On the Waterfront


 On The Waterfront, a classic 50s Hollywood film, was a defining film for its two major participants: the director Elia Kazan and the star, Marlon Brando. Brando’s career skyrocketed to amazing heights following his masterful acting performance, and Kazan is representative of the few original directors of studio system films.  A truly proletariat film, Kazan’s piece was a conbination of masterful writing on the part of Bud Schulberg, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, excellent acting performances by Brando and the supporting cast, and near perfect execution and scenario planning on the part of the director Kazan. The film stands the test of time as a masterpiece of 50s Hollywood cinema.

            On the Waterfront is a gruesome, gritty, and uncompromising portray of urban life “on the docks”. Both Kazan and Brando join their respective talents into a catharsis of stark, real presentations and characterizations of corrupted city lifestyles. With Kazan presenting the workers and their conditions at face value, depicting the hardships of the men en masse through brilliant camera-work, furthering the people illuminated by the emotional interactions of characters with Brando: scenes of belligerence with the investigators, moral consequence in dealings with his brother, and growing love with his love interest Edy.

            Brando’s character is also an interesting study as well. Though he initially comes off as the usual corrupt “street bum” who has sold himself to the corrupted dock-workers union, he is able to subtly and emotionally develop into a righteous man with the influence of the local parish priest and the morally upright Edy. The supporting cast does at times seem a bit one-dimensional, but this is preferable to characters that have too many dimensions, or have none-at all. They succeed in moving the plot to its cathartic point, the violent fight scene in which Brando is brutalized by the mob, and then are present to deliver the maximum emotional impact– their presence on Brando’s final walk.

            The cinematography of the film was a mixed bag. Wide shots depicting the masses of workers and the nature of the docks were used to tremendous affect at the beginning of the story, and the beach scene in which Brando’s character reveals that he is indeed the murderer of Edy’s brother, the wide shot is used to increase the emotional potential of the scene. The soundtrack of the harbor adds a certain amount of mystery, amplifying the effect that the shot has on the viewer. The variation of this panoramic wide shot and the medium close up in which we see Brando mouthing his lines to Edy is quite a memorable scene. Such usage of the wide shot is quite unconventional, with many great directors using it to distance the audience, rather than to increase the emotional catharsis.

            The film’s editing was conventional, but it was good enough for 50s Hollywood, which had not broken out of conventional editing styles of cuts and fades. My only complaint with the film was its convention, as a student of film, I can at times get bored with convention in such films. The lack of tracking shots, handheld camera, and choppy tripod pans are noticeable, but not necessarily a detractor. When one feels content to just cut and move to the next scene, it proves a degree of laziness or lack of skill in editing.

            Looking at the film in its historical context, however, it is easy to justify this quip. The French New Wave had not revolutionized cinema with its avant-garde techniques, and this film was probably one of the last studio system Hollywood films that still stands the test of time which such conventional techniques. A film with lesser narrative and cinematographic merits probably would have been forgotten, but Elia Kazan’s narrative masterpiece is timeless simply because of the power of its story.

            This is not to say that I can just be drawn in by a great narrative, however. The bland editing and one dimensional supporting cast were large detractors for me. Though, compared to films of the decade, it is a good film. And, in perspective, its cinematography was good compared to the musicals that so populated the era. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the masters of cinema who were a bit more experimental on a technical level, though at times, great technical directors like Mizoguchi, Godard, and Lo Wei have not been able to deliver such a captivating plot.

            In closing, On The Waterfront is a good, entertaining film, the prime representative of Hollywood industrial cinema at the time. As a result, its strength in narrative and cinematographic perspective is nice, but nothing as interesting as other films that I have seen that have taken the effort to really push the boundaries of cinema.


About Ryan Silva
An American born cinephile writing, making films, and studying in New York City. Festival addict and student Jurist at the 2010 Rhode Island International Film Festival. Hits: moe anime and space operas. Misses: Smelly roommates and Jersey Shore

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