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BFI Screen Epiphanies Series - Review of ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) introduced by John Bishop (12/7/16, NFT 1, BFI Southbank)(1 Post)
A One Way Ticket to Palookaville: On The Waterfront at the BFI (12/2016)
(Part of the BFI Screen Epiphanies Series (sponsored by American Express) and introduced by John Bishop)
The current ‘Screen Epiphanies’ season at the BFI Southbank is a highly recommended series of film screenings each chosen by a celebrity guest to whom the film marks some watershed moment in their life. It’s an interesting and fun idea which reveals as much about those choosing the film as much as it offers some intriguing and novel insights into and perspectives on already well received and celebrated films (as well as serving as a neat and accessible introduction for the uninitiated).
This week Runcorn’s favourite son, comedian John Bishop introduced Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, Eve Marie-Saint and Rod Steiger, to a packed out NFT1. The movies appear to have been a central part of Bishop’s formative years- a form of education and escapism. Like this reviewer, seeing Jaws with his father, aged nine, had a huge impact on him, and much of his film education came from regular visitors to the Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester – anyone who hails from the North West will be familiar with this celebrated venue!
The movies where instrumental in shaping his career as a comedian too and judging from the list of films submitted to the BFI on his wishlist (Kes, Raging Bull, Grease, West Side Story, Goodfellas, Saturday Night Fever to name but a few) – he appears to have had some trouble deciding what he wanted shown!
Bishop’s career to date includes not only stand up comedy, TV panel and entertainment shows, charity work (he famously completed a 200 mile London to Paris triathalon for BBC Sport Relief in 2012 raising £4.2 million) but also serious acting – he starred in Ken Loach’s 2010 searing Iraq War drama, Route Irish. Bishop told the audience at the BFI last night he felt there is a fine line between acting and comedy - he views himself as a storyteller, as someone who mines for honesty and truthfulness in his work. On working with Loach (who has frequently cast comics in serious roles) Bishop said that the great director had told him he felt that comedians where in fact the ‘The Truest Actors’.
This brings us on nicely to Bishop’s chosen film for the evening On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, the most famous proponent ‘the method’, of the search for truthfulness and honesty in performance (something which he learned in large part from his association with the film’s controversial director Elia Kazan). I wondered if this was part of the reason that Bishop chose to screen the film - with every physical gesture (down to the smallest), Brando conveys the internal struggle and conflict of his character, longshoreman Terry Molloy, who is torn between following a code of silence (‘D and D’ – deaf and dumb) after being witness to and duplicitously implicated in the murder of a fellow colleague and friend, Joey, by the goons of corrupt Union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) and losing the love of Joey’s sister Edie - or following his conscience and ratting on Friendly – bringing down his corrupt and violent regime but also breaking the sacred code and alienating his fellow Longshoremen.
The film appears to have had a stark resonance for Bishop ( he first saw it when it was screened on BBC2 in the 1980s) whose own father worked on the Tugs in Liverpool. The scene towards the beginning where the Longshoremen vie for the day’s work down on the docks was a scene familiar to many in recession ridden Liverpool in the early 1980s whose livelihoods relied on getting work down at the docks and at the port. Bishop recalled his own father frequently returning home having been unable to find work for the day and the Longshoremen huddled on the dock, Bishop recalled, reminded him vividly of his father’s own friends.
It’s also a scene that recalls the beginning of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian Neo Realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves in which a group of men stand among the ruins of post war Rome and vie and compete for the attention of a foreman handing out the day’s work. On The Waterfront certainly resonates with the echoes of Post war Italian Neo Realism – Karl Malden’s upright Fr Barry, who spurs Terry’s conscience, certainly bears comparison with Aldo Fabrizi’s noble priest Don Pellegrini in Robert Rossellini’s 1945 film Rome, Open City and the film’s use of outdoor locations – the industrial landscape and the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey and the rooftops where Terry tends to the late Joey’s Pigeons – all lend the film a sense of authenticity and truthfulness.
It’s easy to see why On The Waterfront, might have hit home with John Bishop. Growing up myself in Liverpool in the 1980s, a time of real industrial and economic decline, witnessing the Dockers strike that lasted from 1995 to 1998 - On The Waterfront offers a reflection of these conditions that is both relatable and poignant.
This might be Marlon Brando’s best and most nuanced performance in a movie and one that arguably paved the way for a certain James Dean in both East of Eden (1955) – also directed by Elia Kazan and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) directed by Nicholas Ray (the prominent use of James Dean’s red jacket in this film is similar to the prominent use of Brando’s checked jacket in this film, so also is Dean’s attention to the tiniest physical gesture and ticks similar to Brando’s own very physical and gestural approach to performance) .
The film’s most famous sequence, in the back of the cab, in which ex-boxer Terry tells his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) - an associate of Johnny Friendly ‘I coulda had class, I coulda been contender, I coulda been somebody instead of a bum – which is what I am’ still rings with sadness, disappointment, desperation and dashed hopes. We note the anguish with which Charlie, who is forced into setting up his brother pulls a gun on him. With it's emphasis on power, corruption, family and betrayal, On the Waterfront is, without a doubt, a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions.
In his introduction to the film, John Bishop singles out this scene as one which had a particularly effect on him – reminding him of his relationship with his own brother who thought he was toughening him up and doing him a favour by beating him up on a regular basis. Terry’s disappointment is that Charlie never looked out for him, if he had life could have been different. One of the film’s great tragedies is that Charlie’s one act of loyalty to Terry eventually ends up getting him killed, spurring Terry to his final revenge against Johnny.
Conscience and choice are at the heart of the movie and it has two clear moral centres – The fiery and tough Fr Barry ( Karl Malden - owner of the most famous nose in 50s Hollywood) who urges Terry to testify against Johnny and calls for collective action amongst the longshoremen against Johnny, and Edie, the late Joey’s sister, played by Eve Marie-Saint with wide eyed innocence and worldly inexperience – she is framed throughout as an almost angelic presence, Terry’s guardian angel, in the way she is lit and the way the camera picks up on her features and hair. The two make a jarring but somehow beautifully matched pair, this is demonstrated in a sequence which also illustrates the nuance of Brando’s performance and the way he uses the smallest of gestures to get to the truth of the relationship and his character: during an exchange she drops her delicate white glove and he collects it, absently plays with it and eventually puts it on his own hand - which as we are aware has previously worn a boxers glove. This speaks to the fragility of Terry’s character (which Edie recognises) in spite of his tough, male exterior. On display here is Brando's ability to ring meaning out of the most minimal gesture, using it to penetrate the internal psychology of the character.
In his introduction to the film, Bishop emphasised that this film is about a man trying to follow his own conscience and do what is right, indeed from one perspective that’s entirely true. However it must be said that the films external baggage ideologically compromises this message, making it more problematic. In 1952, two years before On The Waterfront, the film’s director, Elia Kazan, had named names to the Congressional Committe of the House of Unamerican Activities (HUAC) during the infamous McCarthy Communist Witchhunts , a dark period in Hollywood history and as a result of which hundreds of writers, actors, and other industry professionals where outed by colleagues and friends as Communists and blacklisted from Hollywood or worse, arrested. Many of whom also had to go into exile.
If you are interested in this often tragic part of Hollywood history, I can also highly recommend Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This, where the Blacklists are covered in well researched detail over 16 episodes.
On The Waterfront, is clearly Kazan's way of addressing and justifying his own actions, as someone who said he was following his conscience, who had (he felt - so he claimed) done what he thought was right. In 1999, the 89 year old Kazan was controversially given the honorary lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards to muted response - actors such as Nick Nolte and Ed Harris refused to stand or applaud for instance, such has his reputation been tarnished in the light of his testimonies.
You can see Kazan receiving his oscar on youtube via the following link (look at how the room is divided in their response to him):
Look at the way the Union is portrayed in the film as well – as corrupt, violent, self serving, run by Hoods; the ‘right’ thing to do is to talk, to testify, to name names; to martyr yourself. Fr Barry encourages Terry to testify. Molloy’s own internal conflict was that of Kazan’s (who had himself had Communist sympathies initially). At the end of the film, Terry’s pigeons are killed by a young friend, disgusted by his ratting on Union boss Johnny – a harbinger of what happens to those who sing, who ‘turn pigeon’ and break the code of silence.
This was the last film that Brando and Kazan (Brando’s longtime mentor) worked on together. In fact, Brando had not wanted to take the role due to Kazan’s involvementwith the film (Brando had had friends who had been blacklisted) The two had had a long history together, and Kazan had helped make Brando’s career with their film adaptation of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 – and Frank Sinatra had initially been suggested for the role of Terry. Brando was eventually won over by producer Sam Spiegel and the promise of a role that would help his stretch his method acting muscles.
Nevertheless despite this On The Waterfront was nominated for twelve Oscars, winning 8 and remains a milestone in post war American cinema – it’s influence can be seen everywhere from Rebel Without a Cause to Raging Bull (1980) to HBO’s The Wire. It’s a films which inhabits a new sense of post war realism yet also incorporates elements of The Western and The Gangster film (just as Scorcese’s film Taxi Driver would later do) and despite it’s somewhat ideologically compromised production context, it’s a film that remains a vital and as potent today as did in 1954.
Thanks to John Bishop for his enlightening, personal and entertaining introduction to the film. The Screen Epiphanies season runs monthly and is available to BFI members and American Express holders (with a maximum of 4 per purchase).
Next: JULY 26th 2016, 18.00pm Actor and dancer Leslie Caron introduces Jean Renoir’s 1939 Poetic Realist masterpiece La Règle du Jeu.
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