"A Going My Way with substance" is how Elia Kazan’s classic, controversial On the Waterfront was recently described in a lecture at Boston College.
The reference to sentimental classic Going My Way, with Bing Crosby’s affable, piano-playing priest, invokes a whole era of Hollywood religion, when priests and nuns were sweet, high-minded, and concerned either with entirely spiritual matters or else with issues no more controversial than saving or building some church, school, or hospital, or perhaps with some youth program or the like.
On the Waterfront, based on a true story of racketeering on the New York waterfront, is where religion and social action finally meet in Hollywood. It isn’t just that cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking Father Barry (Karl Malden), based on real-life Jesuit Fr. John M. Corridan, takes on the corruption and strong-arm tactics of the mob bosses who control the lives of hardworking longshoremen. It’s that he does it in much the same way as John Paul II would later take on the Soviet machine in Communist-occupied Poland — by using faith and social structures to build solidarity among the laborers and empower them to resist their oppressors.
In his great "sermon on the docks" speech, Fr. Barry puts the moral issues of the waterfront in a Christological light: "Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up… every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man — tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen — it’s a crucifixion… Christ is always with you… And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to Me!" (Jewish screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who spent time on the waterfront with Fr. Corridan in preparation for writing the screenplay, has said that the sermon is "eighty percent" Corridan’s own words, from a speech he heard Corridan give numerous times.)
As arresting as the sermon on the docks is, it’s not the one speech from On the Waterfront that everyone knows whether or not they’ve seen the film. That speech was delivered by Marlon Brando sitting opposite Rod Steiger in the back of a taxicab: "Whadda I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville… I coulda had class. I coulda bin a contenda. I coulda bin somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am."
On the Waterfront is a great film for many reasons, but its most enduring asset may be the young Brando, whose incandescent acting style ushered in a new era of more naturalistic, less mannered acting. It’s a tribute to the almost unprecedented emotional power of Brando’s performance that although the character he plays here is among the screen’s least articulate and eloquent heroes, he has one of the best-known and most quoted bits of dialogue in movie history.
Brando plays Terry Malloy, a loutish but not unfeeling young ex-boxer who is owned by corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) until an unexpected murder shakes him and he slowly begins developing a conscience through the graces of the dead man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) and Fr. Malone.
Parallels between Malloy, who breaks the waterfront code of silence by testifying against his former mob bosses, and director Kazan, who followed up a brief sojourn in the Communist Party by testifying against other party members before the House Un-American Activities Committee, are impossible to overlook; and Kazan himself has said that the film was in part an answer to his critics.
At the same time, as Roger Ebert points out in his "Great Movies" essay on the film, directors make films for all sorts of motives. Whatever one thinks about the personal meaning of the film for Kazan or the application of Malloy’s moral choices to the director, the film’s portrait of a flawed but ultimately heroic figure is certainly valid in itself.
Brando’s character was inspired by real-life longshoreman Anthony De Vincenzo, whose whistle-blowing efforts failed. The film gives his story a triumphant climax that feels a bit tidy, but perhaps confers a kind of symbolic success on De Vincenzo’s efforts. The climax also brings the Christological dimension of the dock workers’ oppression into sharp relief, as Malloy walks a personal via dolorosa and leads the embattled longshoremen to freedom.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.