The Best American Film Ever Produced?
If the 1954 film, On the Waterfront is not the best American film ever produced, it is without doubt among the ten best post—World War II American films. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, and won 8 including Best Picture. It is ranked the 8th Greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute. The idea for On the Waterfront began with an expose series written for The New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson. The 24 articles won Johnson a Pulitzer Prize, and coupled by the April 1948 murder of a New York dock hiring boss, awakened America to the killings, graft and extortion that made up everyday life on the New York waterfront. The protagonist Terry Malloy’s fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle—blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real—life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken docks and was to a degree ostracized for his deeds. DiVincenzo sued and settled, many years after, with Columbia Pictures over the appropriation of what he considered his story. DiVincenzo recounted his story to writer Budd Schulberg during a month—long session of waterfront barroom meetings—which some claim never occurred—even though Shulberg attended Di Vincenzo’s waterfront commission testimony every day during the hearing.
Budd Schulberg, a former member of the Communist Party was Hollywood royalty, the son of B.P. Schulberg, head of Paramount Pictures, and Adeline Jaffe-Schulberg, sister of agent/film producer Sam Jaffe, best known for his 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run, his 1947 novel The Harder They Fall. Schulberg saw the subject as material for a future film project. “I had taken a rather unorthodox approach to the writing of the screenplay, applying not a month or two, but years of my life to absorbing everything I could about the New York waterfront, becoming a frequent visitant of the West Side Manhattan and Jersey City bars, interviewing longshoreman, union leaders and getting to know the fearless and outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen,” wrote Schulberg in a 1953 New York Times article.
Elia Kazan, Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, was an acquaintance of Schulberg and as early as 1951 they were already working on an idea around Malcolm Johnston’s article. They submitted the finished screenplay to Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, who Kazan though owed him a picture. They were to meet with Zanuck the following month. However,the audience with the mogul did not go well. Zanuck envisioned the picture in CinemaScope and Technicolor. Kazan and Schulberg looked at one another in amazement, for without question the script was explicit; it was to be shot in Black & White. Finally Zanuck confessed, “I hate the script”. And impolitely reasoned, “who’s going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?” Undaunted, Schulberg and Kazan eventually met with independent producer Sam Spiegel, the man who had made The African Queen and The Stranger, and would later be responsible for such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Spiegel agreed to make the film, which would be distributed through Columbia Pictures.
Kazan was was given a budget of just under $1.000.000. The 36 day shoot, was filmed in Hoboken New Jersey, as Kazan, in the manner of John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz and Fred Zinnemann, believed that the atmosphere in Southern California was an anathema to the practicality and realism then demanded by post—war audiences.The film reunited Kazan with Marlon Brando. The two had worked together on the groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire, and the underrated Viva Zapata.
To cast the film’s lead, Terry Malloy, Spiegel sent the script to Marlon Brando. Schulberg wrote, “Sam sent the script to Brando, and it came back with a refusal. But I had done the old trick of putting bits of paper between the pages, which were in place, so I knew that he hadn’t read it.” While Spiegel continued to work on Brando, Frank Sinatra agreed to play the part. Before he could sign, however, Brando changed his mind and accepted the role. Although the other leads; Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, were all Hollywood veterans, On the Waterfront’s leading lady came direct from the Broadway stage and Manhattan television studios. Said Schulberg, “ Eva Marie Saint we found in the Player’s Directory, it was her first picture.” Brando’s reading of Terry Malloy, ex-prizefighter and longshoreman, is one of the best ever recorded on celluloid. Marlon Brando would go on to a mediocre career throughout the remainder 1950’s and 1960’s, and not equal his celebrated performance again until 1972’s The Godfather.
A lead-in accompanying the movie’s pre-release advertising claimed that the “film will exemplify the way self-appointed tyrants can be defeated by right-thinking people in a vital democracy”, thus avoiding the main problem, which is how tyrants achieve power in the first place. Malloy defeats them not by persuasive convictions about democracy but by the old movie standbys, revenge and the strength that comes from love. The film’s rich texture and dialogue disguise the fact that Malloy is activated by a familiar adage, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”, but, as Brando makes clear, he is not accustomed to reflection. As events mount he uses his hands desperately in gesture, or is forced back on an insolent grin; His under-stated performance is at variance with the striking histrionics and over-acting of Rod Steiger, (who later claimed he never really trusted Kazan, and Brando left him to fend for himself) as his brother Charley, or of Lee J. Cobb as the corrupt Union boss, and a rather dotty Karl Malden as Father Barry.
Brando, on the other hand is most memorable in the love scenes with the equally impressive Eva Marie Saint, playing the neighborhood girl who encourages him in a quietly bantering way which effectively contrasts with the excitement of the rest of the film.
On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won eight. Ironically, the other three nominations were all for best supporting actor, where Cobb, Malden and Steiger split the vote. The film’s eight Oscars included awards to Kazan, for best director, Schulberg, for best screenplay, Sam Spiegel, for best picture, Brando, for best actor, Eva Marie Saint, for best supporting actress, Boris Kaufman, for best cinematography. Nominated but unceremoniously passed over was Leonard Bernstein who made a rare foray into film composing for his haunting score, matchless in post-war American films.
After 50-plus years the story no longer seems as fresh; both the fight against corruption and the romance fall well within time-worn movie conventions. But the impact of the acting and the best dialogue passages has not dimmed. It is still possible to feel the power of the film and of Brando and Kazan, who changed American film acting forever. So you be the judge is On the Waterfront the greatest American film ever produced?