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On the Waterfront

Adriana Pratt | Friday, April 3, 2009

On Thursday night, Notre Dame brought one of America’s most well known classics, “On the Waterfront” to the Browning Cinema in The Debartolo Performing Arts Center. Winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, this controversial film directed by Elia Kazan deals with thematic elements such as corruption, violence, and overwhelming inner conflict that comes to light when protagonist Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is faced with deciding whether or not to testify against the well-connected and ever-threatening mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).

The story grows complicated as the once promising boxer Terry is asked by his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) to intentionally lose a fight for Friendly’s benefit. Recognizing the strength of brotherly bonds, Terry does as told and ends his career before it has the chance to reach its climax. Now, Terry faces a life working on the docks under the murderer Friendly who consistently evades being caught by the cops because witnesses choose to play “deaf and dumb” over risking their own lives to protect future ones. When Terry becomes one of those very witnesses, he faces an inner battle, similar to the one director Kazan faced when asked to turn in the names of his Communist Hollywood co-workers during the McCarthy-led anti-Communist hearings. It was this very struggle that served as the foundation for “On the Waterfront.”

Pressure on Terry to confess the crime he saw mounts when the sister of the victim, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), crusades against the mob king and calls on the help of anyone she can find. Danger heightens as Friendly finds out about Terry’s potential testimony against him and threatens immediate action – a.k.a. death – if Terry pursues justice against the manipulative and ominous union boss. In a particularly emotional scene, Charley confronts Terry, begging him to escape and not risk his life testifying against Friendly, and Terry in turn reminds Charley of the sacrifice he made ending his boxing career. Trying to protect his brother, Charley hurries a gun into Terry’s hand and urges him to run. In a final confrontational scene between Friendly and Terry, each man’s fate is decided, better for one and obviously much worse for the other.

Not only was this film awarded eight Academy Awards, it also made the Vatican’s list of the 45 greatest films of all time and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It was based on twenty-four articles called “Crime on the Waterfront” written by New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson, who revealed the behind-the-scenes corruption that took place in Manhattan and Brooklyn during the late 1940s. For both an historical and intriguing look at the mischief, violence, and heavy moral decisions that faced many involved in the mob scene, see the 1950s classic “On the Waterfront.”