Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.
On the Waterfront 
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J. Cobb
Runtime: 108 minutes
“You don’t understand. 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.”
One of my favorite aspects in embarking on this 50 Movies Project is finally seeing the films from which well-known lines originated. “I coulda been a contender” has been used and spoofed countless times over the years, but in the context of On the Waterfront, it still remains in a powerful scene — a highlight of an exceptional film.
Marlon Brando stars as Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter who now works on the docks of New York City. His brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is a major figurehead in the local mob that also happens to control the dockworkers’ union. The mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), runs the docks with an iron fist, and he is not afraid to “snuff” out anyone who speaks out against him.
Moral issues come into play when Terry witnesses the murder of a worker who was set to testify against the mob. Terry was used to coax the worker onto a roof, but he was told they were going to talk it out, not kill the man. Already feeling guilty about the death, Terry is pleaded to help by the murdered man’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and the local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden). As he becomes smitten with Edie and listens to Father Barry’s powerful sermons, Terry is forced to confront his own guilty conscience, something he has suppressed his entire life.
Corruption is a major focus of the film, but there is also a poignant love story underneath. Terry Malloy has a tough outer shell, and he may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is an exceptional character with a good heart. Edie realizes there’s more to him than what’s initially seen, and their connection feels real and natural.
In fact, the film itself has a very authentic feel to it, partly because it was filmed on-location in Hoboken, NJ. Some of the mob goons used were even ex-prizefighters themselves. Even though this is nearly a 60 year old story, it still holds relevance today.
Much has been said of Marlon Brando’s performance in this, and the high praise is well deserved. His moments with Eva Marie Saint are especially brilliant, though it is his scene with Rod Steiger in the back of the limo that everyone remembers (the “contender” line). I was also impressed with Karl Malden’s role as the priest, a very important figure in the film.
On the Waterfront received an extraordinary twelve Academy Award nominations, winning eight of them (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay). Its importance in cinematic history cannot be denied, as evidenced by its appearance in no less than seven American Film Institute lists. Still effective today, On the Waterfront warrants a highest recommendation.