Sunday, August 10, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: On the Waterfront

The Set-Up: It's "THE Scene." The one people point to when they're talking about great scenes in the American Cinema. The pivotal talk in "On the Waterfront" between the brothers Malloy: Charley, mouth-piece for a crooked Union president, and his younger brother Terry--punch-drunk ex-prizefighter. Both are up to their necks in corruption, but Terry is closer to the street and has seen the damage the Union enforcers have inflicted in order to retain power. Especially when the brother of a girl he's interested in is killed by the mob--a killing he's implicit in. Now the bosses have doubts about Terry and they've told brother Charley that he has to discourage Terry from testifying before a grand jury or they're going to kill him. It's that simple. Charley has one cab-ride to do it. And if he doesn't do it, the Mob will kill Terry, and very probably him, too.

That's the scene. It's the point where Terry realizes that Charley, who has disappointed him in the past, may just lead him to be killed. It finally gets through Terry's gauzy skull that he's on his own...truly on his own...and that just doing the right thing isn't enough. It may be the only time that Charley's younger brother has the better of him, and the cab of the taxi reverberates with accusations and shame and with words that have probably been spoken for the first time. And Charley realizes how far he's dropped--he's nearly set-up his brother. He's drawn a gun on him. He's crossed the line that he can't ignore. And his kid brother is the one who points it out to him. And the fighter doesn't fight--his hands are open when he makes his case to the mob-lawyer, they're not knotted in fists. And by the end, both men are in the same spot, probably for the first time in their lives.

Put aside that Kazan's mob-story is an obfuscation of what he saw were the issues of his naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (admittedly, a huge issue to ignore--the script's writer, Budd Schulberg, also named names). And let's not look at Brando's so-often heralded Oscar-winning performance (also, admittedly, something too big to ignore).

Let's look at Rod Steiger's performance.

"Well, nobody ever stopped you from talkin', Charley." Terry's the younger, dumber brother of Charley Malloy, who was smart enough to go to law school, but dumb enough to go for the "short-end money" being a mouthpiece for the mob running the gambling and docks and anything worth having on the waterfront. Charley dresses smart, and in this conversation he uses every trick in the book to try and make Terry see things his way. Bribery. Compliments. Abuse. But Terry's got a thought in his head. And it involves a girl, and a priest, and his conscience. And now they're coming after him through his brother, the last line of defense. Charley even crosses the line threatening Terry with a gun, an act that shames Charley. An act that Terry can turn just by putting his hand in the way of the gun and turning it aside.

And as the two boys consider the place they've come to, where instead of fighting, Terry will turn the other cheek to the threats of his beloved brother, the "mouthpiece" becomes silent. He looks over at his younger brother, and looks at the top of his head--what he's looked at for so long as the eldest. Or maybe he's measuring him. As eldest, he's looked down at him most of his life, maybe he spent his youth watching--measuring--Terry's growth compared to his own. Then he tries the closer--affection, and his "big brother" status as the protector. But Terry is his own best witness, and counters Charley's argument devastatingly. Charley has no more arguments, and when he looks at Terry again, he sees him, not as his baby brother, but his own man. Then, he performs his last act as his older brother--the role of protector he erroneously thought he was--he gives Terry the gun he had pulled on him moments before. So, Terry can protect himself.

Then he takes one last look at the top of his head. Then lowers his gaze at the man Terry's made of himself. And they go their separate ways.

The least likely person has stopped Charley from talking.

The Scene: Mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is facing racketeering charges and one of the witnesses called to testify against him is the brother of his own lawyer, Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger). Johnny gives Charley an ultimatum: shut Terry (Marlon Brando) up, or they're both dead. So Charley creates a ruse to try and convince his brother one last time...or take him to be killed.

Wow.

Action!


Terry: Hi, Charley. I'm glad you stopped by for me. I've been wanting to talk to you.
Charley: Yeah, sure, kid.
Cabby (off-camera): Where to?


Charley: Go to 437 River St. I'll tell you where to stop.
Terry: I thought we was going to the Garden...

Charley: We are, but I want to cover a bet on the way over. Besides, this'll give us a chance to talk.

Terry: Well, nobody ever stopped you from talking, Charley.

Charley: The grapevine says that you got a subpoena. You know, the guys know you're not a cheese-eater. They think you shouldn't be on the outside so much, but a little on the inside. I have a few things for you at the docks.

Terry: A steady job, a couple extra potatoes, that's all I want.
Charley: Sure, that's great when you're a kid, but you're getting on, you're pushing thirty, slugger. You know it's time to think about getting some ambition.

Terry: I always figured I'd live a little bit longer without it.
Charley: Maybe. Look...There's a boss loader slot that's open on the new pier we're opening up. It pays six cents on every hundred pounds that goes in and every hundred pounds that goes out and you don't have to lift a finger. That's $2-3-400 a week. $400 a week just for the openers.

Terry: I get all that dough for not doing nothing?
Charley: You don't do anything and you don't say anything. You understand?
Terry: There's more to this than I thought, Charley. I'm telling you there's a lot more.

Charley: You're not thinking of testifying against some people that we might know?
Terry: I don't know, Charley. That's what I want to talk to you about.
Charley: Listen, Terry, do you know how much the piers are worth that we control through the local? Do you think Johnny's going to jeopardise the whole set-up for one rubber-lipped, ex-tanker who's walking on his heels? What the(a car-horn covers the obscenity).... Terry: I could've been a lot better.
Charley: The point is we don't have much time!
Terry: I'm telling you, I haven't made up my mind yet!

Charley: Well, make up your mind before we get to 437 River Sreet!

Terry: Before we get to where, Charley?

Terry: Before we get to where, Charley?

(Charley pulls a gun on Terry)


Charley: Listen, Terry! Take the job, no questions! Take it! Terry, take this job, please!

Terry: Charlie....Charlie...

Terry: Wow...

Charley: Look, kid...

Charley: How much do you weigh, slugger? When you weighed 168 pounds, you were beautiful.

Charley: You could have been another Billy Conn.

Charley: Then that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Terry: It wasn't him, Charley. It was you. Remember that night in the Garden? You came down to my dressing room and said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson.

Terry: 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 the ball park and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville!

Terry: You was my brother, Charley. You should have looked out for me a little bit. You should've taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take dives for the short-end money.

Charley: I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don't understand, I could have had class!

Terry: I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody!.

Terry: Instead of a bum! Which is what I am. Let's face it.

Terry: It was you, Charley.

Charley: Okay. Okay. I'll tell them...I couldn't find you. Ten to one they won't believe me.

Charley: Here, you take this...

Charley: You're going to need it.

Charley: You, you pull over.



"On the Waterfront"

Words by Budd Schulberg

Pictures by Boris Kaufman and Elia Kazan

"On the Waterfront" is available on DVD from Sony Home Video.






3 comments:

Walaka said...

Y'know, it may be cliched to think that this is one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema, but watching it again makes me realize that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Well, that's the thing about cliches--they wouldn't be cliches if there wasn't an oft-repeated ring of truth to them.

But I know what you mean--why THIS scene? It's two guys in half a cab talking.

But you look at it close-up, with everything being said and at stake, it's really an amazing scene because it's these two really good actors making the most of really good material with A LOT OF SUB-TEXT. Sub-text doesn't get used much these days except for the broadest of points being made at the end of films--that's a gross generalization, but you get the idea.

Plus, post-"Godfather," with family lines being crossed right and left, ala Cain and Abel, this scene where blood trumps saving one's own skin seems all the more special.

You can't beat Brando and Steiger together in their prime. You just can't.

And the voice of the cabby? Elia Kazan...breaking Union rules. *snicker*

Beth said...

Best movie quote ever: I could have been a contender!