Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Filmsite Post #3: On the Waterfront

Posted by Gerald on January 24, 2011

Filmsite movie #3 (and again, the number is simply the order I’m watching them in): On the Waterfront (1954).  I have a lot less to say about this one.  While I’m glad I saw it, it just didn’t leave me pondering anything the way the first two films did.

This was my first time watching the whole film, which may have colored my response to it.  As I said earlier, I liked it, but it didn’t inspire any deep thinking.  Elia Kazan gives us an excellent story incorporating some of the big themes in American films – particularly the little guy standing up against the system and the quest for personal redemption.  However, what I was most struck by were the performances.  Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando stand out, but this is a film filled with great actors.

Rod Steiger probably couldn’t land a role on TV now – I doubt anyone ever called him pretty – but he is a consummate actor.  As I watched him I remembered other roles of his, particularly as Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (a movie I love and which we will be visiting again in a later post).  What I remembered was how completely different that character was from Charley, the cold and intellectual toady he plays in this film.  Steiger is an example of what I think is a dying breed – the true character actor, the professional who is more interesting in portraying another person than they are in reminding the audience who is doing the portraying.

I particularly enjoyed Marlon Brando here as Terry.  Like in The Godfather he creates a character through subtle touches (Vito Corleone also exhibits some unsubtle touches – but I think what makes Brando so great in that film are the subtle things he did with the character – minor gestures and expression changes. Again – to be continued at a later date…)  I can’t help contrasting two of his iconic scenes in film.  First, in this film we see the subtlety of the conversation in the car with Charley where we discover how he sold Terry out to the big mob boss Johnny Friendly.  Brando conveys deep pain and disappointment for the way his brother ruined his life – and the way he let it happen to himself – without screaming histrionics.  Then we look at the famous scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (a movie I am not in love with – but that is for another post) with Brando in torn shirt yelling “Stella” in the street.  It could just be my own emotionally minimalist esthetic, but I think there is more real emotion in Terry’s quiet monologue than in Stanley Kowalski’s passionate cries.

Behind all this, three solid supporting performances from other great actors.  First, Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly was almost a prototype for Tony Soprano – the charming mob boss who we can never forget is a monster, even though he doesn’t believe he is one.  Second, Eva Marie Saint who won an Oscar for her role as Edie, the person whose sense of decency and desire for justice for her slain brother acts as a catalyst for everything that happens in the film.  She manages to shine through despite a very testosterone laden script.  Finally there is Karl Malden as Father Barry.  I think Malden was an actor who could take the lead, but he really shines in making great things out of smaller parts (Josh Brolin, who I just saw again in the Coen Brother’s adaptation of  True Grit comes to mind as someone who does the same thing).  Here we see Father Barry as the man who helps Terry find his conscience, but we also see his own transition from viewer to participant in the events at the docks – and in just a few scenes.

I’ve already watched film #4 for this project – Some Like it Hot (1959).  Film #5 – which I’ve just received from Netflix – will be To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

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4 Responses to “Filmsite Post #3: On the Waterfront”

  1. Steve said

    Is it a coincidence that you have luke warm feelings for two Elia Kazan films?

  2. Gerald said

    Possibly not. Still, I’m not sure lukewarm describes how I felt about On the Waterfront. I liked and appreciated it – it just didn’t leave me thinking about it much afterwards. Is that lukewarm? Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking “maybe so”. I’m certainly not passionate about it. On the other hand, I actively dislike “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

  3. Steve said

    I guess I was kind of thinking about the idea that there are films I appreciate and see the merits of but am not really shaken by– like I’m supposed to feel more than I do. It goes back to what you said about Citizen Kane. It was a film I’d heard so much about, but I didn’t expect to “feel” strongly about it. Then I watched it and it just stuck with me. But then there are films (using “film” here to separate from, you know, “movie” because there are plenty of those that just plain suck…) that leave me cold. I guess that’s where the lukewarm comment comes from. When I say cold, I again find intellectual value, artistic value, but not really gut value. I’m not sure this is true, but 2001 Space Odyssey comes to mind. The first time I watched it, I couldn’t get through it. Then I saw it on the big screen for a film class– and there was a point where it all clicked and my mind was blown. But mind-blown or not, it’s a cold film. I’m not making any sense. Sorry about that. Just watched “Field of Dreams” for the first time, though. And while part of me is thinking, “What the fuck was that?!” I also cried like a baby for a good ten minutes. Must be all that father/son shit again…

    • Gerald said

      Okay – then lukewarm is exactly it. As you are saying, I can appreciate the merits of this film, but it did not really affect me in any way. I think we’ve talked about this before, but I had a similar first reaction to 2001 and my change came for the same reason – the Carolina Theater showed it so I saw it on the big screen. Come to think of it, that was the first movie I saw there.

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