On the Waterfront (1954)


“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

I spoke of my adoration for Dustin Hoffman last week, viewing him as a prominent cultural figure of his generation. Marlon Brando is another name which has always caught my attention, though I’m sorry to say that I’m far less familiar with his work. I’ve always hoped to be more aware of Brando’s discography, but his prominent roles (save for a few) have all seemed to escape my viewing. This week, I finally acquainted myself with one of the Brando-est roles of them all: the acclaimed crime drama On the Waterfront. With several big names, an engaging story, and driven by profound emotion, this movie has clearly solidified itself as an American classic.

Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a dockworker (and pigeon enthusiast) living on the waterfront, where operations are controlled by a ruthless mob to which he yields his allegiance. Malloy was a promising boxer in the past, but his career was ruined when he was pressured by the mob into throwing a crucial fight, selling out his ambitions. When a group of resistance begins to develop on the waterfront, Malloy must decide whether to stay true to the system he knows or to stand up against the oppression that has always haunted him. Gripping, honest, and profoundly emotional, On the Waterfront is a tale of redemption, morality, and corruption.

 Brando is a champion of the Stanislavski style of acting in this movie, and it’s a great example of “The Method” in its proper place. A textbook example of his training from the 40s, his portrayal of Terry Malloy is one of the most natural performances you’ll find from this era. He never comes close to crossing the line into “acting,” but there’s still an energy about Brando – a reserved sense of power that works beautifully for roles such as this one. This type of acting seems out of place in some films, and I think it’s just a matter of direction and the reality of the film world, and On the Waterfront really hits it home in those areas. I was also charmed to find Eva Marie Saint play a prominent role in the film, differentiating herself from her later role in North by Northwest which I really enjoyed, though she’s given far less to work with in this movie.

I’m not entirely convinced that On the Waterfront holds up as well as it did upon release. You’ve seen bits of its story in a lot of places over the last 60 years, often being perfected to heights that the original film never reached, but there’s something triumphant about this movie that continues to set it apart. Not every scene is the most exciting, but it has an honesty to it that you hardly find today. Brando’s “I could have been a contender” speech is still moving and passionate without ever trying too hard, and director Elia Kazan proves that he knows how to get the most out of “Method” actors, building an honest story and placing them in just the right conditions to flourish.

I wouldn’t say I’m eager to watch On the Waterfront again any time soon, but its legacy gives it a weight that probably suggests I should give it another shot eventually. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and the moments that worked were really something special, but I found myself fatigued with a lot of its scenes. The final 20 minutes are really powerful stuff, along with a lot of moments spread throughout; it just takes some time to get there. Either way, On the Waterfront is a really great film that I would still recommend on the merit of many of its phenomenal parts.

Films Left to Watch: 889

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies. https://travisryanfilm.com/
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2 Responses to On the Waterfront (1954)

  1. Did you watch A Streetcar Named Desire yet? It has a probably even more iconic role for Brando.
    I agree that this movie is a victory for Method Acting. It feels very real and ahead if its time.

    Liked by 1 person

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