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A Preview Of The Working Poor's World in Elias Kazan's Film On The Waterfront

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It is said that the truth shall set you free or is it said that the truth makes you into a rat that must be exterminated? Either way, it is a risk one must be willing to take. Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront, released in 1954, is a classic film that brings to light the world of the lower-working class using cinematic elements and actors’ techniques. After viewing this movie, it is easy to see how these elements and techniques would combined to influence the audiences’ perception of the film and the message it is providing. This Oscar-winning film uses neorealism to bring forward how the back streets really work in the big city.

Most movies in this day and age focus around people’s personal fantasies of fast cars, unlimited money, beautiful people, and living on the edge. It is mostly made so we can escape the ‘real world’ to which many are so afraid of.

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On the Waterfront was created from a series of newspaper articles written about the corruption on the docks of cities in New York state where a gangsterism was in full force. The film can be considered as an autobiography which is narrating the entire situation to which the people of the lower-class were exposed to. The waterfront in this movie relates to the docks and slums of Hoboken, New Jersey. The waterfront union can be viewed as those still working today. Also, the character Terry Malloy, who is the hero informer against the mob, can be symbolizing considered as all those workers who stood up for their rights.

The film tells the story of Terry Malloy, a former boxer, and dockworker, who deals with a crisis of conscience while doing the nitty, gritty jobs for the mob boss, Johnny Friendly, who runs the dockyards. A scene that sets up the film is when Terry is leading a fellow dockworker to be ambushed, then killed, by a few members of the mob to prevent him from testifying in a corruption case against them. This scene sets up Terry’s character evolution within the film, where he continually struggles with his inner conflict and guilt that will end up leading him to make some very difficult choices. Ultimately, this puts a target on his back and by the end, Terry breaks away from his obligations to do what’s right even if it means his possible death.

To fully understand the concept of On the Waterfront, one must know just exactly what Neo-realism really means. The use of neo-realism in this film was a big part in the making of the entire film was shot in the streets, alleys, and rooftops of Hoboken, New Jersey. Neo-realism, also known as Italian Neo-realism, was a new style of filmmaking that was created due to the living conditions, political views, and budgeting of Hollywood which occurred after World War II. This form of filmmaking only lasted for a decade; however, it effects on Hollywood was tremendous for the fact that many directors would use a dark and scummy location to demonstrate realistic themes within the story. Within the 1950’s, Hollywood explored many social problems to film such as communism, racism, and organised crime to which many were influenced by politics and propaganda of the time. These issues made way in neo-realist films where Kazan and Shulberg incorporated such realistic subjects that the everyday person would be dealing with to affect the audience on a more personal note.

This movie is shot in black-and-white, also known as film noir, with some enhanced lighting which happens to be a characteristic of neo-realism. By using light along with smoke or fog adds to the moral understanding of this movie. Another important note is that On the Waterfront used non-professional actors mixed in with real actors to keep the sense of “random story from the crowd” continuing. These off-the-street actors are not the standard ones that would be seen in a Hollywood film but rather they looked like your brother, best friend, neighbour. They were gritty, rough, and fatigued characters that one would expect to see in a lower-class neighbourhood or in everyday slang the “slums” of a city. Adding this aspect to the film truly enhances the realistic subject matter along with Kazan’s representation of this filthy, broken, inner-city life.

Terry Malloy, the main character, played by Marlon Brando, seems to be just a typical “slums” guy. Keeping his head down, focusing on his problems, and never opening his mouth, that is Terry Malloy in a nut-shell. Utilised “method acting”, Marlon Brando to fully becomes the character, Terry.

In the book 100 Ideas that Changed Film, it states that “Method acting was developed at the Moscow Art Theater by Konstantin Stanislavski, whose system of affective memory and physical expression …” (Method Acting). This approach assists actors to becomes so deeply connected with their characters that they in fact become the person they are playing. Not only focusing on what Terry says, Brando was also able to show how Terry thinks and feels by just the littlest movement of his face and eyes. One example of this is the scene where Terry is taking care of Joey’s pigeons and is joined by Edie. This is their first romantic scene together and it is there that we see how he truly feels towards her. By focusing on Terry’s face we can see his inner conflict, his guilt for being a part of Joey’s, Edie’s brother, death which grows increasingly on his face the longer their conversation continues. As the film progresses, we can see Terry begins to fall for Edie but mixed in with his caring feelings for her we can still see the extreme guilt he has due to his role in Edie’s brother’s death.

Other noticeable elements throughout this film are the constant physical actions Brando has his character undertake. Chewing gum to having a cocky attitude while talking to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or playing with gloves, Brando is a master! One reason that an actor would choose to be constantly doing something with their body in the role is to draw the viewers focus directly onto the character, establishing a kind of tick or “normal” way of doing this shows the audience that the characters are just like them. Having Terry drink alcohol while in a conversation may have been a technique to show that he, Terry Malloy, was nervous or at a loss for words or in need to stay busy to keep his inner thoughts under control. An example of this is scenes where Terry is walking down the cold, dirty streets. By having his hands in his pockets sometimes can reveal more about the character’s mood than mere talking could bring across. Typical human behaviours are expressed through facial movement or expressions and body language for it is easy to have a lying tongue and not a lying posture.

Throughout the film, most of the movie scenes take place at either the dockyards or on rooftops. In the “slums” of cities there aren’t many places for people to go so they can just unwind from the craziness of their day without seeing other people. So, it would make sense that people would take to the rooftops for those critical “alone times”. It seems that whenever Terry feels pressured by the outside world he retreats to the roof of his apartment building. The rooftop is so far away from the docks that he can pretend to be in another part of the world. On the rooftop, Terry can be who he truly is, a dreamer! Being closer to the clouds, and having a view of the city, it seems to place him somehow outside of the hassles of everyday life and above it. In a sense, Terry’s goal is to stay up on that rooftop for the rest of his life which means that he wants to be the person he is up there all the time. The roof serves as a place where characters can go to think about the situations they are in without the pressures of the world below.

Even though few people now a day are spending their time ‘relaxing on rooftops’, we all need to have a special place where we escape to when the reality of everyday existance is a little too much to handle.

It is said that the truth shall set you free or it is said that the truth makes you into a rat that must be exterminated? Either way, it is a risk one must be willing to take. Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront uses neo-realistic techniques to bring light to the world of the lower-working class. What is happening in someone’s life is kept in shadows by the acts we put on for others. When an event occurs that causes the lives of people to be brought into the spotlight, we believe what we see is who they are. However, no matter how much light you shine on someone their will always be shadows. This film can and does expose those parts still in darkness so we can see that no matter how tough, poor, or hard working someone is that they are just like us. Just in different ways.


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