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On the Waterfront | The Nation

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On the Waterfront

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Everett CollectionRod Steiger, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, 1954.

About the Author

Bernard Nossiter
Bernard Nossiter was a graduate of Dartmouth and also received a master's degree in economics from Harvard University....

Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg used this gritty tale of corruption on the New York waterfront to help put a positive spin on ratting out their colleagues.

Reversing the usual order, Budd Schulberg has fleshed out his commercially successful scenario to produce a novel. Most of the scenes and large chunks of dialogue that mesmerized movie audiences are here reduced to the printed page. The book, like the picture, hurries from event to event, almost as if Elia Kazan were peering over Schulberg's shoulder muttering, "Make it move, make it move."

Stars: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie
Saint, Rod Steiger
Director: Elia Kazan
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Academy Awards: 8, Picture; Actor (Brando); Supporting Actress (Saint);
Art Direction, Set decoration; Cinematography, Black-and-White; Director
(Kazan); Film editing; Screenplay

Once again, that unlikely trio, an ex-pug longshoreman, a pretty Catholic virgin, and a colloquial priest team up to save the waterfront for clean, Catholic-American unionism. But events have a way of outrunning the slickest writers. Instead of the fight between good (Marlon Brando) and evil (Lee J Cobb) that climaxed Kazan's waterfront western, the novel ends on a puzzled, querulous note with Schulberg imploring us, "What Hoppen?"

The picture at least caught for us the sight, smell, and taste of the longshoreman's setting. The novel lamely tells us most Americans don't live in railroad flats.

At a time in our literature when most talented young men are concerned with intimate dissections of fragile psyches, the gentle reader waits impatiently for novels of three-dimensioned characters interacting with a real world. But Schulberg offers us outsized screen figures. The great naturalists awakened our understanding of life with fresh insights into the human condition; perhaps today writers are afraid to describe a social reality unless it is a state-sanctioned aspect.

Can anyone believe a priest in a dockside parish could know nothing of the way his parishioners live and work until a young girl taunts him? Is Terry, the fighter who finally tells all to the crime commission, man or Marlon? Does Schulberg really think Terry acquiesces in waterfront violence and extortion because his "inability to look into himself or experience anything other than immediate pleasure or pain was nothing but sloth?" Equally improbable is Katie the virgin's literal Catholicism being fired into militant revenge by the murder of her brother.

To be sure, the author of "What Makes Sammy Run" is a polished technician with a knack for taut, dramatic dialogue. There is poignancy and tense understatement in the duet between Terry and his brother, the fast-talking henchman of the racketeer unionist, as they ride to the brother's doom Father Barry's moving speech to the longshoreman, "Christ stands alongside you in the shapeup," is a stunning piece of imagery and polemic.

Schulberg, too, has a reporter's eye. He reproduces accurately the dock worker's sense of being outside the pale and his solidarity against even well-intentioned intruders. His novel exploits some of the freedom that taboo-ridden movies are denied. Mr. Big, a shadowy figure before a TV set in the picture, here is boss of a stevedore concern, bribing union officials because "it was quicker and cheaper to pay ten thousand on the line than to deal with the complicated demands of a genuine union." Schulberg explicitly states one of the waterfront's surface axioms, "Politicians, shipowners, and racketeers, that was the axis on the waterfront." He even allows himself to observe that a Monsignor supports this alliance, but mutes the thrust by concluding that the church is really on Father Barry's side if only he wouldn't move so fast.

But underneath this skin lie some very brittle bones. Father Barry looks to a Christian revolution to rescue the docks from communism and the International Longshoremen's Association. In an age when organized religion is a vestigial institution, manipulated by other, more powerful social and economic forces, the Barry-Schulberg mystique is singularly fanciful. Again, Father Barry urges the dockers to cooperate with the crime commission because it is the "state-which is after all only you and you and everybody else." When it comes to political science in the raw, uneducated waterfront workers could tell Schulberg a thing or two about the nature of the state and whose side it is on. If, in his Hollywood youth, Schulberg had visited San Francisco and other West Coast ports, where a rotary hiring hall and stiff contracts have been routine for a generation, he might have written a different book.

But instead, he is forced to tack on a bewildered ending. He reads the newspapers and discovers that the investigation was held, all the forces of the state and some labor respectables combined to oust the I. L. A., and yet the men, in two secret ballots, stood by their old union. In Father Barry's final words, "Had the mountain strained to bring forth a mouse?"

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