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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, Apr 2 1997
On the Waterfront
At the age of 29, dockworker Terry Malloy feels that his best years are already behind him. He's still the good-looking bad boy who antagonizes the nuns in school, but his expressions have taken on an overcast quality -- moody and potentially volatile. When he laughs, it's like a sunburst through storm clouds. Something in his life has stunned him. He's been a boxer but he isn't brain-damaged, no matter how hard the union goons laugh when he thumbs through their take and loses count. What he's got is a hard-knocks malaise, an instinctual withdrawal from the compromise and corruption that he's sunk into.

This classic American movie character, created by writer Budd Schulberg and actor Marlon Brando, is the hero of Elia Kazan's 1954 chef-d'oeuvre, On the Waterfront. This celebrated and vilified muckraker trains a harsh spotlight on the crooked union bosses whose strong-arm tactics force stevedores to beg and bid for their jobs. Terry Malloy becomes a hero because he breaks the longshoremen's code of silence: When implicated in one mob-style murder and brought face to face with another, he refuses to remain "deef and dumb." Of course, that part of the story line can be interpreted as a defense of Kazan's own real-life decision to name names before the HUAC.

But Kazan and company created a marvelous protagonist with a transcendent integrity -- Malloy anchors the movie even when it operates on the simplistic level of Right (a fighting priest played by Karl Malden) triumphing over Might (boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb). Before he realizes that he can lead a life beyond the control of the corrupt union, Terry is an arrested adolescent, living for jokes and thrills and camaraderie. His brother, Charley the Gent (Rod Steiger), who answers to Johnny Friendly, embodies a glib maturity that Terry sees through at the end (with the help of that sexiest of Nice Girls, Eva Marie Saint). Steiger is brilliant as Charley -- a cunning and finally poignant combination of phony propriety and genuine ruefulness. And Brando displays acting genius as Terry Malloy. He mixes an odd languor with physical menace, shadowy gestures with decisive actions, and his unconventional stop-and-go phrasing makes each line his own. The moviemakers had intended this child/thug to emerge as a socially conscious hero, but he's something both less and more. When Brando says, "I coulda been a contender," he speaks for a whole generation of rebels without causes.

-- Michael Sragow

On the Waterfront screens Wednesday through Sunday, April 2-6, at 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. as part of the "Black & White" series at the Red Vic, Haight & Clayton. There are additional shows Wednesday at 2 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 4:20 p.m. Tickets are $6; call 668-3994.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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