ACADEMY AWARD WINNER: BEST PICTURE
A heroic few stand alone against the corrupt bosses of a powerful union. [ On the Waterfront credits: Dir: Elia Kazan/ Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint/ 108 min/ Drama/ Unions & Monopolies]
Enter the world of a 1950s East Coast shipping dock. It’s a rough world in which a corrupt union controls the lives and livelihoods of its members.
Terry, a naive dockworker, has just been tricked into aiding in the mob-style execution of a fellow worker, a “squealer” who had been about to testify in court against the union. Terry feels guilty about his role, but there’s nothing he can do. He’s as much at the mercy of the union as anybody. His guilt is compounded when he falls in love with the sister of the man he unwittingly helped to kill. Riddled with remorse, he confesses his part in the murder to the local parish priest, hoping for some kind of relief. But the priest, who has been trying to overthrow the corrupt union, tells Terry there is only one answer and it isn’t easy. He must reveal everything he knows about the murder, to his girlfriend as well as to the authorities.
From then on, Terry is locked in a titanic struggle—first within his own soul, over whether to tell the truth, and finally with the ruthless union management, over its corrupt practices.
This film—inspired by a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles—popularized the truth about growing union corruption. Instead of representing the workers as collective brokers, union managements had become self-serving, ultimately controlling the workers for their own benefit and maintaining that control with great brutality. Of course, government coercion made this possible in the first place by creating labor monopolies which workers had no choice but to join and between which there was little competition. The ultimate triumph of the hero over this situation is very satisfying, but the underlying legislative causes of the problem are never addressed.
Eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture) were heaped on this film and for good reasons, including: tight direction, inspired acting, Leonard Bernstein’s energetic music, and a brilliant script. Marlon Brando was born for the leading role and gives a remarkable performance as a rough-and-tumble bruiser, cynical and gritty on the outside but with a heart that melts in the hands of virtuous Eva Marie Saint. The scenes between these two as they awkwardly try to bridge the social gulf between them are some of the best. On the Waterfront is a first-rate classic film that anyone concerned about government-supported unions and monopolies should see.