On the Waterfront
By 1954, Marlon Brando had already proven that he was the next guy to the right on the actor evolutionary chart in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, but his protean newness still leaps out at you from Elia Kazan’s gritty leftist melodrama On the Waterfront. Ex-boxer and diffident dockworker Terry Malloy (Brando) finds himself questioning his allegiance to the corrupt longshoremen’s union run by murderous mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), with help from Terry’s brother Charley (a very young Rod Steiger). Disappointed in his pugilistic career, Terry wants to go along and get along, but his conscience, stirred by comely longshoreman’s daughter Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and crusading Father Barry (Karl Malden), makes it tougher and tougher to keep the waterfront code of “d and d”—deaf and dumb—when the Crime Commission pressures him to tell what he knows. The film’s heavy-handed all-men-are-brothers rhetoric and big finish seem a bit dated today, but nothing puts On the Waterfront in historical perspective as much as Brando’s performance; he seems to be working on a different plane than the rest of the estimable cast, likely to do anything at any moment but never overplaying a whit. Rarely has a Best Actor Oscar been so richly deserved.