by Brad Nelson
“Winner of 8 Academy Awards!!!!” — Roger Egbert, Ate the Movies. • “A real con-ten-duh for best film ever.” — Film Snobinski, LA Times • “I laughed. I cried. I vomited into the sofa.” — Joe Blow, Star Review
This kind of hyperbole is stuck on movies like Jujubees (the candy, not the drag queen) on the bottom of your shoes in a movie theatre. People typically fall all over themselves to praise what is cool or popular. You therefore will have a difficult time gauging the quality of a movie by the pull-quotes. Even the worst movies have “Wow. I was amazed!” on the front of the DVD cover. (The whole quote was probably, “Wow, I was amazed a movie could be this crappy.”)
But you could say the same thing about the worst of films. I’m actually “amazed” some of them even get made. No matter how bad a movie was, you can always dig up some half-wit with no taste to praise it. And certainly On the Waterfront is one of those movies whose DVD jacket is covered with praise and whose reputation is so large that only fools or movie buffs (I do my reviews fully clothed, by the way) would dare to question it. After all, we’re talking about movie legends, and you don’t mess with movie legends once they are established. They are like diamonds. A diamond may be nothing but compressed carbon, but its value is in that we all agree that it has value.
Well, that’s not how I operate. Reputation, schmeputation. So, how did On the Waterfront make out upon finally viewing this classic? Did it have class? Was it a real con-ten-duh?
The short answer is “Yes.” I never was in much doubt in the first ten minutes that I was watching something of quality. And a movie such as this makes you realize how little can be gained from shooting in color. This is black-and-white at its best. The dialogue is good, interesting, believable, and not at all cliched. What a relief. You expect that from classics, but one never knows. This movie was so good that I want to sit down again and watch the bar scene with Terry and Edie. What a great conversation filled with realistic and depthful dialogue. I know that the scene in the taxi is perhaps considered the best and most iconic, but I think this one in the bar over a glass of beer between Brando and Eva Marie Saint is even better.
My one reservation — and it was more of an ongoing question in my head as to the appropriateness of it rather than an outright objection — was regarding the soundtrack by Leonard Bernstein. This ain’t no subtle soundtrack that sits in the background. It’s a major part of the picture and at times is a little loud and intrusive. It’s definitely a risky soundtrack because often it is calling attention to itself. But in the end, it won me over with the sheer vibrancy, danger, and passion it brought to this movie.
Another reservation was Karl Malden as the priest. Ultimately, the dialogue was good enough that I don’t know that it mattered that much who played him, but Malden wouldn’t have been my first or second choice. But, good god, what a job of casting of the mob thugs. They look like a perfect lineup of every stereotypical movie thug from the entire black-and-white era. And topping the list of thugs (and good guys) is Brando who gives a stunningly good performance. His best scene (spoiler alert until the end of this paragraph) by far is the one where he finds his brother hanging by a hook in the alley and vows revenge. I can guarantee you that 99% of actors would have played it over-the-top. Brando evokes one of the deepest rages I’ve ever seen on film while barely raising his voice.
It turns out that On the Waterfront is one of those sometimes all-too-rare classics that is indeed a classic. The final walk up the pier by a beaten and bloody Brando is a memorable and moving scene. I have to roll my eyes a little at the ratings at IMDB.com which give this movie a mere 8.4 while giving relative weak or mundane movies (and certainly not timeless ones) such as WALL-E (8.4), American Beauty (8.4) or The Dark Knight (8.9) better ones. There was a time when men (and women) had taste. And that time was when they made this movie.
No, I’m not saying that On the Waterfront is a high-brow film. I hate overly-pretentious high-brow films. This is very much a working class film. It’s about longshoremen, ex-boxers, right-and-wrong, and standing up to the crowd. This is a very human film while so many others are seemingly made by people who are alienated from their own humanity.
I give it 4.2 dead pigeons out of 5. One of the best. This is Brando in his prime, and perhaps never better. It ranges into the rarified air of the 4+ rating. • (903 views)