There are some upsides to not winning an election. For the first time in my 47 years, I have seen On the Waterfront. Even the Vatican considers this a significant film. I am glad to know that my views and theirs are in line.
Brando. Brando! Even 60 years later, he's as fresh and new and revolutionary as ever. Even more so, given all the film that's happened in between now and then. The naturalness and the attention to detail are unique.
Kazan. Kazan? Who is Elia Kazan? Coward and traitor? Fighter? Neo-con? A very gifted director. That he would get in bed with HUAC offends. But life is always more complex than that. HUAC was an American Star Chamber, in a democracy no less. But according to Kazan, he'd already broken with the Communists. Faced with an unacceptable choice, he chose an unacceptable option. But no worse than the other option. Furthermore, the Communists were not just wrong, but dependent on coercion, that most pernicious of political tools. As it turns out, in the next five decades, the capitalists won the day if not the argument and have managed to break the labor movement and hollow out the middle class all at the same time.
For all the inherent brutality of the On the Waterfront world, both physical and psychological, the scenes depicted are quaint now. Not that they aren't still brutal, it's just that they no longer exist in such proximity to our world. Politically, we are different. Economically too. Find me an American city that has a dock scene like that? Maybe union politics still aren't all that different. But unions don't play the role they once did. And more to the point, our cities aren't like that anymore either. They turn not on grease but on electrons. Good, unless you try to make your money by manipulating grease.
Both the personal and the political are not just the things
of drama but of life, which is why art can imitate life, but more
commonly it is the other way around.
The other thing about this film is that its 1950s-ness shines through. Any urbanist will love it for its grittiness.
Today a city is pretty: a playground for the very rich or an absorber of the very poor. In the winter of 1953, people still went up on rooftops without a second thought. No health and safety regulations there. I am a nostalgist, but there is a glory in that time. Kazan's camera unintentionally captures details that tell the story of that world so well: the brick chimney with its mortar gone, brick on brick. The Empire State Building makes a cameo across the Hudson in the background. Meanwhile, the film's most famous line, one of the most famous lines in all of film, is said in one of its quietest scenes. Not some waterfront ballet scored by Leonard Bernstein but in the back of a taxi cab, one brother to another. Brando utters "I could have been a contender." We've all felt that way.
Bold, black and white, beautiful -- Story, Location, Actors -- On the Waterfront is so palpably itself. Unlike so many films, this film carries its own weight, easily.