The Best Picture Project – On The Waterfront (1954)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Screenplay by Budd Schulberg

Starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger

Some movies can be taken on their own terms and are never more than what they are.  There is no subtext, there is no commentary, there is no hidden agenda and absolutely no meanings can be read into them from the context in which they appeared or from whom they were born.  On the whole, I’d say most movies are this way.

Some movies, though, can never be merely a movie because they are nothing but subtext, are rife with commentary, teem with hidden agendas and are overloaded with meaning.

And anybody who knows anything about movie history knows On The Waterfront is the second kind of movie.

Because it’s common knowledge On The Waterfront is more than what it is, it’s best to just get right down to what it is: this is a movie about a guy who names names to a crime commission, including giving up his friends, made by a guy who named names in 1952 to the House Un-American Activity Committee, including the names of his friends.  In the case of the movie, the friends were labor union officials.  In real life, those friends were members of the communist party.

Knowing the context in which On The Waterfront appeared, it seems there are basically two ways you can read the message of the movie.  1) The movie serves as an apology by somebody who realizes he should have stood up for his friends, instead of selling them out, or, 2) the movie is a justification for what he’d done.

Given what I’ve read of Kazan in the years since he informed, I struggle to believe On The Waterfront was any sort of apology.  And if it was meant that way, it sadly falls flat.  After all, normally when one apologizes they should admit an error, ask forgiveness for it and ask how it can be fixed.  Then, just for good measure, they say they’re sorry again.  Obviously, the movie does none of these things and neither did Kazan.  After all, what sort of apology involves spitting right in a man’s eye?  Which is basically what this movie does?

More accurately the film is a justification for testifying, making the argument that snitching was the right thing for Brando/Terry Malloy to do because the people he snitched on were crooked murderers.  If you put the real life characters into the film, then the argument Kazan makes is that he should be lauded for informing on the communists because there were all crooked murderers.  This is essentially the argument Kazan made in real life, though he might’ve stopped short of calling them murderers.

Given the political context of the film, anybody who encounters it is likely to be conflicted about what it means and will never be able to judge it on its merits alone.  If it could be, the film would obviously be seen as the great piece of cinema it is, with a magnetic, mumbling Brando easily carrying the film on his back, highlighted by the famous Taxi Cab scene in which he exposes not only his own regrets in life but also lays bare just how base and corrupt the union is.

But given I find the entire ‘Red Scare’ time period horrific to consider – it might’ve been communists that were persecuted then, but anybody could have fallen victim – I find the film abhorrent for simplifying and distorting a real-life situation all in service of easing the conscience of a filmmaker who aided and abetted some pretty despicable men in achieving an end he had to know, deep down, was wrong.  In that context, the film is not merely a movie, but another manipulative piece of propaganda, all to absolve a single man of his own guilt/complicity.

So what’s the final analysis?  In the final analysis, Kazan has proven time and again to be a triumphant filmmaker – I’m especially partial to East of Eden – and On The Waterfront has all the hallmarks of being a triumph as well.  But given the way that particular baby was conceived and born, it can’t help but be compromised and tainted.


There are only two men who have won three Oscar’s for producing Best Picture winners: Saul Zaentz and producer of this movie, Sam Spiegel. Spiegel got there for Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and and On the Waterfront.  Zaentz got there with One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient. Incidentally, both men were recipients of the Irving Thalberg Award.

The only man who might have done them better would be Irving Thalberg himself. Though he never took home an Oscar, because until the 50′s the Best Picture Oscar went to the studio, not the producer, in less than 10 years he shepherded Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty to victory. Even better, he couldn’t win the Thalberg Award for him, because it was named after him.

Look Sharp

If you kept your eyes open you saw three other people in the course of this film that would go on to bigger and better things.

Martin Balsam pops up as a crime commission member and would go on to play the detective Arbogast in Psycho, would play the agent in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and would eventually win an Oscar for A Thousand Clowns.

Fred Gwynne plays an uncredited Slim here and would go on to play Hermann Munster, as well as Jud Crandall in one of my favorite bad movies – Pet Sematary.

Pat Hingle, who would go on to play commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton version of Batman, has an un-credited bit here as Jocko.

For the other winners and films left to see in this little project, click here.

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