'On the Waterfront': THR's 1954 Review
On July 28, 1954, Elia Kazan brought his gangster drama On the Waterfront to theaters, starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint. The film went on to claim eight Oscars at the 27th Academy Awards ceremony, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
This brutal, violently realistic drama, set against the sordid background of the New York waterfront, packs a terrific wallop that results in topflight entertainment. After so many costume dramas, it may be just what the box-office needs, for On the Waterfront is so stark and gripping that it can only be compared with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. It seems sure to create a new vogue for gangster pictures since it offers the exhibitor a rare chance to cash in on something different.
The story is as fresh and terrifying as today’s newspaper. Based upon a series of Pulitzer Prize articles by Malcolm Johnson, it deals with the labor racketeers who prey on the longshoremen who make their living on the New York waterfront. Budd Schulberg (who is rapidly being recognized as Hollywood’s most important contribution to the American literary field) has turned out a script that is a masterpiece of screen journalism.
It exposes the ruthless system of kickbacks and enforced usurious loans with which the dockworkers are bedeviled, the sadism with which they are made to fawn for jobs that will feed their hard-pressed families, and the tyranny with which they are kept "deef and dumb" — yet it is not an anti-labor film, for it, at all times, urges the laboring man to fight for the rights to control his destiny and his union under the American system.
Schulberg has written a beautifully patriotic and sometimes poetic picture and Elia Kazan has given it superb direction. Never have I heard such a beautiful exposition of Christianity as that voiced by a poor labor priest (Karl Malden) as he stands in the hold of a freighter, being pelted with refuse and beer cans by labor goons.
On the Waterfront obviously is a man's picture. Yet my 16-year-old daughter came away raving about it, so it must have strong woman appeal. Kazan's direction, Boris Kaufman's photography and Gene Milford's expert editing keep a mood of tortured, muted beauty alive in all the love scenes. Marlon Brando, as a tough, thick-witted, gutter-wise slum kid, bewildered and unhappy when the suppressed side of his nature turns toward decency delivers a performance that grabs your heart in a calloused fist and never lets go. A newcomer, Eva Marie Saint, is just as good as the girl. Her haggard loveliness seems to have sprung from between the actual cobblestones of the docks. It makes the prettiness of the average starlet seem trivial.
Almost everyone concerned is eligible for an Academy nomination. Malden's priest is a man of the people as well as a man of God. Totally lacking in sanctimoniousness, he paints the picture of a man who is good by dint of dogged perseverance, though he finds the way terrifying and hard. Lee J. Cobb is at his best as the labor boss who was driven to excesses by poverty but who, like all dictators, finds himself becoming a brute as he depends on brutes to enforce his will. Rod Steiger is excellent as the hero's opportunist brother who sold his integrity "for a polo coat and the privilege of sitting with mustard on his face at the Polo Grounds." John Hamilton seems more like a real dockworker than an actor as the girl's father and Pat Henning is memorable as an Irishman who can't be scared into keeping his mouth shut about murder.
Leonard Bernstein's mastery of modern musical technique delivers a truly outstanding score and James Shield's sound makes passing tugs and traffic noises a contributing part of the emotional development. Guy Thomajan's dialogue supervision performs wonders with both the comic and the savage possibilities of the Bronx accent.
Even the assistant director, Charles Maguire, deserves a special comment for the way he keeps a blowzy saloon wedding moving as a background for one of Kazan's finest scenes. Producer Sam Spiegel achieved such teamwork that even Tony Galento comes through as an interesting comic and heavy. The entire offering is a credit to Horizon pictures and to Columbia. This is one of the year's important films. — Jack Moffitt, originally published July 14, 1954.