On The Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront
Karl Malden, Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint

'On the Waterfront' is a classic, groundbreaking film drama made in 1954, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Steiger. The film was extremely successful with the critics and at the box-office it brought in receipts of almost $10 million from a budget of under $1 million. It is the story of an ex-boxer turned longshoreman who fights against union violence and corruption. It conveys a powerful and uplifting message about society's ills.

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it." 'On the Waterfront' exploded on a country shaken by the betrayals and paranoia of the anti-communist scare. Searing and tender, it ushered into Hollywood a new kind of hard-hitting social realism, not least because it was filled with indelible performances from a number of New York theater's hot postwar generation of naturalistic and Method actors.

The film received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. It was the first movie to have three people competing in the same Oscar category, Best Supporting Actor but that category winner was Edmond O'Brien for 'The Barefoot Contessa'. Leonard Bernstein also was nominated for the film's evocative score, his first nomination.

In 1989, 'On the Waterfront' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It is ranked the 8th Greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute. In short, it is quite a film.

The movie endures as an unflinching contemplation of betrayal. There is no doubt that it is an unqualified masterpiece and fifty years on we can still feel the power of the dialogue and the intensity of the acting.

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Slow-witted but sensitive Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, a failed boxer turned longshoreman and errand boy for corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb, is disturbed by his unwitting role in the murder of a disaffected docker. His guilt is exacerbated when he falls in love with the dead man's sister, Edie Doyle played by Eva Marie Saint in her film debut, but heartbreakingly he is opposed by his older, smarter brother Charley, played by Rod Steiger, who is Friendly's sharp lawyer and right-hand man.

After Edie shames the initially ineffectual parish priest, played by Karl Malden into leading the crusade against harbor union racketeering, Friendly's intimidation turns more deadly. Terry painfully defies the code of silence and testifies at a congressional commission. Despite doing the right thing, Terry is is ostracized for 'ratting' by the waterfront community and is beaten to a pulp in the dockyard before his fearful comrades fall in behind him, breaking Friendly's hold on their lives and labor.


The film was inspired by 'Crime on the Waterfront,' a 1949 series of newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson exposing corruption and crime in the New York and New Jersey dockyards.

Playwright Arthur Miller began working on a screenplay about the Brooklyn waterfront, originally titled 'The Hook' at the request of director Elia Kazan. But when Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller broke with him. Kazan turned to a fellow 'friendly witness,' writer Budd Schulberg. Both men's reputations had suffered serious damage and 'On the Waterfront' is frequently labeled their apology or defense. Kazan admitted he identified with Terry Malloy's conflict of loyalties. Wherever one's sympathies lie, the painful real-life background invested the film with a gut-wrenching, truthful emotional center for the realism of its subject and setting and for the naturalism of its performances

Schulberg spent two years studying the workings of the New York waterfront interviewing union leaders and longshoremen and even mortgaged his farm to keep working on the project. The screenplay was turned down by almost every studio until Sam Spiegel, who was looking for a top quality, high profile project, agreed to produce it. He set up a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. The deal guaranteed no interference from Columbia's chief, Harry Cohn, whom Schulberg detested.

Brando had previously worked with Elia Kazan on 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1951 and 'Viva Zapata!' in 1952, but at first refused to work with him again because of his distaste for Kazan's HUAC testimony. Spiegel then offered the role of Terry Malloy to Frank Sinatra, who sued Spiegel for $500,000 for breach of contract when Brando eventually took the part. They later settled amicably out of court.

Eva Marie Saint was chosen over Elizabeth Montgomery and Grace Kelly for the pivotal role of Edie. Although playing a teenager, she was thirty years old when the film was made. Her part is a lead role but Sam Spiegel listed it as a supporting role in order to give Eva a better chance of winning an award. His planning worked and she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Kazan believed that post World War II audiences had a need for gritty realism and he achieved great authenticity by shooting the movie over just 36 days on location in Hoboken, New Jersey in real locations - bars, houses, rooftops, alleyways. Many of the extras were real longshoremen also. He also cast real-life, professional ex-heavyweight boxers as some of the labor chief's bodyguards in the film.

Terry confronting Charley in the back of a cab is the most often cited classic scene. It is performed by Brando and Steiger, two masters of the Method school, who partly improvised their dialogue, with minimum direction from Kazan.

There are many other unforgettable moments: Brando fiddling with Saint's little glove, putting it on his own hand; Terry discovering that all his lovingly cared for pigeons have been killed by the neighborhood boy who admired him; Terry beating down Edie's door and forcing an admission of love as they slide down to the floor in a desperate kiss.

Main Cast

Marlon Brando ... Terry Malloy
Edie ... Eva Marie Saint
Karl Malden ... Father Barry
Lee J. Cobb ... Johnny Friendly
Rod Steiger ... Charley 'the Gent' Malloy
Pat Henning ... Timothy J. 'Kayo' Dugan
Leif Erickson ... Glover
James Westerfield ... Big Mac
Tony Galento ... Truck
Tami Mauriello ... Tullio
John F. Hamilton ... 'Pop' Doyle (as John Hamilton)
John Heldabrand ... Mutt
Rudy Bond ... Moose
Don Blackman ... Luke
Arthur Keegan ... Jimmy
Abe Simon ... Barney

Marlon Brando (1924-2004) "The finest thing ever done by an American film actor" was how director Elia Kazan has characterized the performance of Marlon Brando. Brando deserved all the accolades he received for his riveting performance. He brilliantly communicates the torture of a young man who is not a natural communicator.
Eva Marie Saint (b.1924) She began her acting career performing for seven years on television, before her movie debut in 'On the Waterfront'. She plays Brando's "conscience" and love interest, and is completely believable as the warm, strong and gentle working class girl.
Rod Steiger (1925-2002) Steiger gives one of his finest performance as the clever and opportunistic lawyer who works for the docker's union and is torn between duty to the mob and his family ties. After first acting on stage and television Steiger began his movie career in 1951. He appeared in over 100 movies and won the Best Actor Oscar in 1967 for his performance opposite Sidney Poitier in 'In the Heat of the Night'.
Karl Malden (1912-2009) Malden had a long and successful acting career, starting with stage and radio work, and beginning his movie career in 1940. He won the 1951 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. He articulates clearly the important role of the duty-bound Catholic priest who encourages the longshoremen and Brando to fight for their rights.
Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976) Cobb is highly convincing as the brute union boss who intimidates the workers into silence, stopping at nothing to preserve his authority. Cobb originally worked with Elia Kazan when he played Willy Loman in the 1949 original Broadway production of 'Death of a Salesman'. He became best known for his performance with Henry Fonda in '12 Angry Men' in 1957.


Director ... Elia Kazan
Producer ... Sam Spiegel
Production Company ... Columbia Pictures
Story and Screenplay ... Budd Schulberg
Cinematography ... Boris Kaufman
Music ... Leonard Bernstein
Release Date ... 28 July, 1954
Running Time ... 108 minutes

Academy Awards

8 Wins:
Best Picture ... Columbia Pictures
Best Actor ... Marlon Brando
Best Supporting Actress ... Eva Marie Saint
Best Director ... Elia Kazan
Best Cinematography ... Boris Kaufman
Best Film Editing ... Gene Milford
Best Art Direction ... Richard Day
Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) ... Budd Schulberg
4 Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor in a Supporting Role .. Lee J. Cobb
Best Actor in a Supporting Role ... Karl Malden
Best Actor in a Supporting Role ... Rod Steiger
Best Music (Score) ... Leonard Bernstein