One of the cool things about LAFF is that I get to catch up on old movies sometimes.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie nowadays without relating it to director Elia Kazan’s decision to name names for Joe McCarthy’s HUAC. Many see it as an apologia for his actions. There are lots of contemporary Hollywood figures who won’t applaud him — ironically, some of them have no moral problem cheering Roman Polanski’s Oscar win. Libertine offenses are less problematic than right-wing ones, perhaps.
My personal view is that many creative people are sons of bitches. If you’re going to dismiss any work of art made by someone who has done something you disapprove of, there are numerous examples more loathsome than Kazan. I own a CD of recordings by Charles Manson, for example.
I think Kazan should apologize to the people whose lives he ruined, especially now in retrospect that it’s pretty clear to most non-delusional beings that a handful of left-wing screenwriters were not any kind of threat to American security. Kazan has not apologized. Oh well. Hey, you or I might not have stood up to McCarthy either, but I would hope we might apologize later nonetheless.
I don’t see the film as a direct analogy either, though of course the director uses some of his personal experiences. I seriously doubt that Kazan thought the names he gave were of people who were morally equivalent to the mafia. Nonetheless, the movie does have a definite right-wing tilt, depicting unions as corrupt, and average working people as cowardly opportunists who only do the right thing when the church tells them to. However, it’s also based on true events about actual waterfront criminals, so people may be reading too much into the whole thing. Read the IMDB trivia page for a more full accounting.
Do the politics make it bad? Not at all. It’s a fictional story, not a soapbox. Marlon Brando’s Tommy Malloy is a naive ex-boxer working the New York docks, but as he gets deeper and deeper into union politics, he finds that the mob have taken over, and even finds himself being used as bait to lure an uncooperative coworker into a death trap.
Unmoved by the sermons of the local priest (Karl Malden), at least at first, he starts realizing he has to take a stand when he falls in love with the dead guy’s sister. Pussy is a powerful thing.
I have to say it took me a while to warm to Brando in this. Everyone else looks like a real blue-collar tough guy, and then here’s this movie star-looking fella in the midst of them, playing dumb. Eventually he wore me down and I bought it.
So anyway, the plot’s pretty simple. Tommy has to figure out whether he’ll testify against the criminals, one of whom is his brother(Rod Steiger). Because movies of the era tended not to be too unpredictable, you can probably figure out how things end, so the real question is whether the journey to get there is worthwhile. It is. It’s also surprisingly violent — I don’t remembere any other ’50s movies with as much onscreen blood (all Brando’s). The famous scene in the car where Brando gives his overquoted “contender” line builds great suspense, though I’m really surprised the “contender” bit is what people remember.
I was never bored while watching, and even though the general plot points are predictable, the way the final scene plays out isn’t exactly expected. Nicely done.