On The Waterfront (Best Picture, 1954)
I’ve said before that I prefer comedy to drama in general, but ON THE WATERFRONT is just one of those movies that totally deserves the Best Picture award.
Gritty and raw, ON THE WATERFRONT tackles the story of a mob-ruled “union” of longshoremen, the dockworkers who load and unload ships. The main character is Terry (Marlon Brando), a former boxer who has become a favorite of the mob boss, one Johnny Friendly. The film begins with Terry luring a man up to his building’s roof so that some of Friendly’s men can kill him for talking to the police about Friendly’s crimes. As the police begin to investigate the death, Terry falls for the dead man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint). The young woman and the passionate neighborhood priest, outraged by the labor abuses, push Terry to come forward and testify, which he eventually does after his own brother is murdered for refusing to kill him. Friendly is defeated, Terry is presumably successful (if he doesn’t die of a cerebral hemorrhage after the film ends, that is – what a beating!), and the union is set to function legally and fairly.
In some ways, this film is a stereotype of what the Academy tends to honor – full of rough truth and hard lives, troubled consciences and romantic upset. The black and white medium is especially effective, as these characters live in a very black-or-white world. You’re either with the mob (or silent about their actions) and therefore safe, or you’re with the police and therefore in serious danger of being brutally murdered. In a not-very-subtle-but-effective bit of symbolism, Terry raises pigeons. They’re apparently for racing, but the term “pigeon” is also used to denigrate someone who talks to the police. And yes, of course, Terry could have been a contender. It’s a gripping film, taught and well-edited. I highly recommend it.
Marty (Best Picture, 1955)
MARTY, starring the late Ernest Borgnine, has the distinction of being the shortest film (94 minutes) to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s a rather sweet slice-of-life film about two rather plain but nice people who manage to find each other and start a relationship. Marty is a butcher and the only one of a large Italian family who has yet to marry. Everyone he meets asks him when he’s going to be married – isn’t he ashamed that his younger siblings are all married first? One night he goes to a dance hall and meets a woman who’s been ditched by her blind date. They hit it off and spend hours walking around and talking about anything and everything. In spite of his mother’s discouraging comments (mostly focusing on the fact that Clara doesn’t look Italian) and his friends’ insulting remarks about Clara’s looks, Marty likes her and says that if they have enough good times together, he’ll get down on his knees and beg her to marry him.
It’s a sweet little film about very average people finding happiness. Every romantic comedy tries to do something similar, except in this case the people actually ARE average, rather than Hollywood-beautiful people pretending to be average. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are not excessively homely people, but they are neither of them models. As Marty remarks during the film, if two people get married, they’re planning to be together for a very long time, so the marriage should be based on more than looks.
MARTY was startling for me because it felt very much like a Woody Allen film. Less neurotic, less angsty, but the sense of dropping in on the middle of the story and the sheer amount of talking is very similar. Like Allen films and, well, real life, characters’ conversations are made up of personal anecdotes and everyday things, and the camera usually drops in mid-anecdote. The audience may take a minute to catch up to the film, but this style makes the film very intimate and very realistic. It truly feels related to the distinctive style of Woody Allen. I can’t help but wonder if MARTY was an influential film for Allen.
Up Next: Around the World In 80 Days (Best Picture, 1956) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (Best Picture, 1957)