Monday, July 28, 2014

The Conscience of the Docks

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

Terry (Marlon Brando)
American Film Institute's third–greatest movie quote

"On the Waterfront," which premiered 60 years ago today, was a classic story about mob informers set on the waterfront of the Northeast. If it had the ring of truth to it, it is because the tale was loosely based on some Pulitzer Prize–winning true stories that were originally published in the New York Sun.

The American Film Institute ranked "On the Waterfront" #19 in its list of the Top 100 movies of all time. Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, the never–was professional boxer, was rated the #23 hero of all time.

Lee J. Cobb played a union boss with mob ties who ruled the docks with an iron fist. Local law enforcement knew he was behind some murders, but no one on the waterfront was willing to inform on him, preferring to remain alive and working.

Rod Steiger played Cobb's right–hand man; Brando was his brother. Apparently, Brando was once a boxer with a lot of promise, but his brother (on instructions from Cobb) told him to lose a fight intentionally. Cobb had placed a bet on Brando's opponent.

The memory of that gnawed at Brando, who went on to work on the docks instead of contending for a boxing championship.

Brando's character was smitten with Eva Marie Saint, who played the sister of another dockworker. Brando was used as bait to lure her brother, who was about to testify against Cobb, into an ambush, in which he was killed. Brando thought they were only going to "lean" on him and resented playing any kind of role, albeit unknowingly, in the other man's death.

Saint and a priest (played by Karl Malden) persuaded Brando to testify against the union boss. His decision cost his brother his life, and it nearly cost him his own when Cobb's henchmen beat him up.

"Conscience," Brando's character said. "That stuff can drive you nuts."

Indeed it can.

"On the Waterfront" was nominated for 12 Oscars and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Incidentally, you can see "On the Waterfront" in a couple of weeks on Turner Classic Movies' Aug. 11 salute to Marlon Brando during TCM's annual "Summer Under the Stars."