August 28, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront. 1954. USA. Directed by Elia Kazan

These notes accompany screenings of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront on August 29, 30, and 31 in Theater 3.

In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives one of the most superb tragicomic performances in the history of the cinema. In American films, there have been a handful of actor/director relationships (Wayne/Ford, Dietrich/Sternberg, Stewart/Hitchcock, Gish/Griffith, Grant/Hawks, and, most sublimely intimate of all, Chaplin/Chaplin) that have largely defined for us the art of movie acting. The team of Brando and Kazan clearly belongs in this elite group, and On the Waterfront represents the apogee of their work together, which also included A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata! Although Kazan offered him subsequent roles (Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, The Arrangement), Brando never worked with his mentor again and, in my opinion, never approached the level of his performance in this film.

It is a work of first-rate craftsmanship, from its staccato opening to its stumbling conclusion. The other actors are uniformly excellent (something one took for granted from Kazan), and Boris Kaufman’s Oscar-winning photography provides the ultimate in authenticity of locale. Kazan said that shooting in the chill of a Hoboken winter forced him to take liberties with Budd Schulberg’s script. Judging by Waterfront’s superiority to their other collaborative effort (A Face in the Crowd), one must assume this was all to the good. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Many weaknesses go back to the script…but Kazan, by trying to make assets out of liabilities, forces consideration of his responsibility…. Intermittently…the film is great.”

This is genuinely a Kazan film: One can trace Terry Malloy’s (Brando) aspirations to “be somebody” back to the James Dunn character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (the director’s first film) and to Arthur Kennedy’s need “to get moving” in Boomerang. In On the Waterfront, despite Schulberg’s tendency to delineate the world in terms of good and evil, we have the first fully coherent expression of Kazanian moral ambiguity—the inability or unwillingness to pass judgment that is so central to America, America (which we intend to show next year). Thus, in spite of its heavy-handed symbolism, regardless of its too-facile resolution, and beneath its hysteria, we find in On the Waterfront substantial evidence of a major cinema artist and a fascinating man.

Of all the directors in this series, I probably had more frequent personal contact with Kazan than with any other. We were never buddies, and I never felt close enough to call him Gadg, but I interviewed him twice and shared a few dinner parties. I remember one evening when (for some forgotten reason), Kazan, Joe Mankiewicz, and the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist (winner of two Oscars for Ingmar Bergman films) were hanging out in our offices. Kazan was apparently very pleased by the program notes I had written for the museum’s 1971 retrospective of his work (my first such endeavor), and I think he was touched by my request to sign a copy of one of his novels as a gift for my mother. On that occasion, I interrupted a meeting with Sam Spiegel, producer of On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia (all Best Picture Oscar winners) and, later, Kazan’s The Last Tycoon, which they were probably working on at the time. Kazan acted like a proud little kid in introducing me to Spiegel. Regarding the interviews, he insisted on editing the transcripts to remove any four-letter words (there were many) that might offend his wife, Barbara Loden.

There has been much written over the years about Waterfront being an apologia for Kazan’s and Schulberg’s cooperation in naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee during its Hollywood witch-hunt. (I also met Schulberg, who was far from charming.) Many careers and lives had been ruined by HUAC—including that of John Garfield, star of Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, who was killed by a stress-induced heart attack. In his autobiography A Life (which critic John Lahr called “the best volume ever written about American show business), Kazan discusses his testimony at length, trying to explain what he did, but without apology. He concluded, “I don’t hold people’s faults against them; I ask their tolerance for mine.” In effect, he was echoing the sentiments of Jean Renoir (whom he considered a “god”) that everyone has his reasons, as expressed in The Rules of the Game. I never discussed the matter with him.