Whenever I heard a performance being hailed as electrifying, I would regard it as the usual critics hyperbole, a poverty of expression. An extravagance bestowed upon an artist seemed unworthy, ignoring the higher skill of the directors who are real artists.
Once you have seen On the Waterfront, you’ll immerse yourself in the small world of a small time ex-prize fighter, Miki Malone, played by Marlon Brando with such finesse that I promise you will never doubt a performance could underwhelm a director’s craft and in this case a well-respected Elia Kazan.
On the Waterfront needs to be viewed through the historical prism, it is a product of its time that we would rather forget: the early 1950’s the age of McCarthyism. A time when any perceived criticism of the status quo, any distrust of the system or even complaining about corruption was seen as sympathizing with Communists.
The simple story about a dockyard union boss and his corrupt minions was seen by McCarthy as a metaphor for American business and Malone the honest guy who stood up against him became synonymous with radical purpose. Both Kazan and Brando had to appear before McCarthy’s commission to clear their names and Kazan even had to go so far as to rat on several of his colleagues in order to save himself.
Nonetheless Brando’s performance lives on. It’s a simple story of two brothers Mallone the simpleton who gave up a shot at the title, “taking a dive” in a fight on orders from the mob that controlled the New Jersey docks. His brother is the crooked attorney who is on the union’s payroll and a priest trying to organize a peaceful revolt.
The Heroine, “Edie”’s brother is killed by the mob after Mallone unknowingly helps them by calling him out of his house.
The two excellent and probably most famous dramatic scenes are shown here.
The first is where Brando describes to Edie the circumstances of her brother’s death. The conversation is drowned out by an approaching train. That is classic Kazan—a director’s genius at work.
The second involves the famous conversation between Brando and his brother in the back seat of a car where Brando famously declares “I could have been a contender.”
If you want to see a masterpiece, watch this one, you will not regret it.