The Noble Rat
Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is masterful, powerful, and deceptive.
Most Americans know the 1954 movie On the Waterfront as two things: a classic of working-class cinema and a vehicle for Marlon Brando’s greatest performance (“I coulda been a contender”). But among students of film and of the American Left, the movie is something both stranger and more important: a piece of anti-communist propaganda—and a defense of snitching.
The movie’s director, Elia Kazan, was one of Hollywood’s most prominent leftists and, for just over a year during the Depression, a member of the American Communist Party. He directed pointedly left-wing films like A Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, about antisemitism) and Pinky (1949, about an African-American woman who “passes” as white). In 1952, years after Kazan had left the party, the now-notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) asked him to identify colleagues of his who had once been his fellow Communists. Although initially reluctant, he eventually agreed, publicly naming eight former colleagues before the committee.
Some of those named by Kazan were blacklisted, forced to write under pseudonyms or use middlemen to sell their work. Others moved out of the country; some left show business altogether.
Kazan kept making films in Hollywood, but his behavior cost him the friendship and respect of most of his peers. He defended himself in a full-page ad in the New York Times and remained adamant in contending that his testimony was justified. “I would rather do what I did,” he said, “than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul.” Actually, he added, “I didn’t betray it. I made a difficult decision.”
In the same year as the Times ad, 1952, he also began work on the movie On the Waterfront, reworking Budd Schulberg’s social-realist script into a complex analogy to his own testimony. In the film, Brando plays Terry Malloy, a dockworker who witnesses local union thugs committing a murder and must build up the courage to testify against them to the Waterfront Crime Commission despite intense pressure from union bosses to remain “deaf and dumb.” The similarities to Kazan’s situation are obvious, but it’s worth delving into the specifics in order to understand just how cunning a piece of propaganda the film is.
The dockworkers’ union stands in for Hollywood. The union is a corrupt and powerful left-wing syndicate with a vice-grip on society. Its ringleader, Johnny Friendly, proclaims in a thinly veiled speech, “We got the fattest piers and the fattest harbor in the world. Everything moves in and out; we take our cut.” This was not meant to be hyperbole: Kazan, like many Americans, was genuinely alarmed by what he saw as a “dangerous and alien conspiracy”—his words—by Communists to infiltrate American culture through Hollywood. Kazan doesn’t leave it at that, though: He adds worker oppression, bribery, and even murder to amp up the story. It works. You can’t help but despise Johnny Friendly and his gang of thugs.
And you can’t help but love Terry Malloy, the impossibly handsome working-class hero whom Kazan uses as a stand-in for himself. The film presents Terry, in his progress from a deaf-and-dumb dockworker to a proud informer, not as a coward caving to government pressure and betraying his community but as a guilt-stricken man mustering up the courage to do the right thing. “Conscience,” he puts it. “That stuff can drive ya nuts.”
At the film’s beginning, Terry, like Rick in Casablanca (1942), won’t stick his neck out for anybody else. When Terry is asked “whose side he’s with,” he shrugs and says, “I’m with me. I’m with Terry Malloy.” The words suggest that the only rationale for not informing is selfishness, or worse: The deaf-and-dumb behavior of the waterfront workers as a whole is portrayed as the product of collective fear and cowardice, not solidarity.
Kazan, being an intelligent propagandist, doesn’t give an ounce of credence to the thought that informing might actually be wrong. In fact, in the film’s first act, a lovable priest named Father Barry—the story’s voice of reason—gives an impassioned moral defense of snitching. “There’s one thing we’ve got in this country,” he says, “and that’s ways of fighting back. Getting the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right, against what you know is wrong. What’s ‘ratting’ to them is telling the truth to you!” The naked earnestness of Kazan’s apologia is actually moving: There’s something valiant about dying on a hill that nobody else is willing to defend.
But those moments of sincerity are undercut by the film’s deceptiveness. Kazan’s real-life, complicated relationship with his peers is carefully scrubbed clean of any nuance, converted into a simple, black-and-white morality play for purposes of persuasion. Midway through the film, Johnny and his goons murder Terry’s brother Charley in cold blood; that’s what finally spurs a furious Terry to give testimony to the crime commission. Charley’s murder makes Terry’s decision to snitch an easy one—but for Kazan, it was, as he said, a “difficult decision.” In real life, the Communists that Kazan ratted out—including the great playwright Clifford Odets, with whom he was close friends—hadn’t physically or economically harmed Kazan or anybody else; their crimes were purely ideological. It wasn’t the “ritualistic Left,” before which Kazan said he wouldn’t crawl, that threatened him; it was HUAC that applied the pressure.
Thus, On the Waterfront is a deeply flawed film. At its best, it’s one of the boldest statements ever made by a filmmaker working within the Hollywood system, an impassioned defense of an arguably immoral action. A contrarian may find this fascinating as well as moving, but the loftiness is tarnished by the sophistry in the movie’s methods of persuasion. Kazan—like Schulberg, who also testified before HUAC—carefully smooths out the wrinkles in his applied ethics. He isn’t brave enough to present his polemic as what it really is.
After Terry testifies to the crime commission, he is shunned by the dockworkers and barred from ever working the docks again. Johnny, with his finger pointed and blood in his eye, accuses him: “You ratted on us, Terry!” If you close your eyes and listen to Terry’s response, you can almost hear Kazan himself:
From where you stand, maybe. But I’m standing over here now! I was ratting on myself all them years, and I didn’t even know it. You think you’re God almighty, but you know what you are? You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinking mug … and I’m glad what I done to you!
The dock workers are watching in stunned silence. He turns to them: “You hear that? I’m glad what I done!”
Here the film is at its most fearless: Kazan is sticking to his guns, convinced of his own rightness even when all his friends and companions have left his side. If Terry’s story had ended there, it would be admirable—but it doesn’t end there. After Terry is beaten to a pulp by Johnny and his goons, the dockworkers realize they have been stiffed, exploited. They unite in solidarity with Terry against the crooked union. When Johnny orders them back to work, they ignore him. A bruised and battered Terry then leads the workers into the dock warehouse, shutting the doors and leaving Johnny standing alone in the cold, shouting threats into the void. This is an essentially dishonest conclusion, a betrayal of the film’s warts-and-all individualism. Terry must do the right thing, even if it means total ostracism—but, conveniently, when he does the right thing, he’s not ostracized after all.
The public did not rally behind Kazan after his HUAC testimony. His reputation was badly tarnished for decades afterward. In 1982 Orson Welles said in an interview, “Elia Kazan is a traitor. He is a man who sold to McCarthy all his companions at a time when he could continue to work in New York at high salary, and having sold all his people to McCarthy, he then made a film called On the Waterfront, which was a celebration of the informer.” When Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, hundreds of picketers surrounded the event; many actors in the audience refused to applaud. Justified or unjustified, Kazan truly was a man against the world, though he couldn’t bear portraying himself that way. Terry Malloy, man of the people, was a fantasy.
Abe Callard is a Chicago-based writer and filmmaker.
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