Sunday, October 11, 2015

On the Waterfront

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

We worry today about children caving into peer pressure to commit wrongful acts, and being bullied. Well, this movie, released in 1954, shows that these issues carry into adulthood and how the results can be deadly. The theme here is about either choosing to survive in the existing situation, no matter how oppressive, or making a sacrifice to change the way things are for the good of others.

The controversy surrounding this film centers on whether it is a defense of director Elia Kazan’s decision to “name names” during the Senator McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts. But let’s put that aside since that real life era existed in a different context than what is presented in this story. Here, on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, the longshoremen union has been corrupted by the influence of the mob. The union boss is Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), whose name is ironic since he is anything but a nice guy. (His actual name is Skelly). He and his goons decide who will work on any given day, and whether they will have to do backbreaking work or pull easier assignments. These exploiters skim money off of the union dues, take a cut from the payment for work done, and keep the workers impoverished so that they must borrow money from the union and pay loan shark interest rates. There is an ironic scene early on where Friendly throws one of his workers out for taking money for himself. Johnny says he can’t tolerate “skimming,” yet he is the ultimate skimmer. There is a telling scene where one of the goons tosses the tokens which allow work for the day in the air. The laborers fight among themselves so they can earn their meager wages, instead of battling the bosses who control their right to work.

The film starts with ex-professional boxer Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando in an Oscar winning performance) luring Joey Doyle to a rooftop where they keep their pigeon coops. He was ordered to do so by Friendly, but Molloy believes that the bosses are only going to “lean on him” a bit because Joey was ready to expose the corruption to the Waterfront Crime Commission. Instead, Joey is thrown off of the roof. Terry’s conscience, long dormant, starts to awaken after this incident involving the murder of a friend. The conflict within him is intensified for three reasons: one, his brother is Charlie the Gent (Rod Steiger), Friendly’s right hand man; two, Terry develops feelings for Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint, another Oscar winner for her role) who he knew when they were in school together as children; three, Terry is goaded into action by Father Barry (Karl Malden).

Barry is shoved in the right direction by Edie, who knows a few things about the Catholic faith. Her father sent her away to study with nuns and become a teacher so she could escape the depressing world in which her father and brother toiled. After Joey’s death. Barry tells Edie that if she needs him, he’ll be at the church. She says with anger, “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?” The priest holds a meeting in the lower church chapel to urge the discontented workers into action. One of those present says that they were made to be “D and D,” “deaf and dumb,” when it came to the strong-armed tactics of the union leaders. Barry says that “We protect murderers with our silence.”

Terry is ordered to attend the meeting to inform on those present. But, when the workers attending are attacked, he rescues Edie. At this point Brando did a bit of improvisation in a scene with Eva Marie Saint that Kazan left in because it worked so well. Saint dropped her glove. Brando picks it up and handles it tenderly. It shows the gentler qualities of a man that has been used to living a life of brutality. He, like Rick in Casablanca earlier on in that film, feels that that the only side to be on is your own. But, here, Brando puts the glove on, in essence exchanging the boxing glove that he used to wear literally and has worn figuratively, for a feminine item that symbolizes his desire for loving intimacy with a moral, caring woman. She says, “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else?” He is cynical about her philosophy of winning people over with kindness and patience, but he admires her and it elevates him to a higher ethical level.

Let’s get back to those pigeons. In a way, Terry’s association with these birds mirrors his own predicament. They can fly, which allows them to rise above the human turmoil below them. But, their freedom has been restrained because they are caged in coops. This becomes a symbol for the loss of the workers’ control over their own lives. There are bars on windows of apartments, too, and fences all around showing how the laborers are imprisoned in their poverty. The workers are boxed in the holds of ships, again stressing the prison theme. Terry also feels confined in his life of being a lackey for Friendly and his brother. But he likes being above it all, on the roof with his birds. He admires the pigeons for mating for life, which shows their commitment to each other. He says the city is full of hawks, and, unfortunately, he must cage the pigeons to protect them. He is shown to care for the underdog, or, in this case, underbird. Of course, the pigeons also are associated with the phrase “stool pigeon,” a term Terry does not want applied to himself. Another bird, a canary, is also a name used to mean someone who informs on others, because they “sing.” The corrupt union men say about Joey, after he is murdered, that he was a canary. One of them says, “Maybe he could sing, but he couldn’t fly.” Terry wants to do both.

Beside Father Barry and Edie being taught by nuns, there are other religious references in the movie. The TV antennas on the roofs resemble crosses. Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning) is killed on the ship after he tells Barry that he will testify against the bosses. (Terry tries to warn him, showing his movement to a moral high ground). The priest gives a speech on the ship about how Dugan’s death along with Joey Doyle’s were crucifixions, and those allowing the deaths to occur share in the guilt. Later, when Charlie defies Friendly by allowing Terry to live, Charlie’s body is hung up on a hook in another crucifixion image. The priest says if you hurt one person, you hurt all others. He echoes what Edie told Terry about caring for everybody, which is basically what Christ taught. As part of his being sorry for his sins, Terry confesses to Barry about his involvement in Joey’s death. The priest tells him he must confess to Edie, too. When he does, all we hear is the blaring sound of a ship’s horn, almost as if the angel Gabriel is sounding his instrument, announcing Judgment Day. Jimmy Doyle’s jacket is given to Dugan, and is then passed on to Terry, like a relic from martyrs. When Terry breaks the glass on a door window to protect himself and Edie from Friendly’s henchmen, he bleeds from the hand like Christ being nailed to the cross.

The most famous scene in the movie is the one with Terry and Charlie in the back seat of a cab. During filming, they had difficulty shooting through the back window from inside the vehicle. Someone said they rode in a cab with blinds in the rear. They used that suggestion. The result created an intimate setting for the exchange. Charlie has been told by Friendly that if Terry couldn’t be convinced not to testify, then Charlie would have to kill him. When he tells Terry he has to make up his mind by the time they reach their destination, Terry understands what is really happening: that his own brother has been ordered to kill him. Instead of anger and violence following this realization, we have a quiet scene of disappointment and heartbreak. Terry doesn’t grab the gun or knock it out of his brother’s hand. He gently just pushes it aside with his fingers. His sadness is palpable. When Charlie tries to place the blame onto someone else for Terry’s failure as a fighter, Terry lets him know that it was Charlie’s fault for making him take dives. Terry tells him that he should have looked out for him. That is what a brother should do – love and care for his sibling. Instead Terry makes him understand that Charlie has been betraying him for a long time. When he tells his brother, “It was you, Charlie,” the truth is almost unbearable for the both of them. Charlie then realizes he can’t kill his own brother, and by letting Terry go, he must join the list of those sacrificing their lives to bring about moral change.

Barry convinces Terry that he must fight in a court instead of a boxing ring. After he exposes Friendly, he does not run and hide. He goes to the docks to claim his right to work, and lead by example. The others finally defy Friendly, and say they will only work if Terry does. Even though he is beaten up by Friendly’s goons, he drags himself to the loading dock to put in his day’s work. His fellow longshoremen follow him, pushing Friendly aside. Terry may have lost his actual brother, but he has now become part of an army of kindred souls. As Edie said: everybody should care about everybody else.

Next week’s movie is Julia.

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