AFI 100: On the Waterfront

Having come from the generation that knew Marlon Brando primarily as Superman’s dad, Dr. Moreau, and the default punchline for Johnny Carson fat jokes (once Raymond Burr kicked the bucket), it’s amazing to see the guy at the top of his game, making every actor unfortunate enough to share a scene with him look like a rank amateur. Made in 1954, On the Waterfront seems right on the cusp of the transition from old-school “stagey” performances and new-fangled “method acting”, with a Brando leading the charge, mumbling and stuttering his way through his portrayal of Terry Malloy, small-time hood with a heart of gold (or, at least, a weakness for blondes). This film would have been a perfect 10 for me were it not for the ending, which I found too pat and the ruination of what would have otherwise been a pitch-perfect and unrelenting piece of noir. Humorous aside: I was completely broadsided by the “coulda been a contenda!” bit–as god as my witness I always though De Niro delivered that line in Raging Bull. Learn somethin’ new every day. 9/10

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17 comments.

  1. I watched this movie a few years ago and it made me realize how little I really understand about film or story for that matter. I could tell there was something there, but I had no idea what it was. Since then, I can tell when a movie is good (critically) when I don’t understand it, or when I finish and I am in the same frame of mind as when I started.

    One thing I really liked about “the line” is the difference in emphasis. For years I had heard it as, “…I coulda been somebody.” In the movie, he delivers it as, “…I coulda been somebody.” The former making Terry sound like he was lamenting his past and the later making Terry lament who he was which seems much more apropos to his character.

    I really like your AFI 100 posts.

  2. I hate to be the asshole to mention this, but it’s “as god is my witness”, as in “it’s as sure as god is my witness”. This is one of those little things that drives me crazy. Sorry.

  3. As far as I know, Malloy is killed at the end of the novel but this was considered too pessimistic for a Hollywood movie in late MacCarthyist America. It

  4. John Belushi and Peter Boyle once did a Saturday Night Live skit called “Dueling Brandos.” I think it was Belushi who said the “contender” line in that skit.

  5. De Niro does deliver the “coulda been a contender” bit in Raging Bull, but his character Jake LaMotta is is quoting Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront when he does it. :o)

  6. The musical score. I can watch the movie just for that. Thank you, Leonard Bernstein.

  7. blondes.

  8. How timely. DH just sent me this list of commonly misquoted movies. Sadly, you seem to be alone on this one.

    http://listverse.com/entertainment/top-15-film-misquotes/

  9. Apocalypse Now was actually based on Mike Huckabee’s wet dream involving smokin’ hot Cambodian chicks and rocket launchers.

    (And by chicks, I mean chickens. Why are Southern Baptists so obsessed with chicken-fucking in outhouses?)

  10. I really wanted to like this movie, but it just seemed like one great big whiny screech from Elia Kazan in defense of his naming names before HUAC. “No! I was heroic to rat on my friends and save my own ass!”

    I don’t know if this is how the movie comes off to anybody else, but I just couldn’t stand it.

  11. I studied film in college and watched “On The Waterfront” then. I was blown away by your very description of Brando. Such a wonderful film. It was also in college that I got turned on to Hitchcock films – Dude, Vertigo and Rear Window are still of my two favorite films of all time.

  12. Since no one has mentioned it yet, I’ll kindly point out that the young Marlon Brando was unbelievably smoking hot.

  13. Kazan also did good work with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It helps that Tennessee Williams did such a great job with the play. Brando was a genius. From his inarticulate hulk in Streetcar to his articulate madman in Apocalypse Now.

    Also check out the films of Stanley Donen. He did “Charade” — a Hitchcock-esque spy story, “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” and “Singing in the Rain.” He was the successor to Busby Berkeley when it came to choreographing dance sequences. And after Donen there is Bob Fosse.

  14. And Kazan’s contribution to the fight against the evils of Communism cannot go untold.

  15. If you’d like to see another brilliant younger (smoking hot) Brando performance, check out “Teahouse of the August Moon.” (I think I’ve remembered that title correctly) It’s set in Okinawa and Brando plays a sneaky Japanese helper to the awkward American soldiers “come to save Okinawa”… that’ll be even funnier once you’ve seen the movie.

    It’s hard to reconcile the Brando from late in his career (being rather portly) with the little japanese guy that is so funny. Then again, maybe it’s not so hard.

  16. I had a similar experience with Brando–not realizing for a long time that he was ever anything than a washed up Jabba-the-Hutt lookalike, though I saw Streetcar Named Desire first, in an acting class–as it was the real breakthrough film for method acting–where the ending was also watered down a bit, though not drowned like in On the Waterfront.

  17. I had a similar experience with Brando–not realizing for a long time that he was ever anything other than a washed up Jabba-the-Hutt lookalike, though I saw Streetcar Named Desire first, in an acting class–as it was the real breakthrough film for method acting–where the ending was also watered down a bit, though not drowned like in On the Waterfront.