MovieMonday: On the Waterfront

A new movie, Jack Wick 3, delivered on its promise to sell more tickets than that Avenger Endgame thing for the first time in a month last weekend.  The Idiosyncratist considered seeing JW3 but found the premise — a professional assassin must escape or kill a bunch of other assassins before they kill him — somewhat unappealing.  So this week’s discussion concerns an older film that was new to the Id.

“On the Waterfront,” released to great acclaim in 1954, shows its age in some ways but still is worth a look.

It is the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando,) a longshoreman on the Bohegan (actually Hoboken) waterfront and his journey from being a self-described bum to a man of courage and conscience.

In the middle of the last century, corrupt unions and mafia families held great sway in New York and New Jersey ports.  There was enormous “leakage” from ship cargoes between docking and delivery.  Union bosses chose work crews, and were able to pad billings with fake workers and collect bogus wages.  They also decided which longshoremen got good assignments (the compliant ones who played “deaf and dumb”) and unlucky others who sometimes got a single shift a week and became dependent on cash advances from loan sharks to feed their families.

The film was inspired by a series of 1948 news articles called “Crime on the Waterfront” that ran in the New York Sun.  That work won a Pulitzer Prize for reporter Malcolm Johnson and spurred the creation of a New York Waterfront Commission that is still in business.  The news stories also caught the eye of screenwriter Bud Schulberg, who attended many commission hearings and spent time with longshoremen and others to understand the situation before producing the movie script that was taken up by director Elia Kazan.

The result is a film about a corrupt union led by boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who threatens longshoremen into silence and complicity.  Friendly is opposed by a Catholic priest (Karl Malden) who exhorts the workers to honorable opposition.  Malloy, a former boxer and now a favored longshoreman, is caught between the two forces.  His hard-shelled exterior hides a damaged soul that is pushed further after he is duped into setting up a friend for what Malloy thinks is a bit of roughing up by (not very) Friendly’s thugs but turns out to be the friend’s killing.  Terry also is influenced by the dead man’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) whose essential goodness he admires and whom he comes to love.

The movie has two more killings, but none of the murders is shown on camera.  One gun makes an appearance but never is fired. There is some action, mostly confrontations between thugs and their victims, but much more talk of values, as well as observation of Malloy’s internal conflict between his  and his yearning for fairness and honor.

The ending is a little more pat and upbeat than would work in a film now.  It’s also a story about morality and with a lot more God talk than we hear these days. But it’s still a fine piece of work.

After the film was released and got eight Academy Awards — best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, best supporting actress, etc.– Schulberg turned the material into a very popular novel with the same title; a New York Times reviewer said the book had “far more psychological depth and reportorial range” than the movie.  It’s an interesting observation, not least because the “On the Waterfront” has more psychological depth than most of today’s popular films.

Let’s compare that old movie with “Jack Wick 3,” one entry in a movie genre that is characterized by manufactured and unrealistic situations that force a lead character to take up weapons for crowd-pleasing shoot-outs and knife fights. As a practical matter, it’s less of an acting challenge for Keanu Reeves to react to deadly threat (and then cede the fighting scenes to a stunt double) than it was for Marlon Brando to convince audiences that he was wrestling with a torn conscience.

While JW3-style plots show good (or less bad) triumphing over evil, it’s fair to guess that the point is really to justify the on-screen violence. Am I the only one who wonders how influential these gore-fests are with the people, often young men, who buy the tickets?



Ports have changed since the time of the film.  Most cargo is shipped in large, locked containers and is conducted by big cranes into and out of the holds of ever-larger ships.  This has drastically reduced the number of longshore workers needed, but those who remain are much better paid and frequently make six-figure incomes. (The jobs are much-desired and appear to be awarded to young members of insiders’ families.)

The containers and smaller workforces also have reduced but not eliminated the opportunities for corruption.  Every month or so, the Id’s journey to Costco passes a New Jersey diner where, in 2005, a smelly car in the parking lot was found to have a Genovese family capo’s corpse in the trunk; his murder was said to be connected to some waterfront unpleasantness.


A more recent event, the West Coast Port Slowdown, was the subject of several Idiosyncratist posts in early 2015.

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