Five Minute Selection: Critical Thinking Example
IB Film Commentary – On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront is a 1954 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan, which is a character study/gangster picture about a low-life dockworker Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando), who begins to question the unscrupulous methods his gangland bosses inflict on the other dockworkers in mid- 20th-century New Jersey.
On the Waterfront is an incredibly well-regarded and influential film, both for its Expressionistic direction and cinematography (by Boris Kaufman) and the breakout performance of its star, Marlon Brando, and is still considered one of the greatest films of all time.
The film won eight of the twelve Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actor (Brando) and Best Actress (Eva Marie Saint), cementing its place as an important and classic film.
Of particular importance is the political subtext of the film, which effectively amounted to director Kazan (who reported on potential Communists during the McCarthy trials) defending his choice to do so through the character of Terry ‘snitching’ on his mob bosses.
Amongst this subtext, Kazan also weaved throughout the story themes of violence’s effect on the self, family, failed ambition and the importance of personal needs over the pressure of the group.
1:10:37-1:15:37 – Opening shot: Straight-on medium shot of Terry and Charley (Rod Steiger) in the back of a cab sitting side-by-side. Closing shot: Same shot, same composition.
Perhaps one of the most important and famous scenes in the film is Terry and Charley’s confrontation in the cab, in which Terry calls out Charley for sabotaging his boxing career for the “short-end money,” offering both an acting masterclass on the part of Brando and Steiger and an expression of the film’s themes of missed opportunities, failed ambition and the tension between family loyalty/love and the practical temptation for money.
There are only five basic camera setups in the scene – the medium shot featuring the two of them on equal ground, and two sets of medium-close and close-up shots focusing on Steiger’s and Brando’s faces, respectively. However, these are used expertly through editing to focus on the script and acting beats of the scene and allow the audience to focus most intently on the actors’ performances.
The mise-en-scene is minimalist – a simple taxicab with a shuttered backseat to prevent the audience from being distracted by the background. The lighting is extremely low to emphasize the intimacy of the scene between these two men, while occasionally lights flash across their face from the side windows to create the illusion of movement (while also occasionally illuminating their expressions in precise moments).
The use of editing to play with the power dynamics of the scene uses shot placement to indicate just who has the power and authority in the relationship at that point. Near the beginning, the camera focuses on Charley’s side, leaning over his shoulder as if to chat with Terry along with us, studying Terry’s expression just as Charley does (as, subtextually, he is full of guilt and trepidation for leading Terry to his potential death, and needs to determine how much he told the feds).
Sound: Whenever Terry pushes Charley to shout, “Make up your mind before we get to 47 River Street!” Kazan cuts to a closeup of Terry’s face, as he realizes what is going on as a horn sting punctuates this revelation. Leonard Bernstein’s music is a lush, string-based piece punctuated by horn stings, accentuating the tragic mood of the scene.
Editing: Kazan cuts back to Terry’s side, we see Charley’s guilty face. This happens once again as Kazan cuts back to the two-shot as he reveals the gun. Cutting back over Charley’s shoulder, we see Terry’s look of pity for Charley, Kazan needing to demonstrate Terry’s lack of fear; he simply feels sorry for his brother that it has come to this. Here, Kazan cuts to extreme close-up shots of each character, allowing the audience to see each character individually trade their lines and listen to them, symbolically finding a visual point of no return for them; from this point, they are no longer really family.
This is exacerbated when Terry finally expresses his resentment in ECU to Charley for forcing him to limit his ambition for the sake of throwing fights: “You don’t understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” The cut back to Charley’s face in close-up allows the audience to register this guilt, cutting back to Terry to show his righteous anger. With this resolved, the two characters are symbolically joined as a unit in the medium two-shot, as Charley says he will say that Terry escaped”even though he won’t believe me.”
Opinion: This is an incredibly powerful scene in the film, deeply demonstrating the tragic loss of youth and opportunity thanks to the short-sightedness of the mafia.
On the Waterfront, and the taxicab scene in particular, still lives on in the annals of film history as one of the great films of the 20th century. Marlon Brando’s star-making turn as Terry Molloy made this scene (and his seminal line) one of the most oft-remembered moments in film history, carrying with it an incredible significance in popular culture that still stands to this day.
Just as the film was respected when it was released, the film’s reputation has remained high even to this day, if not having increased as people look back on Brando’s career and all of its accomplishments and note this film as a highlight.
Kazan, Elia (dir.). On the Waterfront. Perf. Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl
Malden. Columbia Pictures, 1954. Film.
“On the Waterfront (1954).” New York Times.
Rapf, Joanna E. (2003). On the Waterfront. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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