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FILM: On the Waterfront (1954)

“I coulda been a contender.”

One of the most immortal quotes in cinematic history is uttered by ex-prizefighter Terry Molloy (played by Marlon Brando) to his older brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) as they ride in the back of a New Jersey taxi moving through the dimly lit streets of Hoboken. The line features in the classic 1954 American dramatic film On the Waterfront that has just been re-released to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, the film was based on the true story of a longshoreman in a US dockyard who tried to overthrow a corrupt union. It stars Brando, Steiger, Karl Malden (a local priest), Lee J. Cobb (the union mob boss) and Eva Marie Saint in what was her screen debut. To this stellar cast you can add a beautifully integrated, one-movement score composed by Leonard Bernstein and the stark, naturalistic black and white cinematography of Boris Kaufman.

The film is a brutal, violent and realistic exposé of corruption, running parallel to which is an intuitive exploration of masculinity, conflicted conscience, and exploitation of the working classes. It is packed with incredibly powerful performances, not least that of Marlon Brando. Elia Kazan was subsequently moved to say, “if there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.” Often cited as one of the first exemplars of modern method acting, Brando inhabits the role of Terry Molloy with an exceptional combination of authentic inarticulacy, reflective gestures, and bruised sensitivity.

It is little wonder that this performance earned Marlon Brando the first of his two Academy Awards for Best Actor (his other being for the role of Don Vito Corleone in 1973’s The Godfather). Brando’s Oscar in On the Waterfront was one of eight awarded to the film, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint.

It is rightly regarded as a cinematic masterpiece and watching it a full seven decades after its original release, On the Waterfront has lost none of its extraordinary power, passion, and the unquestionable influence it had on later films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

On the Waterfront was showing at City Screen Picturehouse on 24th April 2024

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.