Overview: A former boxer turned dock worker struggles with his involvement in a mob’s control of his community. Columbia Pictures; 1954; 118 Minutes.
Everything Else: Addressed honestly, the supporting structures set in place within On the Waterfront are most accurately measured somewhere between “standard” and “pretty good.” The narrative of the working class heroes struggling against oppressive corrupt powers was not a fresh one then and it certainly isn’t fresh now. The romantic pursuit feels obligatory. Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint (Father Baron and Edie Doyle) contribute performances that strengthen these two narrative layers. But even at their best (Malden’s sermon from the hold of the ship in which he invokes the Crucifixion) nothing is achieved that would immediately elevate the film into greatness. However, when considered against the powerhouse with whom they shared the screen, perhaps the most impressive accomplishment for either supporting performer lies in the ability to finish the scenes, where others certainly would have stood in silent awe.
Elia Kazan’s Terry Malloy: The film’s iconic protagonist belongs, in starkly different definitions, to two individuals. Director Elia Kazan developed and shaped Malloy’s character and storyline as an appeal to sympathy, a justification for his recently having turned over to the House Committee for Un-American Activities eight industry names including his friend and famed playwright Henry Miller, who penned the original script that would become this movie. Elia Kazan was never coy on his calculation here, neither in presentation nor the discussion thereafter: his appeal through proxy is undeniable. Terry shouts his defense for his “rat” decisions in perhaps the film’s second most paramount scene and there is no syntactical or semantic construction to distinguish his speech from one that Elia Kazan could have used, were he given the platform. Well, this movie is his platform, admitted or shameless, confessed or indignant. It’s tough to ignore author intentionalism when the material is so blatantly applied to the biographical and the biographical stands on what is now generally agreed to be (at least in varying measures) the wrong side of history. But in that same sense, the movie also stands as an intersection of culture and society, the power of film to mark the height of our country’s contemporary moment against the historical wall. There is substance in that. And it’s all been preserved and fully exonerated due to the performance contained therein.
Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy: The best acting, the most useful type of performance, isn’t large. It’s not dynamic in scale. Brando’s performance isn’t, as hyperbolic investigators might rush to describe certain other milestone movie performances, “larger-than-life.” Brando’s performance of Terry Malloy is life. The actor creates a fully realized individual, builds a unique personal existence out of small gestures, postures, inflections. Brando creates a person where before (and after) there is none. The entity of Terry Malloy is provided by Marlon Brando but borrows nothing from Marlon Brando. Notice the suggestive mannerisms: the way he rubs his chin when trying to focus, the way he nervously puts on Edie Doyle’s glove when she drops it, even the way he chews his gum seems personalized. His pauses are organic, his speech patterns naturalistic. His personality shifts with his onscreen company. He reacts differently to different individuals. When he delivers a line, there is no indication that it was ever something read from a script; Malloy seems to be realizing his thoughts just before we do. It appears as a rare full body control, as if Brando has the ability to act with the corners of his eyes, the edge of his mouth, each individual muscle in his arms and shoulders. Malloy is completely cleaned of any indicators of performance. The backstory—the remorse of having failed as a boxer, the guilt of unknowingly assisting in Jimmy Doyle’s murder, even the lack of education and sharpening of necessitated street intelligence—is so cleanly preserved in affected expressions that the flim has no need for flashbacks, even while the film was made in an era when flashback application was practical. And the moral war plays out similarly, Malloy’s face as a screen within the screen, his pain, anguish, confusion transferable. That’s the story that has earned On the Waterfront its status of greatness. And that’s the performance that defined acting, setting a bar of performance that may never be cleared.