Friday, March 25, 2011

On The Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain

On The Waterfront boasts one of the most well recognized and memorable scenes in Hollywood history, the famous “contender” scene. I have to admit that since seeing the film I have experienced a full blown obsession with this scene and have watched it repeatedly. While there is certainly a lot more to this film than just this one scene, I have found that to reflect on On The Waterfront is to reflect on this one, grand slam, scene.  

The scene takes place in the back of a small cab where two characters sit uncomfortably together. A Venetian blink covers the back window and the camera never gives us any external or wide shots of the conversation. Conditions are cramped and claustrophobic throughout. We see the well dressed mob lawyer Charlie “The Gent” (played by Rod Steiger) attempt to convince his little brother, the subdued Terry Malloy, not to testify against the mob gang that operates out of the local waterfront (Terry is played by Marlon Brando, who deservedly won an Oscar for his role). At first Charlie resorts to typical mob tactics and attempts to bribe his little brother with a high paying job. But Terry has seen too much, been implicated in too much, and life is no longer simple. He tells his brother that “there’s more to this than I thought… much more.” He cannot make money and be ignorant to the corruption around him. The first of many great moments in the scene comes with a sudden shift from relaxed conversation between two brothers, to an immediate anxiety about what will happen next. After failing with the bribe, Charlie begins to get desperate, and in not so many words lets slip the fact that this cab ride is actually a last ditch effort to convince Terry not to rat, and that should he be unmoved the cab is taking Terry to his death. In a moment of frustration, Charlie reveals these details:

Well make up your mind before we get to 437 River Street!!!

I cannot recall seeing a better example of building tension within a scene. This explosive comment is followed up by a shocked silence and you can physically see the realization of what is being said dawn in Terry’s mind. Suddenly, any trace of the relaxed conversation is gone. But for Charlie the tension held within the silence is even worse and in a state of shock he resorts to pulling a gun on his kid brother. It is a final desperate attempt to get him to take the job and to stay quiet. I understand that Marlon Brando had a real problem with how his character was initially written to “play it cool” when the gun was pulled. It is a testament to Brando’s genius that he transformed the scene into the emotional powerhouse it is. Terry does not play it cool. How could he? His older brother has just pulled a gun on him, an act that has destroyed their relationship once and for all and that cannot be taken back. In the most dramatic way Charlie has just shown how bad things have gotten between the two brothers. Instead of being cool, Brando took the scene in another direction. With eyes full of sadness he almost caresses the gun to one side, and shaking his head he whispers “Oh Charlie”. With these words he disarms his brother, who then slumps back in his chair, defeated. In this deflated moment Charlie also knows that by not quieting his brother, and by not being able to kill him, he has signed his own death warrant.

The brilliant thing about On The Waterfront is the sense of history it gives to its characters and location. I think the really good films accomplish this. They instill in us an understanding that what we are seeing is happening in a timeline, that there is an unseen past which plays into the action. A great film makes us feel that it is a part of a bigger picture, a chapter in a story. It is easy to believe that the characters in On The Waterfront have a past and the movie hints continuously at their past without showing us flash backs or fade outs to memories. Neither character is given time to explain the details of their past to a lover or friend, and in turn to us as the audience. And yet their pasts are all around them, living in every scene. As these two men confront each other in the back of their cab a sad history weighs on them and even though we were not privy to all the details we know enough to notice it.

By the time this scene plays out we have pieced together some major aspects of their sad back story. We know that the brothers were raised in an orphanage, that one brother turned to crime and another to sport in an effort to escape their bleak future. We understand that the older brother looked out for himself and, like the mob that controls the town, used his friends to get ahead. We have also learned that Terry is a failed boxer, and that he was convinced to fix fights for the mobs benefit. In this cab scene the weight of all those years is clearly felt by both. We see the pain that has built up for decades spill out as Terry finally explains his anger at his older brother for not looking out for him, and much worse, for robbing him of his future. Both actors manage to attribute to their characters an entire life that has played out off screen. This is why I consider it to be such a fine example of acting, culminating in the classic Marlon Brando line:

You don't understand. 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.

I can do nothing to hide the fact that this one scene has dominated my On The Waterfront experience. I believe this film is worth seeing for the 5 minutes and 18 seconds I have described above but I can assure you that this scene is not just a diamond in the rough. The film was filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey and everything about the neighborhood is authentic from the dockyards to the slum dwellings and bars, the alleys to the rooftops. The supporting cast give fantastic performances, with Karl Malden as the local priest roused into action by the escalating violence, Lee J. Cobb as the mob boss Johnny Friendly who rules the entire neighborhood through fear and intimidation, and Eva Marie Saint as Terry’s love interest, a sister to a murdered brother, and a catalyst for change within both the slumbering priest and Terry. There is a very real threat of danger present and these characters decide to stand up against oppression no matter what the outcome. Terry Malloy knows first hand what the mob is capable of and, as he holds one of his pigeons on his rooftop, he explains to Eva the true nature of the neighborhood.

You know this city's full of hawks? That's a fact. They hang around on the top of the big hotels. And they spot a pigeon in the park. Right down on him.

The “contender scene” is here:

Next Up: Marty


Thursday, March 10, 2011

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine
Genre: Drama/Romance/War
Other Nominees: Julius Caesar, The Robe, Roman Holiday, Shane

From Here to Eternity is a film about the sacrifice demanded by a military life. The interesting thing is that these sacrifices are not the ones we typically expect from military films, as the majority of this film takes place in peacetime. It is the summer and fall just before the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the film takes place on a Hawaiian barracks where three military men suffer for the army, and appear to get nothing in return.

Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is a new transfer to the barracks, and both an excellent bugler and boxer. Upon his arrival he finds that the brutal base commander pulled some strings to have him transferred there as it is his personal wish to build a championship boxing team at the base, an achievement which the commander sees leading him directly to promotion. But Prewitt refuses to fight for the commander, eventually revealing details of a tragedy that prevents him from entering the ring. The commander is not impressed by these details:

You might as well say 'stop war' because one man got killed. Our fighting program is the best morale builder we have.

In response to his refusal to fight Prewitt receives “The Treatment”, an onslaught of abuse, both physical and mental, from some of the higher ranking officers at the base, most of them belonging to the boxing team. In one scene we see him dig a six foot grave to bury a newspaper, before being asked to fill it back in. Scene after scene of forced marches up the side of mountains, running laps of the fields in full gear, and other punishments are seen, all of them unjust punishments for a man who just wants to be a soldier. But even as the severity of the punishments and the pressure to submit to the commanders wishes increases, Prewitt insists on being his own man and refuses to give in:

I know where I stand. A man don't go his own way, he's nothin'.

On his first day at the base Prewitt meets Private Angelo Maggio and the two quickly become friends (Frank Sinatra won a Best Supporting Actor award for this role, considered his comeback role after a string of unsuccessful movies in the 1940’s). Maggio, on numerous occasions, defends Prewitt’s decision not to box and as a result of his support often ends up sharing the punishment being heaped onto his friend. But Maggio’s sacrifice ultimately stems from his own battle against corruption, centered on the malicious stockade sergeant "Fatso" Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

From the beginning “Fatso” had taken a disliking to Maggio and after a number of altercations between the two shouts a warning that guys like Maggio sooner or later end up in the stockade and under his jurisdiction. When that very scenario presents itself the sergeant unleashes all of his pent up frustration and anger on Maggio, brutally beating him where marks will not show, knowing that the pride of the young soldier will prevent him making complaints. Maggio’s death at the hands of the warden begins a chain of violence that escalates until it is interrupted by the Japanese attack.

The third example of personal sacrifice is seen in First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster). Disillusioned by operations at the base and at reporting directly to the corrupt base commander, Warden seeks the affection of the commander’s wife Karen, a crime that is punishable by up to twenty years in army prison. The wife has a promiscuous reputation on the base that, once the affair begins, creates a lot of tension. It is clear, even as the two bicker, that at the root of the affair are very strong feelings for each other. The most famous scene in From Here to Eternity, one that has been parodied again and again in film (my favorite parody being Airplane!) is the love making scene on the sandy Oahu beach. This scene was incredibly torrid for its day and remains one of the more erotic scenes in Hollywood history.

Another love story begins to gain momentum as the movie progresses towards that fateful day at Pearl Harbor. This is between Prewitt and a hostess (or prostitute) at a local gentleman’s club. Attracted to each other mostly because of the intense loneliness of their lives, the relationship struggles to gain traction, the nature of both of their careers being the biggest problems. Prewitt is understandably jealous when it comes to Alma’s work while Alma is seeking a man of higher social standing to help her climb out of her current life.

Both relationships play out and result in talk of marriage. And both prospects of marriage or a future together are dashed by the men’s love for the military. It is especially difficult for Alma to understand Prewitt’s love for the army, an institution that not only abuses him on a daily basis, but that is responsible for the death of his best friend. Prewitt tries to explain to her that even after all those things he does not hate the army, that the military was and is all he has got in this life, and that when "A man loves a thing. That don't mean it's gotta love him back".

With Warden there comes a clear opportunity to progress in his relationship with Karen and choose the woman he loves over his love for the army. It would require him to become and officer, take a desk job, and leave the barracks and in the end he cannot do it. Warden is not being selfish when he chooses not to be an officer. Although he knows that the job is not for him I believe that he would still do it to be with Karen. Instead he is sacrificing his passion and happiness for the army because he knows that he will make a poor officer and as a poor officer he would not be giving his best to the army. And this reasoning is after years of seeing injustice and brutality performed by the very institution he loves. Karen is understandably devastated but manages to say what the reality is:

You just don't want to marry me. You're already married - to the Army.

The true test of the men’s heroic dedication to the army comes when the attack on Pearl Harbor begins. At the time of the attack Prewitt is AWOL and in hiding. Suddenly, whatever negativity he is feeling is replaced with pride for the military. Rushing to confront the invaders as a proud soldier, he shouts “Who do they think they're fighting? They're pickin' trouble with the best Army in the world.” Warden, having sacrificed a better life and the potential for love and happiness, leads the men in the defense of the barracks, the attack solidifying him as the soldier he is. Both men have chosen to let their devotion to the army shape their destinies. 

War is the sacrifice of human life and of human spirit but From Here to Eternity deals with sacrifices that occur primarily in peacetime. During this time we see prostitution, adultery, military injustice, corruption and violence, alcohol abuse, and murder. While the last moments of the film cover the barracks heroic reacting the invasion, by then the sacrifices have already been made, and the blood has already been spilled. Even sadder is the moment that you realize the characters who survived to make it to the battle are about to be dragged into a horrifying endeavor, one that will demand even more sacrifice than they have already given and that we have just watched them give.

Next Up: On The Waterfront


The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

I am working on tracking down a copy of this film. In the meantime I will post my review of the 1953 winner, From Here to Eternity.