Friday, November 30, 2007

Movies: On the Waterfront

I long intended to see this movie (along with The Wild One, which I've still yet to see), perhaps misguidedly due to my appreciation of the (totally unrelated) Billie Holiday song with the same key word in the title, and also in despite of my general ambivalence toward Marlon Brando (hated him in Carousel, liked him well enough in Streetcar Named Desire, didn't pay attention to him in Godfather, but have never found him attractive; his waist is too short and his voice is too high). Anyway, when I found this amongst the post-Thanksgiving booty (said friend is a wanna-be actor and a proclaimed Brando devotee), I was rather excited and settled into the couch, trying to recalibrate my senses to old-movie time from new-movie time.

Calibration aside, the film managed to hold its own against the newer films I'd just seen. Brando plays Terry Malloy, a waterfront dock worker who, by a familial relation, gets roped into working with the bad guys instead of the good guys in the brewing battles between the oppressed dock workers and the crooked mob-related union that treats them so poorly. Something of a well-intentioned fuck-up, in the film's opening scene, Malloy inadvertently plays a crucial role in the mob's murder of a friend and co-worker, a punishment for making noise about the union's unfairness. Malloy retreats to his haven—a rooftop pigeon coop—where he cares for his birds (and his now-deceased friends'), while down on the street, a local priest (Karl Malden) and the deceased's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), get riled up and decide to get to the bottom of the murder. Both come to Malloy, and from that point, the remainder of the plot stretches clearly ahead: Malloy will struggle with his conscience, trying to decide whether to continue playing nice with the mob and having a cush, steady position; he will be persuaded somewhat by the priest's call to conscience, but moreso by his affection for Edie, with whom he will fall in love. At first, he will be shunned for choosing the side of right, but in the end, the other dock workers will be moved by his confident sense of right, and they will allow him to lead them to victory over their oppressors, who will be punished (both by the law, when Malloy testifies against them, and by Malloy's own fists). It won't be easy, and other, lesser characters will sacrifice their lives to make way for this triumph.

So, I've gone and made it sound very kitschy and corny which, I'm afraid, no movie from 1954 could hope to avoid being. What I found so appealing, though, unspoken and yet heavy-handed puns aside, were Brando's rooftop sequences, in which he feeds and holds his pigeons, literally "above" the seamy world in which he lives, and yet still very much a gritty, grimy, earthly laborer (the pigeon is far from a celestial bird). Those are the characters young Brando plays best, and the tender intention behind his coarse behavior is evoked perfectly in the way he handles his birds, and in his dejection when he comes up to the coop late in the film to find that each bird has been shot dead by his friends-turned-enemies. Brando's hapless tenderness manages again and again to sucker us into forgiving his characters (though a militant feminist might argue that that hapless tenderness indicts him again and again as a schmuck and a con-artist.)

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