On the Waterfront

Critics Consensus

With his electrifying performance in Elia Kazan's thought-provoking, expertly constructed melodrama, Marlon Brando redefined the possibilities of acting for film and helped permanently alter the cinematic landscape.



Total Count: 64


Audience Score

User Ratings: 52,099
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Movie Info

This classic story of Mob informers was based on a number of true stories and filmed on location in and around the docks of New York and New Jersey. Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) rules the waterfront with an iron fist. The police know that he's been responsible for a number of murders, but witnesses play deaf and dumb ("plead D & D"). Washed-up boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has had an errand-boy job because of the influence of his brother Charley, a crooked union lawyer (Rod Steiger). Witnessing one of Friendly's rub-outs, Terry is willing to keep his mouth shut until he meets the dead dockworker's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). "Waterfront priest" Father Barry (Karl Malden) tells Terry that Edie's brother was killed because he was going to testify against boss Friendly before the crime commission. Because he could have intervened, but didn't, Terry feels somewhat responsible for the death. When Father Barry receives a beating from Friendly's goons, Terry is persuaded to cooperate with the commission. Featuring Brando's famous "I coulda been a contendah" speech, On the Waterfront has often been seen as an allegory of "naming names" against suspected Communists during the anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s. Director Elia Kazan famously informed on suspected Communists before a government committee -- unlike many of his colleagues, some of whom went to prison for refusing to "name names" and many more of whom were blacklisted from working in the film industry for many years to come -- and Budd Schulberg's screenplay has often been read as an elaborate defense of the informer's position. On the Waterfront won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor for Brando, and Best Supporting Actress for Saint. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi


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Critic Reviews for On the Waterfront

All Critics (64) | Top Critics (14) | Fresh (63) | Rotten (1)

Audience Reviews for On the Waterfront

  • May 09, 2016
    'On the Waterfront' is a tour de force that really has it all - a great script, outstanding acting, and great direction. It tells the story of a group of longshoremen who are being coerced into silence by their corrupt and mob-connected union bosses. These are tough guys who work backbreaking jobs and have a code of not ratting out others. It's this ethic combined with the threat of being denied work or killed that keeps them all in line. We're sucked in immediately when in the opening minutes of the film there is a brutal murder to silence one of them, in which Marlon Brando finds himself unwittingly an accomplice. Brando is absolutely brilliant in this movie, and it boggles my mind that he considered his performance to be subpar after he saw it. He is a genius in the big moments and in the small ones he creates. Karl Malden is also outstanding as the priest who tries to rally the workers to stand up for themselves, and Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger turn in strong performances as the mob boss and one of his lieutenants (and Brando's brother), respectively. It's a shame that these three were all nominated for best supporting actor but split the vote so that none of them would win, though the film won 8 others, including Best Picture. The scene in the taxicab with the brothers, where Steiger implores and even threatens Brando to remain silent, is one of the best in movie history - not just because of the fantastic script, but also because of Brando's acting. He recalls having to take a dive in a fight for a mob, and when his brother blames his manager for trying to bring him along too fast as a young boxer, running his career, he responds: "It wasn't him Charlie, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden, you came down into my dressing room and said, 'kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson.' You remember that? This ain't your night! My night ... I could have taken Wilson apart. So what happens, he gets the title shot outdoors in a ballpark and what do I get, a one-way ticket to palookaville. You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me, just a little bit, so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money." Charlie: "I had some bets down for you, you saw some money." "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, let's face it. It was you, Charlie." That scene of being let down by a loved one is so poignant that on its own it makes the movie worth watching, but it's rock solid throughout, even if a little on the dramatic side at the ending. Kazan provided great direction with scenery that looked realistic because it was, having been shot in Hoboken with many of the extras real longshoremen, and on rooftops with aerials and dovecotes. I absolutely HATE the idea that Kazan made the film in part to justify his own testimony to congress during the McCarthy years, but it's a sad fact about the backstory of the film. With that said, I have to put that aside and give it credit for being a great, great film. Aside from the taxicab scene, there are a couple of others that give me goosebumps every time I see them, one of which is Malden calling out the bosses in a speech despite being threatened and having garbage thrown at him ("Every time the mob puts pressure on a good man and stops him from doing his duty as a citizen - it's a crucifixion!"). This is a tough, gritty movie, about the little man overcoming intimidation to stand up for himself against evil. The theme is timeless, and the movie creates timeless, immortal moments.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • May 08, 2016
    Kazan's self-defense for naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952 (and his apologia for denunciation) is a gritty combo of realistic crime drama, romance and character study with a stellar central performance by Marlon Brando.
    Carlos M Super Reviewer
  • Apr 27, 2016
    4.5-5. Masterful and has a very real sense to it. Superb writing, direction, acting.
    Kyle M Super Reviewer
  • Jun 03, 2013
    Marlon Brando steals the show with a pulse-pounding performance as Terry, a man who has never been trusted ever since his departure from world-class fighting. He is now living on the streets with no real home, falling for a woman and trying to earn respect from everyone else. As this woman's brother dies, she seeks Terry for help after realizing he has nothing left to lose. There are very tight moments of dialogue and the chemistry between each character interaction is phenomenal. This is one of the best crime films I have ever seen, because instead of focussing on the blood and guts of the real crime, it focusses on the mystery of it and the subtlety of the aftermath and recovery/revenge. "On the Waterfront" is brilliantly acted, stupendously directed, and filmed to perfection. I Love this film!
    KJ P Super Reviewer

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