One thing I can guarantee about On the Waterfront, is that it is a film you won’t be able to admire on the first watch. You’ll just wonder, is this what the hype is all about? When a film is made so well, you get engulfed into the world and become part of the world. You just perceive everything in a matter of fact way. On second watch, you don’t get into the world because you’re already familiar with it. It isn't a complex psychological thriller or a Tarantino film. This time, you remain an external entity. You enjoy the pleasures the film has to offer.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a simple minded dockworker winds up being a witness to a murder. One that he has been made an accessory to, coming to know of it only after the murder's been committed. No, all of this is given straightforward. It's his guilt that determines the future of his actions which is the film's main focus and how his lawyer brother, his rags to riches boss, an enraged priest and the sister of the murdered guy, try to bring him to their side of the fence.
Let me get done with the flaws first. One part of the film that seemed completely unnecessary was the relationship between the sister of the murdered guy(who also happens to be a sister in the church) and Terry Malloy. The poor chemistry is something a five year old can ascertain and bet his life on. How can she love a person whom she believes "lives like an animal and has no feelings." But considering the epic feat the film achieves as a whole, we forgive this. There's a very memorable scene in a car between the two brothers which sticks to you long after it's gone. You see what has brought Terry Malloy to such a sense of resignation. And Brando in those scenes.. it's worth writing an entire paragraph on.
From The Godfather and A Streetcar named desire, we saw Brando work on two different planes. With On the Waterfront, he reaches a new dimension. It’s simply impossible to tell which of the three is better than the other. All three of them are delivered with the same magnitude, on three different axes. It just amazes me, how acting had evolved so much in the 50's but now, over fifty years later, we hardly have any of that caliber.
The main strength of the film lies in a co-ordinated effort between its cinematography and its editing. Although each scene stands on its own merit, it’s the cohesiveness of the scenes that makes the film feel spontaneous. Just great.
The supporting actors are excellent. Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, all of them. The actors were all nominated for an Academy award with none of them winning. It seems to me that the Academy loved all of them so much they couldn’t choose between the three.
The soundtrack is old school and it is the best fit. Elia Kazan has shown to be one of the best talents of the 50s. Considered an actor’s director, he brought out the best female performance ever on screen from Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named desire, a performance and film I strongly admire and recommend as much as I do with On The Waterfront.