Thursday, October 23, 2008

I could'a been a contender...

Thanks to some extremely fortunate timing, I get to continue my recent gangster theme with Elia Kazan's 1954 classic On The Waterfront. I just saw it for the first time, and having last night's documentary and crime-movie-marathon still fresh in my mind made for a very interesting experience.

A lot of the post-WWII changes to gangster films that the documentary talked about were evident in On The Waterfront. The genre had moved on from its bootlegging roots and, like real gangsters of the time, the primary characters in On The Waterfront were racketeers who controlled the longshoremen's union. The corrupt union bosses (led by Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly, who was named by TCM's Movie Morlocks as one of the most memorable mob characters off all time) were no less violent than the bootleggers in The Public Enemy, but in some respects On The Waterfront had to be a lot more subtle than the pre-code films that came before it.

The relationship between Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle seemed surprisingly chaste after watching Tom Powers shove a grapefruit in Kitty's face last night. Terry, though a former prizefighter and a lackey for the local mob boss, demonstrated a much gentler side with Edie through much of the film. One of my favorite scenes was when, prompted by Father Barry, Terry confessed to Edie his part in her brother's murder. Rather than having a dramatic argument, Terry's speech and Edie's reaction were drowned out by the sound of the steamboats in the background. This had a very comedic effect -- the other students I was watching this movie with all laughed out loud at this scene -- but I thought it also had a deeply metaphorical aspect. Edie literally couldn't hear him because of the steamboats, but on a symbolic level, the noise didn't start until after he told her that Jimmy's death was his fault; she wasn't emotionally capable of listening to his explanations after that point.

I also found it interesting that Terry redeemed himself in the end, and it went along with what the documentary said about later gangster films, that for every "bad" main character there has to be an even worse character as a counterpoint. It wasn't as harshly realistic as, say, The Public Enemy, but it fulfilled the audience's sense of justice to have Terry rise up from what seemed to be a near-fatal beating in order to turn against the ultimate union boss.


On the Waterfront (1954). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site:

Smith, Richard Harland. (8 June 2007). Not for nuthin'. from TCM's Movie Blog: retrieved October 22, 2008.

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