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On The Waterfront (1954)

Scrounging through my film collection, I’ll admit I had a difficult time picking the right one for this fine holiday. My mind first wandered to war films – Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, or even The Hurt Locker – but then I quickly thought better of it. I realized I did not want to showcase a great moment in American history, but rather a great moment in American film history. So then the decision came down to the definition of great. Was it what I thought was great or the collective whole of the film world? Undoubtably if I went with the former this review would be about something like Dazed and Confused or Winter’s Bone to accommodate the contemporary indie scene. Therefore my intrigue shifted ever so slightly to acknowledging a great American classic. Obviously there are many films to choose from out there that would whole-heartedly fit this description, yet my final picks (I might get to the runner-ups later) eventually dwindled. Thus, my long emotionally-perplexing journey of how I came to pick On The Waterfront comes to an end. Also, a quick note to those condemning my choice as controversial due to the not technically being American aspect of director Elia Kazan, I assure you my patriotism is still above average.

On The Waterfront effectively portrays the struggle of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) deciding between the morality of right and wrong. He unknowingly plays a part in the murder of a local snitch, the brother of Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint). Because she is the only person he truly cares for, the love he holds for her sends him down a path of contemplation that would turn his back on his own brother and forever make him an outcast.

Marlon Brando’s Oscar-winning rendition of Terry Malloy has been weighed and measured against all other tiny golden man worthy performances. Many would say his certainly outclasses the rest, I might not be as bold to concur, but regardless, Brando’s performance was simply staggering. The majestic nature of the role comes in its reality as Brando transcends the use of over dramatics to silence us with common truths of his character. He treats his character’s personality like an open wound placing a translucent layer between Terry’s inner flaws and the audience. Through this character I do not necessarily pinpoint myself, but strangely see a compressed representation of humanity. Even if the thought is entirely bogus – in a slippery slope kind of way – Brando maintains my captivation along with the captivation of the majority, thus deserving all acknowledgements that trotted his way.

Director Elia Kazan lends an intriguing insight to the plot of On The Waterfront and character Terry Malloy in particular. Prior to the film’s conception, Kazan was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The committee was aware of Kazan’s brief Communist ties fifteen years earlier. They wanted him to name names, much to his hesitance. Kazan lived through the struggle Terry experienced, and just like Terry, Kazan eventually succumbed to the testimony desired by the committee. The director and his character shared many aspects in this way, but none greater than the bitter alienation of the people they used to call friends.

The feeling of watching a well-regarded classic is always refreshing. Obviously the film holds up – a mandatory aspect of “classic” – but much more enthralling is how it fits together. Each piece has a link, conditionally worthy of the screen time it possesses. Especially in today’s society we like to award a victor, or condense all accolades to one individual, but with On The Waterfront the praise belongs to the whole. From the director to the editor, the writer to the actors, and all others unsung, they all contribute in giving this film its brilliance – something all filmmakers, regardless of their experience or prestige aspire to emulate.

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