On the Waterfront: Cheese-Eating, HUAC, and the First Amendment

By Shaman, Jeffrey M. | Constitutional Commentary, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

On the Waterfront: Cheese-Eating, HUAC, and the First Amendment


Shaman, Jeffrey M., Constitutional Commentary


The early 1950s were a bleak time for freedom of speech and association in the United States. Witch hunts, black lists, and loyalty oaths were the order of the day. The Supreme Court, in a relatively docile state of mind, went meekly along, acquiescing to congressional subpoenas, investigations, compelled testimony, and laws making it a crime to belong to the Communist Party. Out of these tools of repression an astounding work of art was spawned--a movie entitled On the Waterfront.

Winner of eight Academy Awards, including best motion picture of 1954, On the Waterfront is one of the greatest movies ever made. In the prestigious, though controversial, survey conducted by the American Film Institute in 1998 to select the 100 best American movies of the first 100 years of movie-making, Waterfront was ranked number eight. Even at that lofty status-top ten on the all-time list, certainly, is nothing to sneeze at--On the Waterfront may have been denied its fair share of acclaim. Lingering resentment of its director, Elia Kazan, for his Great Betrayal in 1952, may have cost the movie who knows how many votes among the Hollywood insiders chosen by AFI to cast ballots. Indeed, just a year before the survey, AFI had refused to honor Kazan with a lifetime achievement award, despite his superlative record as a film director. (1) In Hollywood, it seems, old grudges die hard. Who is to say, then, that Waterfront didn't lose a vote here and there as yet another way of getting back at one of Hollywood's most talented but least favorite directors. But more of that later. At this point, suffice it to say that On the Waterfront has it all: great acting, great direction, a great story replete with drama, action, romance, and smoldering sex. It is a tremendously powerful movie, an example of Hollywood realism at its best. (2) It even has a message, for those wont for such things in a motion picture. I certainly am. Oh, you don't have to remind me what the old movie moguls used to say: "If you wanna send a message, call Western Union." (3) Yes, they were expressing the conventional wisdom of the old time Hollywood money men that message movies don't sell at the box office. But they were wrong--dead wrong. Look at Citizen Kane. Or To Kill A Mockingbird. Or The Graduate. Or, for that matter, look at Waterfront itself. Each and everyone of them a message movie that did extremely well, thank you, at the box office. And besides, a message is essential to a true work of art. Messages give us something to think about, to contemplate, to discuss, to argue about. No doubt about it, they make a movie better, much better; they make it a work of art. The moguls never understood that. Notwithstanding MGM's proud but ultimately hypocritical boast of Ars Gratia Artis, the moguls always were more interested in making money than art.

As a work of art, On the Waterfront has a vibrant dramatic force. It is a modern day morality tale, set on New York's grimy docks and environs, pitting good against evil in a tense struggle of survival. The film's core message is that those who remain silent in the face of evil are complicit in that evil; the failure to take a stand against wrongdoing is itself immoral. This message is expressed through the conflict raging within the film's protagonist Terry Malloy, played by the incomparable Marlon Brando in an incredible performance which quite deservedly won an Academy Award. Brando's performance alone, full of anguish and pain, yet so tender, is well worth the price of admission. Kazan himself was awed by Brando's performance. Remembering one scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint, Kazan said, "the depth of guilt as well as tenderness on Brando's face is overwhelming." (4) And the famous scene of Brando and Rod Steiger (who also gave a wonderful performance), as they confront their demons in the back seat of a taxicab, truly is one of the memorable moments of movie history. Kazan again sums it up well:

   What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to
   do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it
   away with the gentleness of a caress? … 

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