Oscar: Best Picture–On the Waterfront (1954), Directed by Kazan, Starring Brando and Eva Marie Saint

on_the_waterfront_posterPolitical corruption within labor unions was the topic of Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” Elia Kazan’s 1954 Oscar-winning picture, which features one of Marlon Brando’s two or three greatest performances.

Budd Schulberg prepared the screenplay from his own story, which in turn was based upon a series of newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson for the New York Sun. Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for this exposé of dockland corruption and labor conditions; Kazan hired him to be an advisor in the making of the film.

The movie goes beyond its formal subject, serving effectively as an expose of union racketeering and as a thriller involving the murder of an innocent longshoreman.


on_the_waterfront_3_brandoShot on location, “On the Waterfront” was photographed in black-and-white, semi- documentary style (Boris Kaufman won an Oscar), which suited its realistic subject matter and commonplace characters. Marlon Brando won Best Actor for one of his most touching and memorable performances as Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter who transforms with the assistance of his girl (Eva Marie Saint) and the neighborhood’s priest (Karl Malden) from a passive dock worker into an a crusader fighter against trade unions tyranny.

on_the_waterfront_2_brando“On the Waterfront” brought Oscars to director Kazan, supporting actress Saint, story and screenplay to Budd Schulberg, art direction, and editing. The only categories in which the movie lost were Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Leonard Bernstein) and the supporting actor, probably because three male roles were nominated within the same league. Rod Steiger was nominated for playing Brando’s brother, an opportunistic lawyer working for the arrogant racketeer boss, played by Lee J. Cobb, who was also nominated. Karl Malden, who had previously won for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” was also nominated for playing a militant yet sympathetic Father Barry.

on_the_waterfront_1_brandoMuch has been written about Kazan as a friendly witness testifying before the HUAC, in which he repudiated his leftist past and named names. The movie itself has been interpreted as a “McCarthy film,” one that favors informing, though the analogy between informing on Communists and informing on corrupt crooks is problematic.

Nonetheless, “On the Waterfront” is a powerful and enjoyable film even without this ideological reading. And the picture would have won the Oscars regardless of its politics considering the weak Best Picture competition that year.

Detailed Synopsis

On_the_Waterfront_Eva_Marie_Saint_4Corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) boasts about his iron-fisted control of the waterfront. The police and the Waterfront Crime Commission know that Friendly is behind a some murders, but witnesses play “deaf and dumb,” fearing the  danger and shame of informing.

Terry Malloy (Brando) is a dockworker whose brother Charley “The Gent” (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man. Terry had been a promising boxer until Friendly had Charley instructed him to lose a fight so that Friendly could win money betting against him.

On_the_Waterfront_Eva_Marie_Saint_5Terry is used to coax dockworker Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), preventing him from testifying against Friendly before the Commission. Terry, assuming that Friendly’s enforcers were only going to lean on Joey, is surprised when Joey is killed. Things change when Terry meets Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who has challenged “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) into taking action against the mob-controlled union. Both Edie and Father Barry urge Terry to testify. Another dockworker, Timothy J. “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify when Father Barry promises support, ends up dead, when he is crushed in a staged accident.

On_the_Waterfront_Eva_Marie_Saint_3Tormented by his awakening conscience, Terry leans toward testifying, and Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley first tries to bribe Terry, then threatens him with a gun. For his part, Terry places the blame for his own position in life on his brother. In an iconic scene, Terry reminds Charley that his career would have bloomed. “I coulda’ been a contender,” laments Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it, Charley.” Charley hands Terry a gun, advising him to run. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered. Father Barry finally persuades Terry to fight Friendly by testifying.

On_the_Waterfront_Eva_Marie_Saint_2After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment on the waterfront. Edie holds they should leave the place, but the defiant Terry shows up at the dock for recruitment. When he is the only man not hired, Terry confronts Friendly, proclaiming that he is proud of what he did.  Their confrontation devolves into a brutal brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly’s thugs beat him. The dockworkers, who witnessed the confrontation, declare their support for Terry and refuse to work unless Terry is recruited. Badly wounded, Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the longshoremen despite threats from Friendly, who gets dumped into the water.

nipy67jak55Oscar Context

The other Best Picture contenders in 1954 were a court drama based on Herman Wouk’s novel, “The Caine Mutiny,” which starred Humphrey Bogart; Clifford Odets’s stiff backstage melodrama “The Country Girl,” with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and William Holden; MGM’s musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” starring Jane Powell and Howard Keel; and the romantic comedy “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which did more for the encouragement of American tourism to Rome than for the advancement of film art.


5k6a2qt5zh7Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando)
Father Barry (Karl Malden)
Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb)
Charley Mallon (Rod Steiger)
Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning)
Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint)
Glover (Leif Erickson)
Big Mac (James Westerfield)
Truck (Tony Galento)
Tillio (Tami Mauriello)
Pop Doyle (John Hamilton)
Mott (Heldabrand)
Moose (Rudy Bond)
Luke (Don Blackman)
Jimmy (Arthur Keegan)
Barney (Abe Simon)
J.P. (Barry Macollum)
Specs (Mike O’Dowd)
Gilette (Marty Balsam)
Slim (Fred Gwynne)
Tommy (Thomas Handley)
Mrs. Collins (Anne Hegira)


A Sam Spiegel Production, released by Columbia Pictures.
Produced by Sam Spiegel.
Directed by Elia Kazan.
Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on articles by Malcolm Johnson.
Photographed by Boris Kaufmann.
Art direction by Richard Day.
Edited by Gene Milford.
Musical score by Leonard Bernstein.

Running time: 108 minutes.