scene (and movie) proves just why he is one the greatest actors to ever grace the screen.

On the Waterfront is one of “those movies.”  Like Casablanca, The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind… it’s a critically acclaimed classic that everyone “should” see.  Blah blah blah.  My initial thought was more like, “Okay, let’s get this over with so I can say I’ve seen it” which is really how many treat classic movies.  But is it REALLY worth it?  The answer is yes, yes, yes!

I love On the Waterfront because when I’m watching I am somewhere else.  Even though it’s nearly 60-years-old it still feels fresh.  I turn off the TV and I lean back and think to myself “wow, that was a good story” and then I want to tell everyone about my experience.  It’s a very emotional story, beginning with a death only 5 minutes in.  Terry Malloy (Brando) plays an ex-fighter who now tends pigeons and runs errands for big-bad Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).  After receiving a subpoena, he is faced with the choice of whether or not to stand up to his union bosses.  It’s a story about hope, fear, redemption, love, dissapointment, anger, and courage.

This movie is my precious gem.  It’s a film that most people from my generation have (sadly) never seen but anyone over 30 has seen it 10 to 30 times.  I love when people ask me what my favorite movie is and I respond “On the Waterfront” and they go, “Ohh yeah… I think I’ve heard of that one, yeah.”  (I’m speaking to kids my age, here.  If you are a fellow movie blogger, yeah I know.  You’ve most likely seen this movie).  But anyway, if I have no other cinematic influence on my friends I hope that I can share this must-see classic with them.  I’ve loved Star Wars and other movies since birth but this was the film that really opened my eyes to the possibilities of an actor, and to all that a classic movie could offer to a kid.  You could say it turned me from a movie goer to a true movie lover; turned movies from sheer entertainment to pieces of art.

Terry Malloy is a hero.  Think about the scene where Terry decides to tell Edie (Eva Marie Saint) that it was he who set her brother up to be killed (albeit unknowingly).  9/10 rom coms/drams today would have done it differently.  Edie would have found out in some way that didn’t disclose the entire story painting Terry in a bad light, hate him for being dishonest and then somehow make-up because she was overreacting.  Kiss and all is better.  What I love here is his complete honesty.  He knew, with the help of Father Barry (Karl Malden), that he needed to tell her.  He knew that she needed to know.  So what does he do?  He runs immediately down the hill and he tells her the truth!  This is not famous like the contender scene or the end but it is beautiful.  We hear no dialogue, just the train speeding by echoing the screaming in Edie’s head.  She’s upset (duhh), then runs away in horror and Terry’s left standing there alone and hurt.  It is the epitome of consequences for our actions, even unknowing actions.

Each and every character is excellent, and the acting superb.  Terry is a hero.  Edie is kind and loyal.  Their relationship is one of the best in cinema, they are definitely in my top 5 best screen couples.  Father Coogan is faithful and serviceable: “If you think Christ is not on the Waterfront…” Johnny Friendly is a powerful, angry pawn.  Charlie (Rod Steiger) is a good brother, it’s just that no one knew it yet.

Elia Kazan gives us exactly what he wanted.  Loosely based off his own experience, he paints a picture of what it’s like to stand up.  His directing decisions create something wonderful.  I must also credit Leonard Bernstein’s score – the music is moving and perfectly set.  It’s odd that I rarely compliment the musical score in my reviews since I truly believe that music and sound is absolutely essential to the tone and theme of the movie.  Leonard Bernstein is a master and this film wouldn’t be the same without his emotional contribution.

On the Waterfront is just another story, just another movie.  But this movie changed me.  10/10

Voilà the contender scene (thank you, wonderful youtube uploader).  As I’ve said before, everything I write is nothing more than a catalog for myself.  But if you happen to read this – you should watch this movie.


Written by laurenthejukebox17

July 3, 2010 at 10:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I love how the jacket moves from one person to another, each person becoming the next to talk until it finally reaches Brando.

    There’s just so much to love about this film even if you disagree with the message Kazan was sending.

    Michael Troutman

    July 14, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    • I love that too! Agreed, with all of the controversy surrounding Kazan it’s definitely difficult to agree with him but it is still an amazing movie. Thanks for stopping by!


      July 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm

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