Monday, 19 July 2010

On the Waterfront (1954)

Synopsis: Corrupt union boss Lee J Cobb keeps Noo Joisey longshoremen (oh, look it up) downtrodden. Marlon Brando becomes the main man to stand up to them, with the help of a local priest Karl Malden and flaxen-haired lovely Eva Marie Saint.

This is one of those films that you are supposed to watch, otherwise you're not a proper film fan...blah blah when it was on telly one Saturday afternoon I didn't really have an excuse not to watch. Glad I did, as there are many great things about the film, but not quite what I expected.

I discovered that the film was made after the director Elia Kazan had testified against colleagues at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for being communists. Therefore, On the Waterfront became a justification of his actions. This makes watching the film interesting but confusing.

The story is about standing up to thugs, intimidation and poverty-inducing working conditions. I'm not quite sure what sort of parallels you can draw between this and Kazan's annoyance at his commie acting/directing mates giving him a hard time. However, politics aside it is an edgy, tense and brilliantly told story. The tension is ratcheted up with finding out pretty much from the get-go that the guy most obviously targeted to stand up to the baddies is brother to No.1 baddie's henchman. The menage-a-trois of frustration and hatred between Lee J Cobb, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger is brilliant and heart-breaking to watch.

The other aspect of it that intrigued me was Brando and Kazan's method acting. I'd never really paid much heed to what method acting was and how it differed from other types of acting, so I was paying close attention to Brando this time. There are some fascinating touches, such as Terry playing with Edie's glove rather than handing it back to her. But, but...I'm not sure if these were insightful or just distracting.

Interestingly, since watching On the Waterfront I've seen Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, in which Bresson's acting philosophy is played out by his actors, or models as he prefers to call them, do not 'act' as we know it, do not emote or pout or do much of anything apart from act in the purest sense. There is action, they stand up, walk, talk, do lots of other things but without any hint of emotion or thought. This is almost at the other end of the spectrum to Brando, who seems to expend all of his energy totally embodying his roles.

The story is angry and violent but ends with the hero triumphing at last. I loved the gritty look to the film. We only ever see New York in the very background, reminding us that this community are outsiders to civilisation and there is some ace contrasty chiaroscuro with dark, shiny blacks in the alley ways and corners of the docks.

This is meaty film-making, proper Shakespearean/Greek storytelling and a real testament to a director and lead actor making big statements.

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