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“On the Waterfront”: doubts and reflections

After watching ‘On the Waterfront’ this afternoon for the first time in ages, I was struck by the film’s mix of strengths and weaknesses, but most of all, I have to say, by the severity of the latter.

Brando’s subtle, supple embodiment of the protagonist is legendary for good reasons, and the surrounding performances justify Kazan’s reputation as an “actor’s director”. There are some wonderful, inventive moments: when Brando tells Eva Marie Saint he’s responsible for her brother’s death, his words drowned out by a thunderous factory horn; the airy and intimate roof top scenes; and the famous back seat dialogue between Brando and Rod Steiger. I also like the combination of the black-and-white palette with the Hoboken locations.

Overall, it’s watchable and dramatic, but also at times melodramatic, and in the end far too preachy and dubiously moralistic.

Before going into that, I have to note the film’s sub-text. In 1952, director Elia Kazan had appeared before the House Un-American Activities committee as a “friendly witness”. He named as having been Communists eight former colleagues in The Group Theatre, a 1930s New York-based left-wing company inspired by the Moscow Art Theatre, which showcased an array of talented actors, directors and writers – among them, Kazan and the playwright Clifford Odets. Prior to the well-publicised HUAC hearings, Odets and Kazan had agreed to name each other. The other seven he named had not agreed and all found their film careers terminated.

Among them was Morris Carnovsky, a founder of The Group Theatre and widely lauded as one of the great stage actors of the era. Another was Paula Strasburg, whose famous Actor’s Studio had produced many of Kazan’s stars (including Brando and James Dean). Later, she became Marilyn Monroe’s teacher and confidante – at a time when the blacklist was a fresh memory, which says something about Monroe’s independence.

Character actor J. Edward Bromberg, also named by Kazan, had been subpoenaed by HUAC in June 1951. He refused to name names and was forced to seek stage work in London. Apparently ravaged by the experience, he died before the end of the year of a heart attack, age 47. So he was actually already dead when Kazan named him. I’m not sure whether this made it better or worse.

All those named by Kazan were already known to HUAC and some were also named by others. This has been frequently cited as a defence of Kazan and clearly figured in his own deliberations. Like with Bromberg, the logic was that the damage had already been done.

Kazan had been a CP member for a year and a half in the mid-thirties. He recalled with great bitterness how he was “tried” for refusing to follow the party’s line in relation to the Group Theatre. “The trial left an indelible impression on me… Everybody else voted against me and they stigmatised me and condemned my acts and attitude. They were asking for confession and self-humbling.”

He explained his testimony to Arthur Miller: “I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.”

Budd Schulberg, the film’s screenwriter, followed Kazan on the HUAC stand soon after and more or less repeated his performance. As a result both were able to proceed to create ‘On the Waterfont’, which would not have existed if Schulberg or Kazan had refused to name names. Both were puzzled and angry when they found themselves shunned or denounced by former friends. Neither was willing to recognise the larger impact of what they’d done, well beyond the lives of the people they named.

In the light of all this, it’s hard not to see the film as a self-vindication by writer and director. It is a paean to the virtues of informing, which is portrayed as nobly heroic, a lonely act of conscience, akin even to Christ’s sacrifice. The protagonist’s redemption is achieved through overcoming his reluctance to “name names” to a grand jury, repudiating misplaced loyalties.

Of course, you can’t judge a work of art by the personal or even the political behaviour of the artists. But as it happens, their need to load the dice in favour of their informer does work to the detriment of the film.

The bad guys running the union local are one-dimensional caricatures, gun-packing, racetrack-obsessed, culturally crude, inarticulate. By any measure, this is bad writing, and not the only example in a screenplay sometimes hailed as a masterpiece (the courtroom scene is feeble). Lee J Cobb puts plenty of force into his portrayal of boss Johnny Friendly, but his role reminded me why Brando’ s later incarnation as Vito Corleone was so new and intriguing when it first appeared. Interestingly, On the Waterfont largely plays down the ethnicity of the gangsters, as was customary in Hollywood over many years. The Godfather also changed that.

In the film, organised labour appears only as a front for organised crime. Corruption on the New York waterfront was real enough, but it had as much to do with employers as unions, a reality absent from the film. Nor is there any indication of how this corruption grew or who it served, apart from a few union officials wearing “150 dollar suits”. Certainly there’s no hint that some of the staunchest enemies of corruption in the waterfront unions were Communists, or that the left purge of these years handed many of these unions over to an authoritarian and often corrupt right wing ascendancy.

The problem with the film is not so much that it ignores these things as that by doing so it makes Brando’s dilemma dramatically too one-sided and too easily resolved. He’s presented with a stark choice between good and evil, courage and cowardice. Especially in the second half of the film, the moralising about “conscience” becomes acutely wearying. Any doubt is treated as nothing more than an ignoble expression of fear.

Here’s where the melodrama comes in, with the climaxes and perorations tumbling over each other, with little actually being revealed. For me, this element is exacerbated by Leonard Bernstein’s score, not one of his subtler works.

Then there’s the happy ending. Brando not only gets to testify, to name names, but then to confront the union boss both verbally and physically. Though he’s savagely beaten for his pains, his example inspires the workers to repudiate the union boss and rally behind Brando as he returns to work, bloodied but unbowed. As so often with happy endings, one thinks, if only it were that easy! Schulberg’s original draft ended with the Brando character being killed by the gangsters. I think I would have preferred that.

You might see the final images of the workers streaming in behind Brando as a confirmation of workers’ solidarity triumphing over union corruption. But in general the film presents workers en masse, in any kind of collective presence, as unpleasant and disturbing, and crucially, cowardly. Overall, it’s a hymn to the isolated individual conscience. Of course, that can be a great inspiring story, but not when it’s pounded into the protagonist’s head as doctrine and in any case is trumped in the end by the murder of a brother, providing a routine revenge motive.

From its release, the film enjoyed great prestige. It was a commercial and critical success, respected for its “realism” and high-mindedness. Like another prestigious liberal favourite of the era, ‘High Noon’, it told a story of noble individuality. Unlike ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘High Noon’ was read by some as an anti-McCarthyite parable, in which a man of conscience resists intimidation and stands up to bullies when all around him are cowed. The conservative director Howard Hawks was appalled by what he saw as the perverse morality of the film: the hero goes around asking for help which no one gives him, but then it turns out he doesn’t need that help, as he confronts the bad guys alone and triumphs over them. In riposte, he made ‘Rio Bravo’, in which the hero (John Wayne) spends much of the film declining offers of help but in the end is reliant on a wide array of allies to win the day. ‘Rio Bravo’ is by far the better film, but unlike the Oscar-garnered ‘High Noon’, won no critical accolades and was treated as a routine genre production. Whatever one makes of Hawks or Wayne, and both could be seriously nasty, the moral vision in their film seems altogether more nuanced and serious than in either ‘High Noon’ or ‘On the Waterfront’.

To end on a positive note: the film’s handling of the boxing back-story. This was a subject Schulberg knew well and it adds layers to the protagonist. Schulberg understood the boxer’s fragile pride – and his impotence in his profession. It’s that strand of the film that gets us to the great scene with Brando and Steiger and the “I could have been a contender” speech.