Marlon Brando took home the first of his two Oscars for playing washed-up palooka and longshoreman Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, his third pairing with director Elia Kazan after A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata!
Funny eye makeup aside, it’s easy to see why Brando got the Oscar (which was also somewhat of a consolation prize after getting nominated but not winning for Streetcar and Zapata!). He’s brilliant here, making Terry a highly sympathetic character, even if Malloy does lure fellow employees to their deaths on occasion.
The “Coulda been a contender!” speech will always be a classic, perhaps the most-iconic moment of Brando’s career. Karl Malden is dynamite as a priest who will punch you in the face if you mess with him, and Eva Marie Saint is terrific in her debut big-screen role.
The film was based on real-life situations involving extortion on New York’s waterfront, but is also seen as Kazan’s condemnation of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and an atonement of sorts for Kazan’s participation in the McCarthy witch hunts. (I learned this reading the trivia notes on the Internet Movie Database.)
While the movie is most notable for the Brando and Malden performances, let us not forget the contributions of Lee J. Cobb as a fierce union leader and Rod Steiger as Terry’s brother.
The new Criterion Collection transfer is breathtakingly good.
Special Features: The disc is loaded. The two-disc set includes the film presented in three different aspect ratios. There’s a documentary with Martin Scorsese discussing the film, and that’s priceless. There’s another newly produced documentary featuring film scholar interviews, interviews with Kazan and Saint, and even an interview with the actor who played Brando’s young buddy in the film. You also get a commentary, a large collectors’ booklet and more.