I have always thought that Marlon Brando was much the mumbler and quite overrated as an actor, but I have to admit that “On the Waterfront” was a great movie; not necessarily because of him, but because of the great all around casting.
Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is a mob related union boss who rules the waterfront laborers with no reproach ─ less you end up in a barrel. Charley “The Gent” (Rod Steiger) Johnny’s number one man is ordered to have his brother Terry Malloy (Brando), who is just regular guy longshoreman and prize fighter, to throw a fight which he could have won so that Friendly can collect on some bets. Terry reluctantly does as he is told and thus one of Hollywood’s most famous lines is born. “I coulda’ been a contender, instead of a bum.”
Terry may have thrown the fight, but he is not a happy camper. His gloomy countenance is brightened when he meets Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a dockworker named Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner). Edie has been bending the ear of Father Barry (Karl Malden) to take action against the corrupt Friendly, but despite a Knute Rockne-like speech by Barry to the longshoremen, mum is the word.
Friendly then has Terry lure Joey Doyle away to a secluded area under the impression that he is going to be leaned on, but instead finds out that Joey cannot fly when he is thrown off a building and killed. Then another longshoreman named Timothy Dugan (Pat Henning), who has been persuaded by Father Barry to testify against Friendly and Company to the crime commission, ends up squashed under a load of whisky on the dock. Terry is now considering testifying against the union and a showdown with Friendly appears imminent.
Lee J. Cobb is great as the iron-fisted Friendly and Rod Steiger is convincing as his right hand man. Karl Malden is always wonderful as a character actor, and Eva Marie Saint, who appears in her first movie, is good as the tormented Edie. Marlon Brando is terrific as Terry, and mumbles his way to an Academy Award.
Brando’s part in the movie as Terry Malloy was actually modeled on a real life whistle-blower by the name of Vincent DiVincenzo who testified about corruption on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, in front of a crime commission. DiVencenzo later sued Columbia Pictures for improper use of his story.
“On the Waterfront” was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and came away with eight wins.