On The Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)

On The Waterfront

On The Waterfront is a strong character film, with much film-historical relevance and classicism, which explains its current reputation and social reverence. In an almost reverse nature, I was noting not references in the film, but original scenes of which I have seen future pop-culture references, such as the line “I coulda been a contender,” as well as the final montage walking scene which has undoubtedly drawn aesthetic similarities in countless films after it.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint give career best performances, and their chemistry is palpable in each and every scene. Brando presents his charismatic self with great subtlety, from the slight accent he uses, delivery of speech, brief bowing of the head, uncertain sighs. A troubled history which is not displayed yet looms in his background becomes undeniable in Brando’s performance, which brings forth all the complex psychological traits Terry Malloy, an orphaned ‘bum’ who’s advantage has been taken since as far as he can remember. This makes clear his supposed loyalty to Johnny and his brother Charlie, in spite of the negative impact these two figures have made and continue to make on his life. It also makes clear how the impact of a good woman and a good priest can turn his life around, primarily because their influence allows him to feel secure and confident: in short, proud. The love of a kind woman helps strip the fear and self-deprecation he has become used to, and the influence of the priest plays an edifying role in reinstating the moral compass Terry presumably once carried before Johnny stripped away his innocence.

Kazan directs the film amicably, but in no way should On The Waterfront be celebrated for particularly masterful direction or cinematography. It fits within classic Hollywood, and Kazan performs his role as studio director exactly right, which is to say that the film could perhaps be seen as an archetype of the techniques and formulas of classic Hollywood–and could even be studied in this right–but that the film has little of an authorial sensibility, and does not much feel like the creative consequence of a personal viewpoint. For this reason, there are some generic qualities to the film, which are seen in its editing, story arcs, and mise-en-scene. Shot in high contrast black-and-white, On The Waterfront follows relatively formulaic shooting patterns: establishing shot, shot-reverse-shot dialogue, close up on emotional moment. Besides the final montage, there is little cinematographic spontaneity or uniqueness. It’s a film style we’ve seen a 100 times before; the difference here is that On The Waterfront serves as prototypical rather than stereotypical.

88/100 – Excellent. (4.5)

4 Stars

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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