On the Waterfront is another one of those films that are parodied so often (at least the “I coulda been a contender” scene) that you feel you’ve already seen it. At least I did – and boy, was I wrong.
I’d previously seen that other big Kazan flick starring Marlon Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire. The latter is definitely a great film, but I must admit that I sometimes find Tennessee Williams too much of a drama queen. I expected similar high-class melodrama from On the Waterfront but was startled by the movie’s stark realism, both in its writing and its acting. So often, films from the ’40s and ’50s, especially films featuring sexuality and violence, seem rather arch these days. Even when they’re supposed to be realistic, they feel somewhat stiff and stagey.
Not so with Waterfront. Even the child actors are convincing (which is rare enough). One thing that helps the film’s realistic feel is that so much of it is filmed on location. None of the fake sets and back projection that you get in most films of the time. In fact, the movie has an almost documentary feel to it.
All in all, there were only two things that didn’t quite work for me, pulling me out of the realistic atmosphere. The first of these was the ending; I couldn’t really buy the scene where the badly beaten Brando walks down the dock, his fractured ribs probably sticking in his lungs like so many splinters. That one wasn’t so bad, though; what struck me more was Brando’s ex-boxer makeup which made him look like a Neanderthal wearing heavy mascara.