There are countless reasons for the film's importance. The caged-animal, brooding intensity of Marlon Brando, for one. As Terry Malloy, Brando is a petulant nobody living off of the beneficence of the bosses, and whose love for a good girl, Edie Doyle (Eva Maria Saint), turns him straight. Instead of the working-man's paradise and land of the free, America seen through Boris Kaufman's grimy lens is a hellhole of panhandlers, corruption and mob goons who keep everyone quiet by giving them just enough scratch to keep their bellies full and just enough fear to keep them from asking for more.
When a local boy preparing to testify against the wise guys takes a "tumble" off a rooftop, Edie is stricken with despair and latches onto Terry as the mob-connected man who can finger her brother's killers. Through Edie, Terry regains the integrity he sold to the highest bidder. His rage builds for the same mob that ruined his boxing career by paying him to take a fall and drove a wedge between Terry and his brother (Rod Steiger), right-hand man to the big boss. Regret oozes out of On the Waterfront. Its most famous line is Terry's: "I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody."
Though Terry brags to Edie that he "outfoxed" his parochial school nuns by resisting their efforts to educate him, his pride hides uglier realities, of how life and the mob have outfoxed Terry. Nobody did macho vulnerability like Brando, hiding a little boy pathos behind his devil-may-care swagger. Hoboken boy Frank Sinatra was initially pegged for the role, an almost inconceivable notion in a film that so definitively belongs to Method-trained Brando. Opens Fri., Dec. 17 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
-- Felicia Feaster