Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On the Waterfront: it's a crucifixion

OK, this time I wasn't really going to watch it. It just came on Turner Classics (supposedly: though I knew it was coming on) while I was knitting or working on something else, so I thought I'd just have it on in the background for old time's sake.

For old time's sake. . . The first time I saw On the Waterfront, I was 13 years old and sleeping downstairs in the den on the pullout bed. This was a rare treat because my Mum knew I'd spend most of the night watching monster movies on TV. But this time it was different.

I fell not deeply, but profoundly in love with this movie and everything and everyone in it. It is the most nearly perfect thing I have ever seen. Brando's performance as a shuffling, inarticulate dock worker, a washed-up prize fighter whose one chance at glory was stolen from him, slowly gains focus and fire until, by the end, he is a blazing hero, battered and bruised but still able to walk: to lead his brothers back to work, demonstrating the only real integrity they have ever seen.

This is the very definition of "walking the walk", and powerful beyond measure. All this, and Leonard Bernstein's melancholy, majestic score, so married to the material that they are inseparable.

Every performer, from Rod Steiger to Eva Marie Saint to Lee J. Cobb, and even to bit-players like Fred Gwynne (and Martin Balsam! Blink and you'll miss him) are at the top of their form, doing a little better than they know how. The "cab scene" is the best-known, even with those ludicrous hand-cut venetian blinds in the back window (since the rear-projecting machine was lost or broken or something: this was a low-budget film, like Psycho, lean and spare, so that not a thing was wasted, particularly not the energies of those brilliant actors).

Terry's brother Charlie the Gent is guiding his brother into a trap: either take a cushy, nothing job on the waterfront and keep your mouth shut, or. . . get out of the cab at 437 River Street, a place you emerge from feet-first. When Charlie pulls a gun on his brother, Brando gives the now-classic reaction that is so totally unexpected, even shocking.

The script just says, "Wow, Charlie." Instead of shock, fear, disgust, dismay, what he registers is. . . disappointment. And pity. He gently pushes the gun away, shaking his head, for the first time seeing his brother as he is, completely poisoned by evil. All the crusted layers of a lifetime of denial have fallen down at once.


This video clip is a favorite scene of mine, in which legendary character actor Karl Malden (whom I never saw give a bad performance) plays Father Barry, a sheltered waterfront priest who steps out of the sanctuary and into the fire. Any man who even thinks of informing on Johnny Friendly and the mob is immediately killed, and when Kayo Dugan dies under a crushing load of crates full of Irish whiskey, Father Barry delivers a eulogy that would peel the skin off the most hardened criminal.

There is not a false second in this speech: it is hair-raising, and, as always, as has happened every time I've seen this, every time for maybe 15 or 20 times, or maybe more, I cried. I cried because his character has managed to utter that which I cannot utter, or even clarify in my mind. It is so far down in me I didn't think it could even be felt, let alone expressed. 

I too have had to step out of a church that was once a womb, then slowly became a tomb. Father Barry smokes cigarettes like a tough guy, orders beer in saloons, and even decks Terry when he basically tells the Father to fuck off. It's a dizzying performance. Watch it: you'll see.