There is trouble on the waterfront for anyone who wants to make an honest living, for anyone who crosses Michael “Johnny Friendly” Skelly. One of those who did was Joey Doyle, prepared to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission against Skelly; lured to the roof of his building by his friend Terry Malloy, Joey’s trip back down to ground level is swift and terminal.
Terry claiming to have had no idea what he was setting Joey up for, with his elder brother Charley serving as Skelly’s right hand man he’s had a front row seat for what happens on the waterfront so could have worked it out. Not only does he have to reconcile that with himself but also with Joey’s sister Edie whom he has known since she was a child but who has now become a woman.
The other voice of the community is Father Barry, offering his church as a safe place for the longshoremen to meet and organise, but greeted with steel pipes and baseball bats held by Skelly’s men there is a reticence for anyone to stand against him. When the only man who is willing dies in an arranged accident it falls to Terry to testify against Skelly, meaning he will have to tell Edie of his involvement and placing them both in danger.
Originally released in July 1954 and now presented as a 4K restoration as part of the Criterion Collection, On the Waterfront marked a change in American cinema, filmed on location on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, the cast giving realistic performances in the drama under the direction of Elia Kazan, one of the founders of the Actors Studio of New York.
Nominated for twelve Academy Award nominations, On the Waterfront won eight, including Best Director for Kazan, Best Screenplay for Budd Schulberg, Best Actor for The Wild One‘s Marlon Brando as Terry, Best Supporting Actress for North by Northwest‘s Eva Marie Saint in her film debut as well as art direction, black and white cinematography and editing, with further acting nominations for The Cat o’ Nine Tails‘ Karl Malden, The Exorcist‘s Lee J Cobb and The Illustrated Man‘s Rod Steiger as Father Barry, Skelly and Charley.
The final nomination was for composer Leonard Bernstein’s soundtrack, alternately plaintive in the lone horns for Terry and bombastic and percussive during the fight scenes, contrasted with warm strings for the growing relationship between Terry and Edie, reflecting her patience and kindness, concepts alien to Terry, an orphan and a former boxer. On the Waterfront Bernstein’s only score composed specifically for a motion picture, it is examined in one of the many accompanying special features.
Very much a man’s film, Edie is the only woman to have more than a peripheral role and she is key to the narrative, described as “the fulcrum for (Terry’s) conversion” in the commentary provided by Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, experts on Brando and Kazan, while Father Barry is very much the external expression of Terry’s conscience, but inevitably it is about the egos of two men which can only be resolved by establishing dominance through violence.
The main feature presented in two aspect ratios, 1.85:1 and 1.33:1, also included in the packed edition are a forty-five minute documentary covering the background and production of the film and the various players, a conversation with Martin Scorsese about the film, a 1982 documentary on Kazan, interviews with Kazan, Saint and others, and an examination of one of the most famous scenes in the film in the context of “method” acting.
On the Waterfront is available on Blu-ray now as part of the Criterion Collection