Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On the Waterfront (1954)

Where exactly do the political sympathies of this film lie? On one hand, it's about as anti-union as films get. Nothing good comes out of unionization here. I get the feeling that the filmmakers weren't aiming for specifics, either -- there's one half-hearted attempt at 'not all unions are like this' justification, but the message that comes through is 'unions suck'. On the other hand, though, the film empathizes with the 'common man' and endorses the actions of Eva Marie Saint, who comes off as the quintessential Liberal Firebrand Activist. There's a weird push-pull tension between the right-wing and left-wing tendencies within the filmmakers, which I guess is more complex and truer to life than a simplistic screed from either end of the fence, but it does make for some oddly dissonant viewing. Good thing, then, that the drama is so stirring -- strip away the politics and at heart it's about a guy learning to Do the Right Thing. (Of course, this could also be seen a defiant act of self-justification from director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, both of whom were HUAC informers... but I'm getting off track, aren't I?) The rightly praised acting is showy but effective. Karl Malden, in particular, brings just the right amount of fire to his big monologues without going overboard. It's a strong film even with the mixed messages.

Grade: B


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