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Have You Seen…? Episode 32

Film Star Vintage/ Flickr

David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about ‘On the Waterfront,’ the 1954 film starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, directed by the controversial director Elia Kazan. Kazan had named names before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in Congress. On the Waterfront is a film that grapples with labor issues and organized crime.

David Hast: Scott, have you seen On the Waterfront?

Scott Vander Werf: I've seen On the Waterfront many times, one of the greatest films ever made, and obviously one of the greatest performances by Marlon Brando.

DH: Yeah, On the Waterfront, no matter how old you are or what you know about movies, if you want to make the claim that you know something about Hollywood movies, you have to see On the Waterfront. It's one of the, you know, stone classics of Hollywood cinema.

SVW: From 1954, directed by Elia Kazan with the screenplay from Bud Schulberg and loosely based on real events and with the Longshoremen on the East Coast.

DH: Yeah, it's a fairly simple story. It's a story of corruption and violence in the Longshoremen's Union, the guy, Longshoremen, the guys who unload freight, freight boats. And the story of former boxer Terry Malloy, who's a longshoreman and whose brother is kind of high up in the corrupt union and what happens when faced with the moral dilemma of putting a stop to the violence and murder that's going on in the union.

SVW: And it's also a very personal film in terms of between the characters with a dynamic between Marlon Brando's character and his older brother played by Rod Steiger who’s the money man in the Union and in the, essentially it's the mob.

DH: Yeah and of course the acting is all wonderful. I mean part of what makes this, Oscars are not the measure of whether a film is great or not. Many movies that aren't that great get nominated for a lot of Oscars and a lot of many many great movies are completely overlooked but in this one in this case the the nominations were deserved and had eight nominations no I think like eleven nominations and it won in something like eight categories, best picture, best director, best actor, of course, for Marlon Brando, cinematography, art direction, editing. But what's sometimes forgotten is that five of the actors in this movie were nominated. Brando won Eva Marie Saint, who's absolutely wonderful in this movie and probably is number two in screen time in the movie, her first movie, and she won best supporting actress. And then all three of the other supporting actors, Rod Steiger, Carl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb, all were nominated for best supporting actor and they didn't get it because the votes were all split among them. And all of them came out of the Method Acting School, the actors theater group in New York.

SVW: Well, let's go back to the classical acting in terms of the history of cinema and theater. You would think of like Laurence Olivier, the great British actor.

DH: Sure. The whole British school of acting.

SVW: The whole British school of acting where it's like you take your cues from the director and you take your cues strictly from the script. Whereas with method acting, you actually become the character and there's some stories of people like Brando or Al Pacino, where they stay in character even when they're not on screen and not actually working.

DH: They can be really annoying or really awful to their co-actors because they won't go out of character. And this is still, this exists today. I think, you know, I've often heard it also said, if you don't know, I challenge you to look at a performance and tell me whether they're just studying the technique, like, oh, this is the expression or the movement a character would have if they were feeling this, or versus do they feel it and then show that.

People say, you can't really tell, but they're certainly both there. And why we're talking about this is Marlon Brando, in particular, through the director, Elia Kazan, really introduced method acting, and he was so good that it just blew people away. When they saw A Streetcar Named Desire a few years earlier, directed by the same director, people had never seen that kind of acting in movies.

SVW: But it really comes to a focus in this movie. And there are several distinctive scenes, the most famous of which is in a cab and it's between the two brothers, Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando talking. And it's just amazing. They're both method actors and it's just virtuoso.

DH: Yeah, yeah. Before we talk about the scene directly, to build on that, I read a great quote about it. I was looking to see what people said about it, and Roger Ebert, the great film critic, said that, this is a quote, Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kind of heightened riff on reality.

SVW: But it's also very natural.

Dh: Yeah, and part of what made this movie natural too was also that they shot it completely on location. It was really cold, so they all had to wear these coats all the time. And, Kazan said that this is another quote, the bite of the wind and the temperature did a great thing for the actors' faces. It made them look like people, not actors.

SVW: And the locations, it's in New Jersey, it's on the real docks, they use real churches, they utilize real rooftops. It's, the French call the maison scene, the placing of the scene, is perfect throughout this movie.

DH: Yeah, it is. And then let's come back to the cab scene because it's the most famous scene from it. I mean, people know these quotes, even if they've never seen the movie. They know Marlon Brando saying, I could have been a contender. I could have had class. I could have been somebody instead of a bum. All that stuff. People know that stuff. But it's a five minute scene in a taxi cab. It's basically a close in master shot and then multiple closeups of the two of them.

I'm not sure if there's anything other than those three shots. And it's, it's like Greek tragedy in this one scene, brother betraying brother, guilt and emotion.

SVW: And apparently from the interviews that I watched around on the DVD that I got from the library, Rod Steiger says that they did it essentially in one take, that it was just so, everything just flowed, again, using that word naturally.

DH: It couldn't have been one take.

SVW: Well, it wasn't one take, but I mean, essentially, you said it was, they just did the work and the work was done.

Dh: Yeah, right, so they probably had, they probably did the whole thing in the two shot, and then they did the whole thing with the shot on Brando and the whole thing with the shot on Steiger, and probably what you're saying is, they didn't do many takes just one or two takes of each of those because they had it down so well.

SVW: Let's talk about the scene with the glove and which is earlier and it's between the character played by Eva Marie Saint and Brando. She's not yet quite Drawn to him. She's still suspicious of him and he obviously has a crush on her, describe the scene.

DH: Yeah. Well, it's really important because the movie begins this isn't really a spoiler because the movie begins with this but her brother is murdered by the union and the Terry Malloy, the Marlon Brando character has something to do with it, although he did not think at all that this kid was gonna be murdered. So that's where he has the moral dilemma. And now he's keeping company with the sister and he's falling in love with her right away. And they're walking and what's famous about this scene, they're just walking in their coats outside talking and she dropped one of her gloves.

And the story goes that this was an accident. It wasn't meant to happen. But Brando didn't miss a beat. He picks the glove up, and he starts doing business with it, and he eventually puts it on. And to hers and the director's credit, they didn't stop.

SVW: Yeah, and he just continues. He continues with the script, talking to her, as if this is what the scene is.

DH: But what's so marvelous about it is that he improvised and in character very much. Because one of the, maybe the main thing, to say about the Terry Malloy character is that although he's an ex-boxer who was betrayed by his brother who forced him to throw fights instead of becoming a contender, he's very kind and tender-hearted and almost effeminate in a lot of ways. So when he puts this woman's glove on, it just fits.

SVW: Now this movie comes across as very realistic. But you have pointed out that it's also kind of a moral fable.

DH: Yeah, I think it's realistic in some ways and it's sort of hyper realistic in other ways, you know. So, and some things now, a little bits of it maybe feel dated. Do you think the ending, which we won't give away, but do you think it feels a little bit unrealistic or dated?

SVW: There are some things, well there are some things, we haven't talked about the Karl Malden character, who's a priest, who's really encouraging justice to happen here. And there's a lot of things that just smack of things being naive from his character. Like he should know better in terms of the power of the unions and the power of organized crime within the unions.

DH: Yeah. And how, you know, a couple of rousing speeches get people to fall behind them. It isn't that easy, but, but just from pure, as pure, beautiful cinema, an incredible story and really a complete turning point in the history of movie acting, there's on the waterfronts to the one.

SVW: Now David in our conversation about Ilya Kazan and on the waterfront we really didn't touch on his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC in 1952 during the postwar era and he was somebody who actually was criticized by his peers for testifying and naming names of communists who had either been part of the theater group that he had been in when he was younger or other film directors producers actors etc and in terms of on the waterfront a lot of people looked at that as being almost an allegory for his testimony and, so what do you think about that?

DH: Not necessarily an allegory but a rebuttal or

SVW: yeah rebuttal,

DH: You know yeah, I mean this is a infamous period in American history when probably the the most anti-communist period in the early 50s, late 40s, early 50s, when both the Senate under Joseph McCarthy and then this House Un-American Activities Committee were investigating communism and the House Committee is the one that went after Hollywood. And so they were taking person after person and you know you have to look at the history of this. Many of these people when they were young and then idealistic and the...19 teens and 20s and 30s. They were affiliated with the Communist Party, which they saw as progressive, you know, a left of left wing alternative to what was going on before, you know, many things came out about the totalitarianism and Stalinism and what was going on there.

SVW: The mass murders,

DH: Right, but also there's just this incredible overreaction that was happening in there and they were trying to get all these Hollywood people to turn on each other and they didn't have very many friendly witnesses, ones who were willing to cooperate. And Kazan at first did not cooperate and then he changed his mind and came back and named names like 10 or 12 names of people he'd been associated with and those people all ended up blacklisted from Hollywood.

SVW: And then when he made On the Waterfront you as you said just earlier, you look at that as a rebuttal.

DH: Yeah, because what is On the Waterfront about? It's about a corrupt organization. It's a union which should stand for the workers, right? But instead, it's doing corrupt and violent things. It doesn't really help the workers, but it hurts them and has this code of your D & D, you're deaf and dumb. You don't hear anything. You don't say anything and you're never going to be a rat. And then the main character, Terry Malloy, played by Humphrey Bogart, realizes he has to testify against them to end the violence. And so he becomes a rat, in a sense. But in the movie, he's the hero. He does the right thing.

SVW: Now, I had read that early on in being asked about it that he had said that this film was not about his testimony.

DH: I guess he denied it. I don't know all the history of this. I thought maybe later in his life, maybe even in his autobiography, he finally did address it directly. But I don't think there's any question in anybody's mind historically that this was one of the reasons he made this movie.

SVW: And then later he was given an honorary Oscar in 1999. And there was a notable reaction from some of the celebrities in the audience, stood and applauded him, and they said later that they did that for the art that he created. But there were many others who either sat on their hands or just sat silent.

DH: Yeah. And I can't remember the names, but you know, it's just weird to read, you know, so long after this, you know, you need to read a name like, I don't know, whoever Nick Nolte or Susan Sarandon or something. And some people applauded him because he was a wonderful filmmaker, but others even, you know, almost at the turn of the 21st century still are holding a grudge and anger at him for what he did to some people in Hollywood.

SVW: It was Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, and Ian McKellen, and Amy Madigan. They refused to applaud. And then actors Kathy Bates, Meryl Streep, Karl Malden, and Warren Beatty along with producer George Stevens gave him a standing ovation.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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