On the Waterfront, released in 1954, is a classic film that brings cinematic elements and actors’ performances to life. Studying this film helps one understand the acting tools implemented and the effect that it would have on the audience’s perception of the film. Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, the film would win eight Oscars including best actor, best director, and best picture. Some back-story surrounding the film was the series of articles written about the corruption on the docks of cities in New York, and Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was an investigative committee for communism in the United States. The film can be viewed as an autobiographical narrative surrounding the whole situation. The waterfront in the film relates to the docks and slums of Hoboken, New Jersey. The waterfront union can be viewed as the HUAC, and the character of Terry Malloy is seen as this hero informer against the mob, which is similar to Elia Kazan’s assistance to the committee.
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The film tells the story of Terry Malloy, a dockworker and former boxer, who deals with a crisis of conscience while doing jobs and tasks for a mob union boss, Johnny Friendly. An expository scene or scene that sets up the film is when Terry leads a fellow dockworker to be ambushed and inadvertently killed by Friendly’s mob in order to prevent him from testifying in a corruption case. This sets up Terry’s character evolution in the movie, where he will have inner struggles and conflict that will lead to him making difficult choices. The result of the murdered dockworker would bring the sister, Edie Doyle, and a priest to persuade Terry to speak up, which in turn will lead to his testimony against this mob.
Neo-realism was a large influence in On the Waterfront. It began in Italy and it brought a sense of new reality. Italian neo-realism was a new style of filmmaking that started due to post-World War II living conditions and different political views. It lasted for a decade but its’ effect on Hollywood moviemaking was tremendous as many directors would use a dark and grimy feel associated with it to demonstrate real themes. In the 1950s, Hollywood explored many social problems in film such as racism, communism, anti-Semitism, and organized crime, many of which were influenced by politics and propaganda. These issues made way in neo-realist films, and Kazan and Schulberg incorporated such real-life subject matter that they were dealing with in order to affect the audience’s perception. The film is shot in black-and-white with some enhanced lighting, a characteristic of neo-realism. The lighting along with smoke and fog adds to the moral perplexities of the film. It is also important to note that On the Waterfront has the neo-realistic trait of using non-professional actors mixed in with real actors. In this film, a viewer can notice that many of the “actors” are not typical to what one will usually see in a Hollywood film. Instead, they are gritty, rough, and fatigued characters that one would expect to see in a lower-class neighborhood or a slum of a city. This adds to the realistic subject matter along with Kazan’s depiction of this filthy broken down city.
Marlon Brando has employed the use of “method acting” in the film that came from Elia Kazan’s co-founded Actors Studio in New York. Method acting is the style of acting where an actor tries to connect their parts in a scene emotionally. Actors literally become so emerged in their role that they depict perfectly the character’s emotion. Brando embodied his character of Terry Malloy, in so much that he became him. It is not that important to focus on what Terry says, but it is to notice Brando’s way of showing how Terry thinks. By observing his face and eyes, a viewer can know his worries and feel his pain and struggle. One example of this is the scene where Edie Doyle is asking for Terry’s help and this demonstrates the division of loyalty to Friendly and growing love for Edie. The moral struggles and controlling emotion that Brando brings to Terry is electric and it brings the audience greater emotion and relation to the film.
Brando brought a form of presentational acting into his role where he personalized what was going on “inside” of Terry Malloy, giving the audience a strong perception of who Terry is and what his troubles are. He establishes this personalization through acting like a troubled man, not giving others eye contact, and walking down the street with his head down. Working with Stella Adler, Brando learned how to bring affective memory into his acting to create a true portrayal of the character’s emotion. He takes the emotion from an experience and recreates the physical gestures, voice, and feelings that accompanied it. This adds to the realism of the film and it duplicates the objective reality of a situation. By bringing the strong emotion that Terry would actually feel, Brando is creating for the audience a sense that the world is not being distorted in the film.
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Other noticeable elements throughout the film are Brando’s ongoing physical activity. He constantly keeps busy while acting. Examples of the physical activity are that he chews gum with a cocky attitude while talking, drinks alcohol, takes his shirt off, or plays with gloves. One reason that an actor may constantly choose to be doing something with their body in the role is to bring a stronger focus to the character, and establish with the audience that they are characters just like them. Drinking alcohol while in a conversation may have been a way to show that Terry Malloy was nervous and was at a loss for words or that he has to stay busy to keep his inner thoughts from controlling his actions. The scenes where Terry is walking down the street with his hands in his pockets sometimes reveal even more character mood than it would if he were talking. Prop usage was definitely an element that helped enhance Brando’s method acting in the film.
Finally, the relationship construction between characters in the film is spectacular. The “sending and receiving” between Terry and Edie helps build scenes emotionally and Brando has excellent reactions when questioned. The reaction may be looking down or just keeping quiet, and this brings the scenes such strong potency. The most famous scene in the film is between Terry and his brother Charlie in a heated confrontational dialogue. In this scene, it is important to note the frame and space of the camera in the car. It is an enclosed space with a closed window behind them. The enclosed space adds to the intenseness of the scene. This scene is the most memorable aspect of the film and of Brando’s method acting. He says, “I could of had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” This scene where Terry scolds Charlie for making him throw a fight that ended his fighting career is delivered with such passion and angry feelings towards Charlie that it consequently pushes Terry’s character history in the film. It shows that Terry has grown up and now has this great sense of self-recognition. After Charlie is killed, Terry finally stands up and tries to physically fight off Friendly and his mob. This relates to the theme and message of the movie, which is to be a hero and fight against opposition, even though you might be despised for it. In conclusion, On the Waterfront isworthy of all its’ awards and deserves praise for the performances and impact on the film industry.
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