What a tour de force. Even if this film served as Elia Kazan's ego function for his naming names in the Communism witch hunts of the 1950's, this is proof that art from the self can make a powerful statement to society at large. Plenty of film projects have been starkly personal in nature and yet moving and powerful- Schindler's List held special meaning for Steven Spielberg as a Jew, The Passion of the Christ had special meaning for Mel Gibson (who, as it turns out, may not get along with Mr. Spielberg), and for John Travolta Battlefield Earth was a powerful representation of his committment to Scientology that turned society towards the teaching of L. Ron Hubbard. Well, ok, sometimes these personal movies don't always have the power to move mountains. Marcus' old review is here.
The story is classic right versus corruption. Marlon Brando plays a former prizefighter named Terry Malloy who is working and living down at the docks with his brother, Charley, who's the right hand man for the local mobster controlling the unions. The film opens with a murder, a fellow named Joey "fell off a building", but the neighborhood knows its because he was willing to talk about the mob's control of the docks. The local priest, played ably by Karl Malden, is convinced to begin to involve himself in the fight against corruption by Joey's sister, played by Eva Marie Saint.
Terry initially gets involved with the investigation as a stoolie, but his involvement with Joey's sister and the rising body count becomes more complex and creates a crisis of conscience in Terry. There is a wonderful scene at the bar between Brando and Saint that perfectly encapsulates Terry's struggle and transformation with the idea of conscience in the face of corruption, however near his heart and bloodline that corruption may be.
The writing in this movie is near perfect. Great lines include "He doesn't need an ambulance, he needs a priest" and other various one liners poorly imitated by Law and Order. While my familiarity with corruption on the docks in old New York was limited, I was able to understand very clearly the story more than 50 years after the movie was made.
But it is the acting which separates this movie from almost any other I have ever seen. Malden, solid as always. Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger fantastic as mafia heavies. Eva Marie Saint makes you believe that she could change Tommy's mind and create his conscience. But it is Brando's performance that is pure bravura, so brilliant. The famous speech in the backseat of the car is a moment I watched a second time immediately after the movie, so powerful. And in that speech it is not the writing which elevates it, but the pure and total immersion of Brando in the role that makes you believe and feel for his failed career as a boxer, that helps you to know that Terry has discovered who his friends are and who his enemies are. Whatever Stanislavskian memory that Marlon Brando channeled to create his eyes in that speech must have been mighty powerful. This is still not BME, but perhaps here Brando is BAE.