The Greatest films of all time: 48. On the Waterfront (1954)(USA)


“On the Waterfront” is the second major film of Elia Kazan with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, since their first endeavor, “A Streetcar named Desire”, but this time with a fuller cast including Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and introducing Eva Marie Saint. Elia Kazan starting on Broadway introduced Marlon Brando with their first cooperation on the screen, and again this time with a full power house of cast, stamped his influence for long years to come on American and the world cinema. As a theatrical director, he brought the art of theatrical acting or method acting to the cinema, emphasized on the role and power of acting on screen and established the actors studio as a theoretical back up. This while took away the important visual component of the art of filmmaking, enriched cinema with the art and significance of script and acting that were ignored or were not known to this extend before.


Elia Kazan style or the acting cinema, put the scenario and the acting at the centerpiece of the films, popularized it and conceived a new era of Hollywood as the world of actors. This style was very dominant for decades until it lost some power to the influence of special effects and digitalism in cinema in later years. In these types of cinematic works, such as “On the Waterfront” there is less influence of camera work and art directing, but acting and acting directing. In Kazan’s work, the actors have lots of freedom in acting their own ways and improvise as there quite a few of such scenes in this film, like his others. Many actors liked to work with Kazan and called him the best actors director and Marlon Brando expressed about him “He was an arch-manipulator of actors’ feelings, and he was extraordinarily talented; perhaps we will never see his like again.”


“On the Waterfront” as a powerful socialist workers movement film and a big surprise for Hollywood at the time of McCarthy’s communist witch hunt, is also a mark of ambivalence on and off the screen. On the screen, Terry (Marlon Brando) an ex-prizefighter had been robbed off his career by his older educated brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) who’s the brain of the mobs, headed by the trade unionist, Johnny (Lee J. Cobb) to betting at the interest of the mobs. Terry, a victim of his surrounding and his own laziness and lack of intellect, associates in the murder of a friend, Joey by the mobs, the brother of Edie (Eva Marie Saint) whom he falls in love with and walks on the path of redemption. Off the screen, Elia Kazan, a socialist in the theatre before joining Hollywood and even in this film, through inquisition and force of the anti-communist committee before making the film, betrays his comrades by revealing some names including his own famous writer friend, Arthur Miller, who even started writing the first draft of the script.   

On the Waterfront: A Revolutionary Tale of Redemption

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