On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront, 1954, was directed by the famous director Elia Kazan, who gave eight names when he was called to testify. He could have claimed the Fifth Amendment, but decided otherwise and destroyed the career of the co-workers who had helped him reach fame in the seventh art. Humphries explains “On the Waterfront, written by Schulberg, makes an eloquent apology on the act of testifying” (Humphries, pp. 193). Kazan received an Honorary Oscar for all his devoted years to the cinema industry in 1999 which was severely criticised due to his betrayal almost half a century before. Budd Schulberg called the HUAC, before he had been called, to declare his communist past. He stated that blacklisted moviemakers could find jobs in other places are theatres, publishing books or editors. He could not understand why that bleak reaction, he believed there were job offers opened everywhere. Cinema was over for them, but other possibilities were still available, which was not entirely true, as the blacklisted’s names were public and although they wrote asking for jobs, most of them were left unanswered. Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg made this movie, as a way to purge their conscience, and to defend their ideas, with a doubtful result on the screen. If this movie was watched knowing what it was about and the context, parallelism began to appear everywhere, sentences with double meaning and characters that represent other people or situations. It must have been the same for the anti-communist who looked in movies for communist tinges, if they had imagination (and paranoia) it could be found everywhere.
The film is about Terry Malloy’s story and his confrontation with Johnny Friendly, the Union boss who rules it as if he were the capo. It is based on a true blackmailing story. Malloy wants to defend his interests and ends up being a squealer. Terry is contacted by the police to make a statement about Johnny. He is considered a friendly witness, not an unfriendly one, “the irony of this declaration lies in the fact that what happens to Terry (the Union’s reprisals) is precisely what happened to dozens of people that appear before the HUAC.” (Humphries, pp. 193) Terry speaks and then has to endure the consequences. Kazan spoke and then made the others suffer the consequences. Terry represents both Schulberg and Kazan. They tried to justify their acts when it is done because of honest and noble reasons. Johnny Friendly’s Union represented the Communist union. The parallelism between Terry’s confessions about his Union and Kazan’s confessions about the Communist Party was meant to be that all Communist Unions were corrupted and all the corrupted unions were Communists. It was not like that, not in Hollywood, nor anywhere else in the States.
There is a strong imagery regarding birds throughout the movie. At the beginning of On the Waterfront Marlon Brandro (Terry Malloy) sets a trap for a man named Joey. He does not know they will kill him, Malloy thinks they are only going to talk to him, but Joey is thrown from the top of the building and dies. Some of the union workers make a joke saying “Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly”, for Joey was a squealer. He is made an example for all to see. Joey’s father does not want to make a statement when the policeman arrives, he knows his son was murdered because he decided to talk. Later, Malloy is shown on the top of a building were he takes care of a cage of carrier pigeons, in a conversation with Edie, Joey’s sister, he says he envies them, because they have no one controlling them. It could be interpreted as if in a sense he envies Joey as well, who could not fly and hence, now has no worries for he is buried. It might be a feeling of guilt because it was his fault that Joey was killed. It is a clear sign that Malloy feels manipulated by Johnny Friendly, and sees the birds in the cage freer than he sees himself. He has the help of a young boy, Jimmy, who also cleans the pigeon’s cage when Terry cannot do it. After he declares against the Union, Jimmy kills all the carrier pigeons and throws one of them to Malloy. Jimmy has destroyed Terry’s only hobby, the only thing he cared for and thought of it as a passion. Kazan can be seen in Jimmy who killed the dream and job of others. Edie says “you try to help them and they stab you in the back”. Johnny Friendly is also seen as a hawk, who hunts mercilessly the pigeons he finds free in the middle of the street. This imagery links the first one above explained, Terry’s pigeons are freer in a cage, where they are free and safe at some level because in the streets were they can be killed any moment due to the lack of protection, but then, their murder can be considered an easy one because they are all locked up in the cage and they trust Jimmy. They were betrayed by someone they thought they were safe with, as Kazan gave the names of people who were his friends. It is a movie which explains at some level the reasons for Schulberg and Kazan to form an alliance with the HUAC, but it has many flaws and some scenes go against the ideas they are promoting. It may seem that the creators of On the Waterfront did not know how to defend their ideas with arguments without fissures.
Another comment that traps the ‘true’ meaning of the movie is when at a certain point it is clear that Friendly works for other people, he does not have the leader’s position, and they are represented in the movie as the industry union. They mention a phone call made by ‘Mr. Upstairs’. The film wants to show that Johnny Friendly works under orders of the Union, but actually he works for business men as corrupted as he is. Without doing it on purpose, On the Waterfront depicts the true capitalist who export jobs. Schulberg and Kazan meant to represent the Union as the Communist Party, but I see it more as the HUAC. Some people (as Budd Schulberg) turned to the HUAC to confess, this was a way of becoming directly a friendly witness, and at the same time acquiring the honour to be despised by the rest to the moviemakers. In On the Waterfront, people went to the union to ask for some favours, normally money, and then, they were trapped by the system. They could not talk against the Union, because somehow they were part of it, they could not go against the union because they had gone to ask for help, it was a manner the Union had to defend itself. And terror, of course, was a very important factor. And if somebody was against the Union, as Joey was, it could be eliminated, creating fear among his friends, who would not want to cooperate with the police anymore. HUAC did not kill people, but they could make the producers not offer them jobs. In Schulberg’s case, for example, he had gone to talk to them to save his future, destroying other people’s future at the same time. The HUAC considered him a friendly witness, they had caught another important fish. People who were against the HUAC were sent to prison like the Hollywood Ten, or were blacklisted. The HUAC had all the power it needed, it made everyone be terrified by it, and that was more than enough.
The Catholic Priest, (Father Barry) interpreted by Karl Malden, represents idealism, he is the possibility of how witch hunting could have been if no one had betrayed no one, but fear is a powerful enemy. It might also be seen as a way of telling the blacklisted that indeed it was their fault to be if they were in such a situation because they did not fight for their rights. The union makes the Malloy brothers face each other. Charlie, the older brother, has to convince Terry to go back to their way (to their ‘good’ way) or he has to let him go, with all the consequences. In the car conversation Charlie points a gun at his brother and forces him to accept the job, a job in which he will do nothing, and earn 400 dollars a week, the condition is that he will do nothing, but say nothing either. They are trying to make him take that job so if for some reason the boat sinks, Terry Malloy will sink with them because he will be part of the band. When Terry refuses and Charlie lets him go, Charlie enters a trap and ends up murdered. Terry finds him, hung on the street; he has been shot three times. In Mccarthyism not only the witnesses who were considered Communists were attacked, but the people close to them as well, so people who in the beginning were strong against the HUAC would little by little crumble. Another scene in which they play with silence and sound is when Terry confesses to Edie that he is to blame for Joey’s death, the sound of the boats does not let the audience hear the conversation, which can be a metaphor stating that the truth is not completely revealed, or the truth can only reach the ears of a few chosen ones.
As the movie comes to an end, Kazan and Schulberg begin to be more ambiguous. After Terry Malloy confirms that he was the last person to have seen Joey alive and that Friendly had his men kill him, his acquaintances and friends in the street do not greet him. Hence, this scene might mean that Kazan and Schulberg considered the way they were treated unjust as they firmly believed they were doing the correct thing by denouncing their friends to the HUAC. If they had filmed On the Waterfront it was a form of defending their ideas but also a kind of apology. Perhaps they wanted to see themselves as the victims of this situation for they kept their jobs but they lost their credibility to be loyal and the trust and friendship of all the people who had helped them get to the place where they were. The reason why Terry spoke in court was because Johnny Friendly had killed his brother Charlie, Terry here had a personal excuse to denounce the Union – apart from the unjust way the union treated the other workers. But Kazan had no reason for revealing the names of those who had been in the Communist Party with him. Alternatively, maybe Kazan considered himself old enough, he was in his early forties when he spoke with the HUAC, to believe that even if he went somewhere else to work, it would be hard to start from the beginning. In any case, it is quite clear he took the easy way, first thinking about himself and not doing what he later makes Father Barry do in the movie. He took his chance, knowing he had the talent and he was at the right time in the right place. He obviously felt guilty and later filmed On the Waterfront; it was his way of expiating his sins.
The last scene is an idealistic happy ending Schulberg wrote, certainly wishing everything would have ended that way for them. When Terry Malloy confronts Friendly, all the longshoreman back him up, maybe not taking part in the fight, but only their presence probably made Malloy feel stronger and gave him the courage to be so brave. But then again, the situation cannot be compared because Terry is the one that has no job because he spoke in court, whereas Kazan and Schulberg precisely because they spoke, they had the guarantee they could keep theirs. In the end, when they gain control of the union, giving equal rights and conditions for everybody and having no boss who would manipulate them as puppets, it can be related to Communism. So, even if these filmmakers wanted to free themselves from Communism and named names to ‘clean’ the country from those ideas, this movie can be considered to have a Communist ending. Communism was something they learnt to hate so much, they even ended up becoming part of it, and tinges of communism began to spread everywhere.
Movie critic A. H. Weiler wrote in July 29th 1954, only a day after it was released, a review about On the Waterfront, only mentioning the theme of the movie, the cast and the wonderful job the producers, director and scenarist had made. There is not a single word about the HUAC or Communism. Another review published in The Times on the 9th of August of the same year, explains not only what Weiler mentions, but also comments some anecdotes on the setting, other movies which were filmed at the same time and the money that was spent for it. Bosley Crowther was bolder in his critic of High Noon than these two reviews probably because the HUAC was becoming very severe and because Kazan was not trying to make people react, he was just representing his point of view and the victim he had become when he named names.
What some of the contemporary reviews say is the magnificent work Kazan and Schulberg have done, what an extraordinary work they accomplish, and how clearly they explain Malloy’s need to tell the truth to be in peace with himself. If Schulberg and Kazan represent Malloy, that statement cannot be true, because if they were proud and did not doubt they had made the right choice then it would make no sense to later shoot a movie, to explain their behaviour. In Damian Cannon’s review he mentions
“It becomes painfully clear as to why someone wouldn’t want to testify, simply because the cost is too high, and it wouldn’t be their fault. Not everyone is cut out to be a hero. Some folk have learnt, in the spirit of self-interest, to look away and forget what they’ve seen. On the Waterfront has it both ways.”
Cannon treats Kazan as a hero. This review was published in 1999, it was crystal clear that at that time what Elia Kazan had done to maintain his job was of common knowledge, at yet some people treat him as a hero because he was a good film director. Talent and integrity have nothing to do with each other.