Ranking: #57/111

Director: Elia Kazan (USA)           

Genre: Socio-Political Drama/Film Noir

Like David Lean, Elia Kazan is one of cinema’s greatest story-tellers.

This story is set in the late 1940s in the tough environs of the docks of Hoboken, in the New York metropolitan area, New Jersey. In this gritty drama, Kazan combined elements of a Film Noir crime drama and Neo Realism, such as on-location filming and a focus on the working-class. He has created a classic black-and-white portrait of the docklands, workers’ tenement homes, bars, narrow alleys and rooftop terraces to recreate that world as a living backdrop for the story.

Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who is tricked by a corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly, into enticing fellow dockworker Joey Doyle onto a rooftop, where the dockworker is pushed off by union thugs. They want to prevent him from testifying to the Waterfront Crime Commission against the union boss.

This murder alienates the honest and straight-talking Malloy, and a conflict situation is set up which can only grow as the plot unfolds. Feeling guilty about his role in Doyle’s death, he reaches out to Joey’s sister Edie. They try to get a local priest, Father Barry, to motivate the dockworkers to stand up for their rights against the Union’s rule of fear.  The priest persuades one the dockworkers, Timothy Dugan, to testify. Soon afterwards, Dugan is killed when Friendly’s henchmen cause a load of barrels to topple on top of him.

In a rage, Father Barry speaks out against the murder. Then he reminds the workers that Christ himself walks among them, saying that every murder is a crucifixion. However, other dockworkers still refuse to testify, including Terry.

It transpires that Molloy has deep regrets about throwing some of his fights in a “fix” when he was a box. This only serves to reinforce the themes of corruption, extortion, racketeering and intimidation which have blighted life for the workers in the docklands of Hoboken.

The film is also about the idealism needed to confront evil and set people free from its accursed power.

Eventually, Terry summons up the courage to testify before the commission. Friendly now faces an indictment.  In retaliation, the union boss bans Malloy from any union jobs. Terry musters up courage to challenge his nemesis to a fight, which he is winning until Friendly sets his thugs onto Terry, who is beaten almost to death. Bravely, he gets up and walks into the warehouse, where the workers refuse to work until Molloy is hired, thus defying the union boss’s ban. This triggers a huge collective defiance against Friendly. It turns out to be the beginning of the end of his reign of fear.

In the film’s stirring finale, Malloy wins a moral victory, vindicating Father Barry’s point about Christ walking amongst the workers.

The performances from Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint, in her film debut, are authentic and compelling. There is a unity of setting, story and theme in On the Waterfront, turning it into a parable about the forces of good overcoming the evil represented by the brutal union boss. A whole corrupt culture has been uprooted.

On the Waterfront received eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan. The film has been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, to be preserved in the US National Film Registry.