“I coulda been a contender.” Marlon Brando’s lament to his brother Charley. Instead, he took a one-way ticket to Palookaville and ended up a bum. And that’s what rankles: Brando’s character Terry threw a fight to satisfy Charley’s Mob buddies. The Mob rewarded him by getting him a do-nothing job on the docks, and every so often he’s expected to show gratitude by doing a dirty little job for the union boss.
Terry’s no whiz kid, but it starts to get to him. He’s got no self-respect, no soul. He’s afraid, like all the men on the docks, but eventually his resentment kicks in—that and his love for the sister of a guy he betrayed. He stands up to the boss and testifies against him, tells the truth to his girlfriend too. And in the film’s powerful final sequence, he goes down to the docks and demands his right to work.
The right to work. An old mantra, it inspired working-class protests in the nineteenth century and was enshrined by the UN in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nothing less than human dignity is at stake: the right of individuals to fulfill their own needs for food, shelter, security.
Terry fights the union boss, and is nearly beaten to death by the the man’s thugs. “That boy fights like he used to,” comments one of the other men. Up to this point, the dockworkers have acquiesced in their subjugation, but when Terry manages to get up and walks into the workplace, all the men follow. He’s given them back their dignity as well.
“On the Waterfront” is a big film. Marlon Brando played the role of his career, and director Elia Kazan pulled out all the stops to get his point across. Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb in supporting roles—not to mention the lovely Eva Marie Saint. An original score composed by Leonard Bernstein. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether Kazan intended the picture to serve as vindication for his own testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It stands alone.
(25 May 2011)