Saturday, March 30, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.10: Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

In 1952, Elia Kazan was called before the HUAC, where he named names, implicating a number of former colleagues of the Group Theatre and effectively putting them on a blacklist. This cost him the friendship of a number of former collaborators, most notably Arthur Miller, who had been developing a waterfront crime film with Kazan, tentatively titled The Hook. More importantly, it poisoned Kazan’s name for a number of critics and fellow artists (Ed Harris and Nick Nolte notably refused to stand and applaud for Kazan when he was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1999). Kazan’s testimony, for better or worse, changed and colored the perception of his films for the rest of his career.

Kazan would return to Broadway, directing productions of Camino Real and Tea and Sympathy all while developing his waterfront film project with a new writer, fellow HUAC friendly witness Budd Schulberg. On the Waterfront would go on to be a massive success at the box office and with critics, winning 8 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Art Direction) and becoming one of the most acclaimed films of its era. It would further influence the work of great directors (notably Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) and actors (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, you name ‘em). For many, however, this tale of corruption on the waterfront is a disguised allegory and justification for Kazan and Schulberg’s testimony.

It’s hard to ignore the influence that element probably had on the film (Schulberg denied it, Kazan admitted it). At the same time, it speaks to the all too common practice of emphasizing a film’s possible subtext over the more present and important text. Sure, that unfortunate truth about Kazan and Schulberg’s lives likely helped shape the film and made it more personal. One could easily see Terry Malloy as a stand-in for Kazan, with the same doubts, inner-conflict, and feeling of guilt about allowing corrupting, manipulative influences to take control of decent people, not to mention the feeling of alienation that came with naming names. But it ignores Kazan’s real interest in everyday social issues, in the common man, and in the possibility to overcome. It would lead to a simplification and reduction of Kazan’s crowning achievement, one of the finest films ever made.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a former prizefighter now working as a dockworker and hood for “Johnny Friendly” (Lee J. Cobb), a gangster who has taken over the waterfront union, and Charley “The Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), his smarter, corrupt brother and Johnny’s right-hand man. Terry plays as a semi-unwitting accomplice to the death of a man who informed on Johnny, but the move against crime can’t die. Local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) stands up for the dockworkers, while Terry’s allegiances are torn between his mobster friends and his love for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the dead man’s sister.

Kazan had filmed on location before with Panic in the Streets and Viva Zapata!, but On the Waterfront hits the peak of his commitment to cinematic realism. The film’s use of real Hoboken, New Jersey locations bring a sense of reality then-unparalleled in American cinema. The docks are ugly and beaten up, and the rooftops and apartments don’t look much better. The skies and streets are filled with smoke. The bars are seedy and shadowy. Most of the extras are locals, and their day-to-day actions help create a sense of verisimilitude. Even better, the film was shot in the dead cold of winter, and the actors all look believably miserable. Kazan’s use of long takes and deep focus, meanwhile, give a great balance between the real locations and the performers bringing everything to life, whether he’s in the film’s most tender love scenes or most violent scuffles.

And yet, Kazan doesn’t abandon his gifts at pure cinematic expression either. One scene shows a very real Hoboken alleyway but uses a wide shot to make it look small and claustrophobic as a group of longshoremen are beaten to pulps by Johnny Friendly’s thugs. Another great sequence shows Malden’s father Barry preaching to the longshoremen after the death of one of their friends. Barry gives the most impassioned sermon of his life, but he’s framed like a man in a gladiatorial area, pleading for his life to death ears; he and the man’s body are then lifted out of the room, like a spirit and his caretaker ascending into heaven. Yet another masterful moment plays as a precursor to the restaurant scene in The Godfather, with a foghorn blaring over Terry’s confession to Edie, the sound serving as a scream as she realizes that the man she loves is semi-responsible for her brother’s death as Kazan cuts back and forth between the two, a tighter close-up each time.

Better still is when Kazan mixes these elements for maximum effect, as he does with a pair of back-to-back sequences between Terry and Edie late in the film. In the first, the likely virginal Edie is in a white slip in her tiny Hoboken apartment. She locks the door to keep Terry out, but it’s no use- this is Marlon Brando at his most powerful, and he’s getting in one way or another. The details in the apartment are realistic, but the emotions are heightened, and a strategically placed lamp highlights a crucifix in the room, emphasizing the sense of Catholic guilt the two share. Edie tries to keep Terry away, and the intensity of their emotions make it feel like he could assault her at any point. And then he pulls her into an impassioned kiss, and she’s powerless. The world outside might be crazy, but in a wonderful close-up, Kazan shows the two sink to the floor, as if love is enough to keep them safe.

The very next scene illustrates the opposite, as Terry is called out to the alleys to see his brother. Edie accompanies him, and the two are soon chased by a truck that’s distressingly close to them. Again, Kazan’s use of shadows and claustrophobic framing speak to his formalism, but the location and the likely real danger (Saint later complained about just how close that truck was to them) brings in a startling element of realism. And then, as they find a safe place and the truck passes them by, Kazan hits another great mix- formalism for the reveal of Charley, perfectly lit as he hangs on a hook, dead; and realism for Terry’s reaction, of disbelief, then sorrow as he pulls Charley down (notably wrapping his dead brother’s arms around him), and then anger.

Kazan had plenty of help from the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who would win Best Cinematography) for his formalistic side, but perhaps an even greater aid is Leonard Bernstein, who composed his only dramatic film score. A master of classical music and musical theatre, Bernstein’s work brings a further sense of heightened emotion with every cue. A terrific video essay on the new Criterion release explains it better than I could, but I’d be remiss not mentioning what’s one of my favorite film scores of all time. From the opening mournful French horn, standing alone as Terry will stand alone later in the film, to the frantic drums and jazz for violence, to a sensitive, swooning love theme for Terry and Edie’s love scenes, this is remarkably expressive, varied work. Bernstein would later take most of his cues for a wonderful symphonic suite, but he left the best cue alone for the film: a strings-theme for the two major scenes between Terry and Charley, which play to the deep mixture of love and deep disappointment in their relationship. Bernstein would lose the Oscar for Best Original Score. He was robbed.

On the realism front, Kazan had my pick for the finest cast in the history of film. Aside from Bernstein’s loss, the only other Oscars the film didn’t win were in the Supporting Actor category, where Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger likely canceled each other out. Malden had already won an Oscar for a previous Kazan film, A Streetcar Named Desire, but he’s nearly as good here as Father Barry. Based on a real crusading priest, Barry is a man of the people, just as willing to preach on the streets as he is in the church. When he gets a real idea of just how bad the longshoremen are being treated by the mob, he becomes a fierce advocate for their rights. When he promises longshoreman Kayo Dugan (a terrific Pat Henning) that he’ll stand by him all the way, he does- right up to Dugan’s murder. Yet for all of Barry’s righteousness, Malden wisely brings a certain self-righteousness to keep him human: his initial dismissal of Terry might be understandable, but he’s quick to react with violence when Terry insults him late in the film. And yet he’s still a decent man, buying a beer for Terry when he’s suffered the greatest loss of his life.

Lee J. Cobb gave his best screen performance as vicious mobster Johnny Friendly. Best known at this point for originating the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Cobb takes on a far different role as a charismatic, brutish, frightening thug. An early scene in his bar shows a man who wears a friendly blue-collar demeanor on the exterior, palling around with his men until he’s shortchanged by one, who he then slaps around and humiliates. He shows the same attitude towards Terry- he’s like a father-figure who “took Charley and me to ball games when we was kids”, but he turns into a monster as soon as he’s crossed. He’s just as unforgiving with his loyal right-hand man Charley, putting the heat on him for Terry’s cooperation with the police. The role required someone who could believably scare everyone else in the film. Cobb succeeds.

Still, I would have given the Oscar to Rod Steiger for what’s easily the quietest performance in a career full of larger-than-life (often hammy) work. Steiger never pushes any of his moments, always seeming like a bookish kid who fell in with the wrong crowd and now will go to any ends to keep what he has. A great early moment shows him in Friendly’s bar, nervously insisting that Terry “has a good friend here” in Johnny. Steiger beautifully underplays the sense of being torn between his loyalty to his boss and his love for his brother, particularly in the film’s most famous scene (which I’ll get into more detail later).

On the Waterfront was Eva Marie Saint’s first film role, and while she’s a wonderful actress, she would never top her work here. Kazan pushed the relatively inexperienced Saint to the brink in her most emotional scenes, and the results show: she’s believably distraught at the death of her brother, conflicted and furious when she learns of the truth behind Terry’s involvement in his death. But her best scenes are her love scenes with Brando, in which she brings a deep feeling of warmth, sensitivity, and understanding for his misdeeds and for his sense of inner conflict. It’s the first time a humanizing love story in a Kazan film has worked entirely. Where the dull relationships in Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky were completely perfunctory, the Brando/Jean Peters grouping in Viva Zapata! underdeveloped, and the Panic in the Streets relationship strong but minor, this is the heart of the film, and much of the credit goes to Saint that we can believe Terry would turn a new leaf for Edie.

But the film undeniably belongs to Brando in the best performance of his career, not to mention one of the three or four greatest leading male performances in the history of cinema. Brando had mastered a mixture of animalism and sensitivity in A Streetcar Named Desire. He tops it here, capturing the soul of Terry Malloy like no other actor could: unsophisticated, ignorant, and often course, but with a strong conscience, an undeniable charm, and an inner goodness that makes him redeemable. So much of his performance is now legendary for how unexpected and off-handed it is: playing with and putting on Saint’s glove after she drops it, an improvised moment that serves as a symbol for how this brutish guy gets inside an upright girl’s heart; casual flirtatiousness manifested in shrugs; shock and confusion after his protégé kills his beloved pigeons for testifying.

Still, the film’s most famous moment- the best scene in the careers of Kazan, Brando, and Steiger- is the “I Coulda Been a Contender” scene, in which years of hidden, deep-rooted conflict between the two brothers boils over. Producer Sam Spiegel went cheap on this scene, refusing to pay for a real cab or rear projection. Kazan and Kaufman covered it up by putting a venetian blind in the back window, and one could easily complain at the lack of realism, not to mention the continuity breaks that came from Brando leaving the scene and forcing Steiger to read some of his lines alone. But these mistakes actually enhance the scene’s power, closing them off from everyone else while bringing real hurt in Steiger’s performance.

In what’s just about the best two-shot ever, Kazan smartly focuses on his two actors, bringing them close together in an uncomfortably claustrophobic interior. The two have clear love for each other, but Charley knows that if he can’t get Terry to shut up that he’ll have to lead him to his death. Terry is reticent, Charley impassioned. When Terry admits he hasn’t made up his mind about what he’s going to do, Charley impulsively pulls out a gun and pleads to him. And Brando gives one of the all-time great reactions: not anger, but deep disappointment and heartbreak as he pushes the gun away- “oh, Charley”. As Steiger leans back and the music starts up, he laments Terry’s lost boxing career, blaming a shitty manager. But as soon as Kazan cuts to a close-up of Terry’s face, and it’s clear what’s coming before he can even start- “It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you.”

The next two shot shows Terry telling the story of his brother’s betrayal plainly, while Charley can barely contain his regret. In the next close-up, Charley turns his head, giving the most half-hearted defense imaginable, before Kazan cuts back to a close-up on Terry for one of the greatest movie lines ever- “You don’t understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody! Which is what I am, let’s face it!” Brando’s face here crosses over to a brief flash of anger before he goes back to disappointment. “It was you, Charley.” In the last two shot, Charley sits, defeated, knowing how things are going to end for him for what he’s about to do. He has one last chance to help Terry, but he’ll pay the ultimate price. This scene probably inspired more actors than any other scene in film history (lord knows it got me to take it up for a few years), but it’s also the purest and most powerful expression of Kazan’s interest in family conflict.

That feeling of betrayal and disappointment in a loved one is something Kazan had an innate understanding of, having dealt with a father who disapproved of his artistic side. Even more powerful- the profound sense of alienation that Kazan always felt, more so after his HUAC testimony. Kazan knew how to tap into his characters’ heads perfectly- Barry’s mixture of righteousness and self-righteousness, Johnny’s sense of entitlement, Edie’s fury over her brother’s death, Charley’s sadness and guilt over his involvement in his brother’s downfall- but Terry’s sense of alienation and guilt is clearly the strongest. Kazan would later write that his HUAC testimony was the hardest situation he ever made- “I would lose something either way”- and Terry showcases that feeling from the opening scenes, when he realizes that he’s complicit in the murder of the only man willing to stand up to the mob. If he doesn’t help, he’ll wind up without the woman he loves. If he does, he’ll betray his brother and a number of good friends.

But his guilt for not testifying becomes more pronounced as more good people die, and he’s finally pushed to do the right thing. Still, it’s going to affect him adversely. Schulberg’s script includes a rather lyrical metaphor regarding pigeons (stand-ins for good people) and the hawks (the bad) that prey on them. As soon as Terry testifies, he’s hated by cops and longshoremen alike. He’s undoubtedly done the right thing, but as a boy he taught to raise pigeons kills all of his birds, a profound sense of melancholy comes over him. In the film’s final scenes, he goes down to the waterfront where he’s the only one passed over for work, and Kazan’s use of a wide shot on Terry, alone, speaks volumes to his sense of alienation.

In the end, there’s no doubt that he did the right thing. The film features several impassioned pleas for real people to fight against corruption- Father Barry’s “that’s a crucifixion/this is my church!” speech, Terry’s agreement to finally stand up for what’s right- but the best might be in the climax, where his rebuke of Johnny turns violent. Kazan places Terry on the high ground above Johnny, but he’s on a shaky wooden plank compared to Johnny’s solid ground. His confrontation has a number of memorable quotes- “You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty stinkin’ mug! And I’m glad what I done to you!”- but really takes off as the fight gets physical, with Terry fighting like a champion and only losing after Johnny’s goons gang up on him. At this point, the men who previously ostracized Terry crowd around him. It’s a stunning proletarian moment as they cast Johnny into the lake and show that they can take charge of their union again- they refuse to work unless Terry works.

But Terry’s been beaten half to death. Barry and Edie can help him to his feet, but he has to march to the warehosue by himself. Blood and saliva leak from his mouth, and Brando does some great physical acting as he stumbles and falters at every other turn, his face expressing a sense of excruciating pain. Kazan uses a shaky, often out-of-focus POV shot as he stumbles towards the dock, and the longshoremen rally around him. Kazan’s use of faces here recalls that of Eisenstein, but now for true of-the-people advocacy rather than propaganda. And as Bernstein’s score swells, the crowd pushes past a now lonely Friendly, ignoring his threats, and shutting the warehouse door behind him forever. Of course, here the film goes more Hollywood than realism- in real life, Friendly’s “I’ll be back” threat wouldn’t be so idle, and Terry would likely end up floating in the river in a few days. It doesn’t matter: Kazan’s touch is too assured, the moment to richly deserved to deny. Maybe if one man stands up, we can all stand up.

NOTE: The recent three-disc Criterion DVD presents On the Waterfront in three separate aspect ratios, as Kazan and Kaufman shot the film so it would look good both in widescreen cinemas and on full-screen TVs. This video essay explains the differences between the aspect ratios. The film looks amazing no matter what, but I personally prefer the split-difference of 1.66:1.

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