On the Waterfront is about a man overcoming who he is to become somebody he never suspected he could admire. Fortunately for my enjoyment of the film, this transformation is convincing enough to not grate and I was carried away by its tale of corrupt union officials, torn loyalties and love. Of course, our confused hero wouldn’t stand a chance of coming good if it wasn’t for the right feminine influence.
Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) is a big, dumb fool. He doesn’t do much in the way of thinking and allows himself to be led around by the nose by those demanding his loyalty. In fairness to him, these people are like his family; one of them is his brother. Terry works as a longshoreman down at the docks. His comfortable position among the union men who decide where the jobs go is shaken when they step over the line by having a young man murdered for speaking out about their activities. Even though he’s of the belief that the lad should have kept his mouth shut, Terry’s doubts about his friends start to grow. To complicate matters further, he falls for the intelligent, headstrong and principled sister of the murdered kid. He’s completely out of his depth with her: his ignorance and dumbness are practically of parodic proportions and he doesn’t seem capable of understanding anything she says to him. These interactions are quite funny as Terry grunts frustratedly around a woman he’d only have a chance with if she has a weakness for sincere mammals of questionable intelligence.
Lee J. Cobb is superb as Johnny Friendly, the union boss whose friendliness is reserved for those loyal to him. Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint are also very worthwhile as a concerned priest who isn’t afraid of action and the girl who catches Terry’s eye. Brando is… he overcooks it pretty much all the time. Sure, laughable macho bravado suits a character like Terry but it’s piled on a little too much all the same. It still works, though, and Brando’s too-cool-Terry is still a good effort, if one that’s noticeably over-played in every scene.
On the Waterfront is an excellent film. There’s nothing deep and meaningful in the story but it’s one that’s convincingly-written, avoiding the kind of laziness that would be off-putting (i.e. Terry going from thug to choir boy in the blink of an eye). Definitely one to watch.