The Best American Film Ever Produced?

August 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando

Eva Marie Saint, Mar­lon Brando

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

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

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 on the set of waterfront

Kazan on the set

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.

Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando

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.

Oscar Night

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?

by Michael Mills

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .