As I said in Part I, 1954 closed very well, and it will be very difficult for me to assess which was the stronger of the two remaining films. In addition to being great films in almost every respect with three future Angry Men between them, both featured career-high performances from their leading actors, at the head of impeccable work by their supporting casts…and both have uncomfortable Red Scare truths lurking in the background that take some ignoring if one wishes to judge them solely on their artistic merits. Apologies for the long entry, but these films really do warrant it!
Last time we saw Edward Dmytryk was 1947’s Crossfire, an early crack at solving anti-Semitism with film noir that, alas, failed to live up to its promise (though a film that did even worse managed to win Best Picture). This gap is because he spent some time as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” and was in exile in England until Stanley Kramer brought him back to Hollywood in 1952. More on this later.
Shot in Technicolor despite clearly being a classic late-1940s black-and-white war drama, The Caine Mutiny–the film responsible for giving Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr. his stage name–like From Here to Eternity last year, managed to be a nearly perfect film despite constant interference from the armed forces it (fictionally) portrays. The Navy objected to everything from the title to the premise of a mentally unbalanced (shell-shocked) captain, and the script took fifteen months of rewrites to meet their approval…which explains why the studio went with the tagline “At last on the screen!”
I guess it was the best choice, after all.
The film is nominally about some rich Princeton grad named Ensign Willie Keith, an insufferable, arrogant twerp whose name I had to look up on Wikipedia, who is aghast that his first assignment is the ragtag, all-but-decommissioned minesweeper USS Caine. He spends most of the film in a state of patrician contempt, which puts him at odds with everyone except his inexplicably loyal fiancée May Wynn (May Wynn…the fact that they don’t change her name in the film perhaps reflects the minimal effort the writers, producers, and director put into her character). Pro-tip: when you watch this film, any scene in which none of the four top-billed actors are present can be safely skipped, to avoid the utterly superfluous romantic subplot between them…and, incidentally, making for a much better ending. This cuts about half an hour and saves you more than is necessary of his smug, punchable face.
“I demand to be taken seriously.”
The film is really about Captain Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), the new skipper aboard the Caine, and his gradual mental unraveling, as witnessed by long-suffering executive officer Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) and communications officer Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray at his weaselly best). Queeg arrives to the Caine with eight years of naval service behind him, the past three of which have been in combat, so he’s more than a little twitchy and set in his ways…which earns him the immediate dislike of Keefer, a cynical “writer” already openly contemptuous of the Navy and everyone in it.
MacMurray as Thomas Keefer is a less-sure-of-himself version of his triumph as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944), playing Keefer as a manipulative narcissist whose sole purpose in everything he does is protecting himself…even if he doesn’t particularly need protection. To that end, his unshakable (and almost immediate) belief in Queeg’s instability drives the plot, as he convinces Maryk and Keith to do his dirty work while maintaining plausible deniability to the very end. The closest thing in the film to a running joke is every other characters’ constant insistence that Keefer has no psychological background and thus no basis for judging Queeg’s mental state…though perhaps his own, better-hidden problem (antisocial personality disorder) gives him some insight into those of others.
José Ferrer sees it, of course, because he’s the man, but everyone else is hoodwinked.
After a series of increasingly disturbing breakdowns by Queeg, Maryk and Keith seize control of the Caine during a typhoon when it seems Queeg’s leadership is putting the ship in danger of foundering. They are, of course, court-martialed, and given very little chances for escaping execution, given Queeg’s spotless record. Enter Barry Greenwald, played so well by José Ferrer that he is the second-highest billed member of the cast despite only appearing in the final thirty minutes of the film. As soon as he enters the room for his initial meeting with the accused, you can see in his face (c.f. the above photo) that he knows exactly what needs to be done to win an acquittal, and that he hates every rotten moment of it.
And what needs to be done is, goad an innocent man–who has clearly been suffering, without help or even acknowledgement, for years while trying desperately to maintain his composure, his self-worth, and the respect of his subordinates–into a complete breakdown on the stand. To that end, he allows E.G. Marshall to steal 90% of the trial, expertly maneuvering Maryk and Keith into admitting their culpability in the mutiny, before calmly and stoically tearing Queeg down until the latter deteriorates into a sweaty, paranoid mess.
The faces of everyone at the end of this scene when they just can’t contain the awkward one second more…
The film then cuts to a scene of apparent triumph, as the officers gather to celebrate Maryk’s acquittal…even Keefer, though his reception by Maryk is frosty to say the least. But Greenwald isn’t finished with them.
If I were one to nitpick, I could point out that if he felt this way he was under no obligation to take the case in the first place, but whatever. It’s worth it to see tear Keefer a new one.
Now, to the actor that made the whole thing work, because if Queeg wasn’t a three-dimensional, sympathetic character, it all falls apart. Humphrey Bogart showed the Academy that they’d thrown him a “Hey, nice career” Oscar in 1951 too soon, as his amazing portrayal of Queeg–in addition to being the culmination of an incredible year that included Sabrina and The Barefoot Contessa–was much worthier of the honor than his (still great) role in The African Queen. Queeg is the natural progression of Bogart’s early “paranoid loner” characters in such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and here he finds himself truly adrift without any kind of lifeline, where everyone really is against him.
Though introduced as a tyrannical taskmaster, Bogart instills Queeg with such vulnerability and humanity that this notion is quickly dispelled in the minds of the audience, if not in those of the other characters. Queeg’s need to be in control stems from years of combat fatigue, yet he is intensely self-aware of his decline. After a particularly humiliating incident in which he (apparently) shows cowardice by turning the Caine away from an engagement, he bares his troubles to his subordinates and asks for their support…only to be met by stony silence and, later, mockery.
“It’s because I eat sand for breakfast, isn’t it? Look, I’d rather you were honest.”
In the end, his fall is completed when he is unable to maintain his leadership in the aforementioned typhoon. Admittedly, Queeg is shown in this scene as unambiguously frozen and unable to command, making Maryk’s actions 100% justified…if one ignores the officers’ own blameworthiness in bringing the situation to such a head. And so Queeg takes the stand, and Bogart plays his slow but steady deterioration under Greenwald’s cross to an absolute tee. In a microcosm of his entire existence, going from self-assured to uncomfortable to angrily paranoid to, finally, scared, alone, and out of things to say. And with that, a career that should have ended in commendation instead fizzles out in awkward silence.
As I said, take away the bits with Keith, and it’s a perfect movie. Bogart was, of course, nominated for Best Actor but, in a rematch from 1951, justifiably lost the award to Marlon Brando.
Oh yeah, the Hollywood Ten thing…and since I’m already up to 1,400 words here, I’ll keep it quick. Edward Dmytryk was originally indicted, but later decided that “Hollywood Nine” sounded better and turned on his fellow blacklistees to became a friendly witness for the HUAC, in what is described in legalese a “dick move.” And so, he got to continue working and get Oscar nominations while his (former) friends languished. Still, it’s not like he made a whole movie about how he was really the persecuted and brave one. I mean, who would do that?
Elia Kazan, that’s who.
I absolutely love On the Waterfront: the gritty, on-location cinematography in Hoboken, Manhattan always hazily looming like a dreamscape in the background; the gut-wrenching and honest performances from Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and of course Rod Steiger, all five of whom were nominated for Oscars; the unsettling score by Leonard Bernstein; that amazing moment with the glove…it’s just incredible. So it was a bit of a downer for me to find out it was all a vanity project by Kazan to paint himself as a crusading hero for selling his friends down the river.
“We even kind of look alike, don’t we?”
Yes, Kazan earned the disdain of many in Hollywood–including his friend and frequent collaborator Arthur Miller–for agreeing to testify and name names to the HUAC. Not too much disdain, mind you…almost everyone in power in Hollywood at the time, from all the studio heads to big shots like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, supported the blacklist and actively worked to keep the Commies out of the pictures for as long as they could. So, Kazan’s equating himself (and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, another friendly witness who replaced Arthur Miller when the latter fell out with Kazan over the aforementioned
betrayal testimony) with Terry Malloy is a bit of a stretch. Also, the fact that the film won eight Oscars is a good indicator that Kazan wasn’t exactly being persecuted for his actions.
I’ll try to ignore it for the time being, but I will probably want to address it later. First, let’s talk about the film on its own, and that puts me in a better mood because on its own it is amazing. For all the reasons I said above, it was an easy choice for Best Picture this year, especially since Rear Window wasn’t nominated.
Obviously, they had to leave some films out, to make room for this masterpiece.
Say what I will about Elia Kazan, the man knew how to get amazing performances out of his actors, both on stage and screen, and On the Waterfront is probably his triumph in this regard. Marlon Brando finally won Best Actor (on his record fourth consecutive nomination*, following A Streetcar Named Desire , Viva Zapata! , and Julius Caesar ) for his role as simple, overly-trusting ex-boxer-turned-errand-boy Terry Malloy.
The film opens with Terry unwittingly setting up a friend, Joey Doyle, to be murdered by union boss Johnny Friendly, innocently (and a little unbelievably) thinking that Friendly’s goons want to meet Joey on the roof of a tenement house, in the middle of the night, just to “talk.” From here he begins his journey from easily-manipulated mob pawn to easily-manipulated whistleblower, with the help of Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and impossible-to-intimidate local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden). Opposite them are Friendly himself (Lee J. Cobb) and Terry’s brother and Friendly’s righthand man, Charley (Rod Steiger).
Friendly is the mob-controlled boss of the local dockworkers’ union, and since the price of disobedience is any number of fatal accidents and OSHA is still about twenty-seven years away, all the workers living in poverty would rather play D&D…
No, that was even further away than workplace protections.
That is, they’d rather be “deaf and dumb” to all the corruption that risk their lives for decent pay and steady work. Incidentally, the suggestion that maybe unions didn’t have the best interests of the workers at heart and might actually be riddled with corruption and graft was apparently very upsetting to Hollywood studios, and at one point Columbia Pictures agreed to finance the film on the condition that the antagonists be Communists, instead.
“Also, instead of pigeons, what if he raised eagles?”
Fortunately, even Kazan thought that this would be a little on-the-nose. Anyway, Terry is torn between loyalty to his brother and to Friendly, who (he believes) has been a father figure to him all his life, and to his awakening conscience. Friendly and Charley employ the only method they know–strong-arming–while Edie and Father Barry, being supporting characters in a Code-era film, know all they need to do is gently push in the right direction and wait for the inevitable moral dominoes to fall. And in the end, the rest of the longshoremen are about as easy to convince as Marc Antony’s crowd in Julius Caesar…they just go along with whichever side gave the last rousing speech (or in this case, ass-kicking).
As you may have guessed, I have nothing but praise for Brando’s performance in this film…he embodies Terry Malloy’s struggle in every scene and every confused, conflicted expression. His scenes with Malden are particularly effective, with the dynamic between them the exact reversal of Streetcar, as Malden towers, confident and authoritative, over the juvenile, naïve Brando. In the end, it’s a kind of sad relationship, as Terry shifts his absent father complex onto Father Barry, who, it seems to me, never comes to admire or even respect him…he just uses him as a tool, same as (nearly) everyone else.
“Think you got one more round in you, slugger?”
Just about the only person in the film who actually treats Terry as a human being is Edie, though admittedly she too has a pretty severe conflict of interest (wanting to avenge her brother’s murder). Her attitude towards Terry is the most dramatic shift in the story, as she goes from indifference to pity to affection, then briefly to anger and malevolence about the whole sending-Joey-to-his-death thing, and finally to genuine love for the big lug. Their first scene together is bloody outstanding, with the two characters working towards two very different goals–he trying to establish a human connection with probably the only innocent human being he has ever met, she just wishing she had a tennis ball to distract him with–and the two actors carry it off brilliantly.
For me, few moments in film history equal Brando sitting, childlike, on the swing, absentmindedly slipping her glove onto his hand, while she thinks about saying something and then just lets it go.
Of course, in a film chockfull of great dialogue, performances, and scenes, one stands out in particular as the greatest, the one that has been alternately idolized, copied, parodied ever since. The best supporting performance in the film comes courtesy of Rod Steiger as Charley, who, like Terry, is stuck in a seemingly inescapable web of conflicting loyalties; the difference is that Charley is smart enough to realize just how bad it is, and to see that for him, at least, there is no way out once Terry starts to slip from his grip. Steiger is so damned good that one can see this in Charley’s face from his very first moment onscreen…with nothing else but Steiger’s body language and intonation, we see that Charley has been struggling to keep Terry from questioning anything about Friendly’s operation for a long damn time, for both their sakes, and he’s exhausted.
Deep down, though, he understands that Terry has to break free, and no one–not him, not all the waterfront muscle, not Friendly himself–can stop it. And he also knows that he won’t, can’t, be around to see his brother’s redemption, which may explain the fatalism that creeps in as the film progresses, as he sees the end clearer and clearer, until finally the brothers are thrown together for the confrontation that has been building for years. Despite thinking he has a handle on the situation, Charley is still blindsided by the realization that Terry–his sweet, trusting kid brother–has always known who was to blame for his (Terry’s) unremarkable, nowhere life:
That line, “You was my brother, Charley,” in the past tense, says it all.
Unfortunately, since Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue (rightfully) gets a lot of attention, I couldn’t find a clip with the build-up to this moment, but obviously you should watch the whole film to see it. Steiger is incredible in this scene, better than Brando even, and definitely should have won the Oscar.
Though he would have his day…we’re coming to that.
So yeah, On the Waterfront is a pretty impeccable film on its own merits and was deserving of all the Oscars it won (and a few that it didn’t). However, as I said, one must take into account the motivation and the political message behind it, and then it becomes a bit harder to credit. Kazan saw himself as Terry Malloy, a man at first willfully blind and complicit in the horrible corruption around him, finally realizing that it’s worth the (temporary) contempt of his fellows–for whom he, of course, is sacrificing himself the entire time–if he can do his part to take the bastards down. And so he made the perfect film about his situation, except he got one thing wrong…he wasn’t Terry Malloy at all, he was Johnny Friendly, ruthlessly taking out dissenters at the behest of those in power.
“Well, I’m not going to beat myself up over that.”
But of course, the Oscars are all about judging films on their merit, in theory anyway, and so On the Waterfront was the clear winner for 1954, telling a timeless story that continues to resonate long after the demise of the political clusterfuck that birthed it. Thanks for staying with me through this very long entry…the reward is, another Oscars in the books! On to 1955, the year of Ernest Borgnine!
* Record for male performers, anyway…both Bette Davis and Greer Garson received five consecutive Best Actress nominations (1938-42 and 1941-45, respectively).