The first thing that really bothered me is the Leonard Bernstein soundtrack. During the film whenever anyone starts showing the slightest emotion the orchestral music swells and distracts from the acting. Basically, I wish I could have erased the music.
Yes, Marlone Brando gives a great performance, but I didn't think the script gave his character Terry Malone much growth. He starts off as kind of a dimwitted ex-boxer that only thinks about himself and by the end of the movie I guess we are supposed to think he’s learned to think about other people, but he testifies because the villain had his brother murdered, so has Terry learned altruism or simply revenge? In fact, I thought all of the characters where kind of one-note characters, the only other character with any growth was Eva Marie Saint’s Edie, who at the start of the film is a sheltered, but book-smart girl who doesn’t seem to have any experience with men and at the end of the film she’s fallen in love with Terry, but the movie doesn’t show how/if the relationship has made her grow/change.
My favorite scene without a doubt is the one where Terry and Edie are talking and she drops her glove. Terry picks it up and starts playing with it. I've always heard that this part wasn't scripted, but improvised. It really makes the scene because it's not just Brando that's improvising Saint is right there with him because at the end of the scene she pulls the glove off his hand and it all seems so natural, so real. Unfortunately it’s one diamond among a pile of coal.
Possibly the film’s biggest problem is that it can’t decide what kind of a villain Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is. In his first scene, Friendly talks about how he started as a nobody and carved out a crime empire. This led me to believe he was an effective and smart villain. However, in the same first scene Friendly does two incongruous things: first he repeatedly refuses to count stacks of money saying it makes his head hurt. I let this go at first thinking he must be the hands-off type. Then someone else counts a stack and says a guy was short $50 bucks and Friendly goes nuts on the guy and tells him he doesn’t work in this town anymore. For someone who can’t be bothered to count his own money, the money sure means a lot to him. I guess we are supposed to think that the money doesn’t mean as much to him as trust does?
The next questionable scene takes place when it seems like Terry is going to testify. Friendly talks to Terry’s brother Charley. Charley is one of Friendly’s Lieutenants. Charley is the reason why Terry has always gotten a free ride, Friendly has kept Terry happy because it makes Charley happy and by that logic, Friendly is willing to do so much for Charley because he is a really great Lieutenant. But the fact that Terry might testify is just too much, Friendly gives Charley an ultimatum, he tells him he has to kill his brother or else. Now here comes the curious part, he lets him go take care of it on his own! If I was a really smart crime boss who had built a crime empire from nothing, I’d probably be pretty careful. If I’d given a man an ultimatum that backed him into a corner I’d probably be concerned he might decide to betray me. So you take a bunch of guys you can trust and you go with Charley and you make sure he kills his brother and if he can’t, you kill both of them. The one thing you don’t do is let him go off alone so he can formulate some sort of plan. Luckily, Charley did something even more boneheaded. He’s in the back of a car with his brother; up front some unnamed hoodlum is driving the car. Charley openly discusses betraying Friendly. You can see how horrified the driver is and so it is absolutely no surprise when Charley is dead a few scenes later. Did Charley think the hoodlum was loyal to him before Friendly? Maybe they were really good friends, and he trusted the unnamed hoodlum completely. But the unnamed guy had secret ambitions and his betrayal was not unlike Iago’s betrayal of Othello, a saga of unbelievable evil. But unfortunately the movie doesn’t give us the slightest hint.
Okay, the next scene of interest is the court scene. Terry gives about a two sentence confession on the stand. They ask him if he knows who killed Joe Doyle, he says Friendly ordered some guys to do it. That’s all he says and it seems that’s all the evidence the Crime Commission has: one man’s testimony. If Friendly was smart he’d understand that they still have nothing and all he has to do is play it cool. Instead Terry gets off the stand and Friendly goes into a blind rage and starts screaming at Terry and punching him. This outburst made him look guilty whereas the testimony hadn’t really been all that damning.
Okay, so Friendly and his boys are the Union leaders for the dockworkers. They make their money from…I never quite figured that out. Okay, so Friendly and his boys control whether a dockworker works on any given day. They also control what jobs any given guy has. We know this because Terry Malone was given a job where he doesn’t actually have to work. But the catch is that Friendly doesn’t own the boats or the cargo. That’s all owned by an overweight bald guy who we see only twice in the movie: First he is watching the court proceedings when Terry testifies. He just sort of grumbles when Friendly goes “ape-shit” on Terry afterwards. Then we see him at the end of the movie. He stands at the doorway to the docks and waits for the bloody and beat up Terry to report for work, because none of the workers will work unless he is working too. If the fat man didn’t somehow benefit from whatever deal he had with Friendly, why did he let him run the workers for so many years?
This movie’s director, Elia Kazan is legendary. I’m a big fan of his film “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but this movie was clearly an attempt by him to justify his testimony to the House Un-American activities Committee (HUAC). You see, Kazan was a Communist for a year and a half from 1934 and 1936. Then twenty years later, the HUAC was questioning “known communists” and trying to get them to name names. It was a witch-hunt and Kazan eventually caved and named 8 people. Then the following year he made this movie where the theme of the movie turns out to be how much of a hero you can be if you have the courage to testify. Knowing this background made what seems on the surface to be a movie about silly and evil mobsters seem to be about much more and it made it seem almost insidious, like if we thought Brando’s Terry Malone was right for testifying then we had to think Kazan must have been right for testifying too, right? Only they were two completely different situations. When I listened to Father Barry’s (Karl Madden) impassioned speeches about standing up to the union and having the courage to speak out, I thought they were kind of over-the-top, but when I think about them in the context of the HUAC, they absolutely disgust me.