Feb. 20, 2013 - Issue #905: DOA No more - Trading in punk for politics
I coulda been a contender
Criterion's new edition of On the Waterfront is among their most heavily supplemented releases—with good reason. Even after his death, Kazan remains one of Hollywood's enduring enigmas: his immigrant background and roots in the Group Theatre; his co-founding of the Actor's Studio and his ushering of a new wave of actors into the movies; his co-operation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities that destroyed so many careers during the peak of the Red Scare. The film, which concerns a dock worker who testifies against a corrupt union boss, has been read by many as a defense of Kazan, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg's naming names to HUAC. Among Criterion's most interesting supplements is the documentary Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982), in which, decades after the HUAC hearings, Kazan still seems over-eager to justify his actions. In another excellent supplement the critic David Thomson offers his own compelling explanation for Kazan's choice to name names, even when he knew it would make him an object of considerable scorn in the industry: "I think that it really came out of a psychological need to be an outsider."
The film's outsider is, of course, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a disgraced ex-boxer who begins the story as the darling of Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) the lethal union leader with mob ties, and ends it as Friendly's enemy. On the Waterfront has a dizzying number of wonderful performances, but those of Brando and Cobb make for the strongest contrast because they're both so good, yet so different. Cobb, at times genuinely fearsome, eating with his mouth open, eyes darting around a room as he lectures Terry, gives a gutsy, gorgeous performance, but he's also a bulldozer, shouting his way through key moments.
Brando is a fountain of nuance, seemingly hyper-masculine yet so vulnerable, even effeminate in his tenderness. In that early scene where he realizes he set up a fellow dockworker for murder, he seems caught off-guard by his own guilt, absently clutching at himself as though in response to acid reflex. Later he'll chew gum as a way of transmitting thought. He's comical, yet touchingly earnest in his scenes with Eva Marie Saint, shoving his paw in her little white glove, saying lines like "I don't like the country, the crickets make me nervous." Brando does some shouting as well, but behind the shouting there is an almost palpable net of impulse, a psychological busyness—none of it decoration. Brando is a revelation here, and his approach brought out the best in his co-stars.
Space permitted, we could get into Boris Kaufman's bleak and sumptuous cinematography, Leonard Bernstein's intrusive yet stunningly beautiful score—a way of telling the story all on its own. But just take my word for it: Criterion has given us the best possible home video experience of On the Waterfront, a singular masterpiece from Hollywood's great transitional decade—and it rewards investigation into who made it, and how it came to be. V
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