Analysis of ‘On the Waterfront’

On the Waterfront is a 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a story of his. It stars Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint, with Martin Balsam (uncredited), Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle (uncredited) in minor roles.

The film received twelve Academy Awards nominations, of which it won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Director for Kazan, and Best Supporting Actress for Saint. It is considered one of the best films of all time, ranking at #8 (later #19) on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here.

This is a film about the exploitation of workers; but in this case, instead of just being exploited by capitalists, these longshoremen are exploited, and downright bullied, by the very people who should be helping them–their union.

Corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb) has connections with the mafia; as I’ve argued in many other blog posts, the mafia can be seen to represent capitalists, so Friendly and his muscle are class traitors representing not their workers, but capital. Such betrayal has been common throughout the history of class war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, manifesting itself not only in corrupt union bosses, but in left-leaning political parties that make concessions to capital and stave off revolution.

Many sit on the fence, unsure of whether to commit to the workers’ struggle or to sell out to the ruling class. Friendly and his muscle have chosen which side of the fence to be on, and Terry Malloy (Brando) has been leaning towards their side…but a girl is about to make him go the other way.

In fact, speaking of selling out and being a class traitor, as is well known, Kazan himself was guilty of ratting out his fellow leftists to the HUAC. Indeed, before I carry on with my analysis of this film, I must be blunt in my assessment of Kazan: for all of his talents, he was–like Orwell–a snitch and a reactionary piece of shit.

By unrepentantly ratting out eight former Group Theatre members who he said had been communists (as he himself had once been), including Clifford Odets, Kazan doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. He ruined these people’s careers when a blacklisting of himself (via “d and d”) wouldn’t have harmed his career all that badly (he could have continued work in the theatre in New York).

When Kazan received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, some in the Hollywood glitterati refused to applaud. Now, these were bourgeois liberals who disapproved of him, so that should tell you what real leftists should think of him!

With all of this justified condemnation of Kazan, you, Dear Reader, must be wondering why I’m doing an analysis of one of his films, implying an endorsement of what he believed. After all, On the Waterfront was his attempt at justifying his squealing. I will argue instead that, in spite of Kazan’s conscious refusal to admit to any wrongdoing, his direction (and the writing of Schulberg, who was also an ex-communist and a fink to the HUAC…as was Cobb) unconsciously reflects his conflict and guilt over what he did, expressed through unconscious defence mechanisms, including rationalization, projection, reaction formation, denial, and turning against oneself.

Kazan’s guilt slips out in parapraxes in the film, as for example in the way the villain is named Johnny Friendly, just as Kazan, Schulberg, and Cobb were friendly with the HUAC…and as mentioned above, Cobb plays Johnny Friendly.

Kazan rationalized his guilt by imagining he was helping protect the US from ‘the Red menace,’ which I’ll bet he imagined Friendly and his corrupt union thugs to be representing. Indeed, Arthur Miller, the writer of the original version of the script (named The Hook) was asked by Harry Cohn to make the antagonists communists instead of a corrupt union, something Miller refused to do; he later refused to rewrite the script after learning of Kazan’s testimony for the HUAC.

It’s best that Friendly and his muscle be taken literally, as actual corrupt union thugs; or they could be seen to represent the anti-communist left of which Kazan himself was so obviously a part…and who should be ratted on—exposed–for the traitors to the working class that they are.

This leads us to Kazan’s next handy defence mechanism: projection. He projected his own betrayal of the working class onto those who he imagined to be the betrayers–the American Communists of which he had once been a member, then grew disenchanted with; later, he came to dislike the Stalin-led USSR, claiming the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a legitimate reason for his disillusionment, instead of coming to understand the political pressures that led to the USSR’s agreeing to the pact.

By imagining the communists to be the bad guys in the Cold War, Kazan rationalized that ratting them out was the noble thing to do, something he dramatized through Terry Malloy’s shouting, “I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I’m glad what I done!” to Friendly after informing the police of his guilt in the murder of Joey Doyle (played by Ben Wagner). On the other hand, going “d and d,” or “deaf and dumb,” is considered cowardly in the film. Not informing is represented as cowardly and weak: this is Kazan making use of reaction formation; oh, it’s so cowardly not to talk! No, Mr. Kazan, it would have been brave not to talk.

Kazan wasn’t putting himself in danger of a group of Soviet agents abducting him and throwing him in the Gulag for finking on Odets et al. He wasn’t threatening high-ranking members of the Communist Party; he was selling out fellow writers and actors, people with little political power, people he should have thought of as comrades. The American capitalists were the ones with the power, and Kazan knew that all too well.

He could use his film to deny his guilt all he wanted, but it was true: he was a snitch. Deep down in his unconscious, Kazan knew he was guilty, so the scene in which Friendly’s men beat Terry Malloy half to death can be seen as a fantasy dramatizing Kazan’s turning against himself, him taking on the punishment to assuage his guilt, since he saw himself as personified in his hero, Terry.

When we see On the Waterfront in this light, we can begin to appreciate the film’s artistic and dramatic virtues on their own terms and in spite of its director’s moral vices. Yes, it’s a film made by a class traitor about class treason; but instead of exculpating Kazan, as he’d consciously intended it to do, the film displays his betrayal of the left, however unwittingly and unconsciously. For as much as Kazan would have liked to have seen himself in Terry, his real nature is shown in Johnny Friendly, who’s friendly with the capitalist mafia, not with the ‘Stalinists.’

There’s a considerable amount of Christian symbolism in this movie, much of which is in the service of trying to justify Kazan’s naming of names. An example of this symbolism is a pigeon motif (i.e., ‘stool pigeon’), or the idea of a canary that can sing, but can’t fly (Joey Doyle); these birds can be seen to represent the Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto baptized Christ (Mark 1:10).

Joey Doyle is tricked by Terry into leaving the safety of his apartment and going up to the roof to receive a lost bird of his from Terry, who claims he’s found it. Instead, Friendly’s men throw Joey from the roof to his death. Terry, imagining they were “only going to lean on” Joey, is already feeling a pang of conscience, as if falling Joey (and not the bird) were the Holy Spirit descending on Terry, the Christ-figure of the film.

Joey’s sister, Edie (played by aptly-surnamed Saint), being pretty in a wholesome way, is the Mary-figure of the film, since it is she, in her righteous anger over the murder of her brother, who inspires Terry to do the right thing and stand up to Friendly. She symbolically gives birth to the Christ in Terry by arousing his guilt over the matter.

Edie, in her innocence, has never drunk beer before, an inexperience symbolic of virginity (i.e., the Virgin Mary). Terry, growing romantically interested in her, takes her to a bar and buys her some beer; but when her suspicions grow that Terry knows about the circumstances leading to her brother’s murder, yet he won’t talk, she leaves without drinking the beer, retaining her virginal innocence. Her piquing of his guilt is causing his ‘Virgin birth.’

Father Barry (Malden) adds to the Christian symbolism by saying to the longshoremen that each killing of those who stand up to Friendly (Doyle and Kayo Dugan [Pat Henning]) is “a crucifixion.” This is significant when we come to the beating of Terry that almost kills him, yet he rises up, is ‘resurrected,’ if you will, and saves the workers from Friendly in this act, not in his squealing.

Terry’s Christ isn’t that of the Gospels, in which Christ is the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time (John 1:1); nor is he the Christ of the Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:20-25, and Luke 1:35), nor even the Christ of His baptism (Mark 1:10), on whom the Spirit descended like a dove, and God says, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Terry’s Christ is that of Paul‘s Epistle to the Romans, in which He is declared to be the Son of God through the power of the Resurrection, but born of the seed of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3-4).

Put another way, Terry doesn’t save the workers through his word (i.e., his squealing on Friendly). He doesn’t save the workers merely through Edie’s influence; he wasn’t born a good man–he’s done many bad things in his life, and he’s had to redeem himself through his struggle and suffering, and rising up again after his beating–his own “crucifixion.”

The priest would have Terry help the workers through non-violent means, but this of course will never work. In Friendly’s bar and brandishing a gun after his brother, Charley (Steiger) has been killed by Friendly’s men, Terry is approached by Father Barry, who’d have him get rid of the gun and fight back by naming Friendly to the police. A former boxer, Terry tells the priest to “Go to hell!”, and is punched out by him; this parapraxis shows that even Kazan knew that violence is sometimes necessary, that turning the other cheek isn’t good enough.

Indeed, Father Barry’s not wanting Terry to fight back with violence, an unpleasant but necessary ingredient of socialist revolution, is analogous to having Terry ‘turn the other cheek.’ Another turning the other cheek, of sorts, was required of him by Charley when Friendly fixed Terry’s boxing match against Wilson. They wanted Terry to let Wilson, a man he could easily beat, win the fight.

In all of these things we see Kazan doing a kind of Freudian slip, revealing his real motives. Ratting on fellow leftists to the HUAC was a kind of turning the other cheek to the capitalist class. As a result of finks and traitors like Kazan, the working class has to give up on their dreams of bettering their lives, just as Terry has given up on his dreams of being a prize fighter.

Terry is a “bum” because he caved in to these phoney leftists, his corrupt, mafia-linked union. Friendly et al do not represent communists, as faux leftists like Kazan, Cobb, and Schulberg would have us believe; the corrupt union represents those three men and their loose-lipped ilk. It wasn’t the communists, Kazan; it was you.

Recall when Terry finally tells Edie what he knows about Joey’s death; it is significant that we can’t really hear his words. This not hearing the confession suggests that a part of Kazan’s unconscious didn’t want to talk, to name names, but the unwillingness has been displaced to confessing to her, just as Kazan didn’t want to confess his wrongdoing to his fellow leftists, but rather remain impenitent until his death. This scene can be seen thus as another Freudian slip of Kazan’s, for deep down, he knew, but wouldn’t consciously admit, that his squealing was a shameful thing to do.

Even if we were to ignore Kazan’s subtext about justifying being friendly with the HUAC, if we were to imagine Terry’s ratting out of Friendly as only representative of speaking out against corrupt unions, such talk is hardly a substitute for revolution. Lots of left-wing media (TruthOut, MintPress News, the Jacobin, the WSWS, DemocracyNow!, the Guardian, CounterPunch, etc.) exposes the crimes of the ruling class (and many of those just mentioned, among others, are guilty of being compromised by liberalism, Zionism, social democracy, and Trotskyism in a way comparable to Friendly’s being compromised by the mob). I write about capitalist crimes…but it’s all just writing.

The only real change to improve people’s lives is through revolution and the building of socialism. Raising awareness of the injustices caused by capitalism is a necessary, but insufficient, condition. Complaining to the bourgeois government, as Terry does in his testimony, and expecting that government to make reforms and nothing else, are typical tactics of liberals and social democrats. Committed socialists want more than that: we want to smash the entire system and replace it with something of lasting worth for workers.

This is why Terry’s testimony may hurt Friendly, but it doesn’t ultimately stop him at the end, as even Kazan and Schulberg have to acknowledge in their story. Friendly and his men have to put away their guns and be “a law-abidin’ union,” but they can still bully the longshoremen. Friendly just has to be patient and ride out all this pressure he’s getting from the police; once he’s off “the hot seat,” he’ll be back to his old dirty tricks.

An analogy can be made here between Friendly’s temporary capitulation to the police and the welfare capitalism of 1945-1973, meant to appease workers and dissuade them from adopting the Marxist-Leninist threat to capital that existed in the USSR, the Soviet Bloc, Mao’s China, the DPRK, North Vietnam, and Cuba. If the Western working class could be reconciled to capitalism by making it more comfortable, while the ruling class continued to loot the Third World and sabotage and undo the socialist states, then when those states were dissolved in the late 80s/early 90s, welfare capitalism would be replaced with neoliberalism.

That the anti-communist left helped the capitalists in their machinations against the global poor is what I mean by class treason, and Kazan and Schulberg were a part of that.

No, the only way to defeat Friendly and his thugs is through force…and solidarity among the longshoremen, with bruised and beaten Terry; and even Kazan and Schulberg knew this. Hence, I consider this climactic ending to be yet another parapraxis, or Freudian slip, on the moviemakers’ part, revealing that revolution, not ratting, is how you help the working class.

After Terry’s nonsense speech about being glad about ratting, his real fight with Friendly begins…an actual fistfight that makes nonsense out of Father Barry’s wish that Terry turn the other cheek and embrace the uselessness of non-violence. We can’t overthrow the capitalist class by asking them nicely to step aside. A revolution is not a dinner party.

The bloody beating Terry gets, which almost kills him, is a symbolic crucifixion, to recall Father Barry’s words. Terry’s getting back up on his feet is his resurrection, so to speak, and these heroic actions are what get the longshoremen to stand by him–just as the Church believed in Christ through His Passion and resurrection, not merely through His sermons.

Similarly, just as the New Testament writers warned against following a false Christ, or believing in false prophets and deceivers, so do Kazan and Schulberg–in spite of themselves–warn against following false socialists like Friendly. The media publications of the faux left, the anti-communist left, mix truth with falsehoods, as this movie does by mixing the legitimate struggle for workers’ rights with rationalizations for squealing against communists. When reading such writing, as with watching this film, one must have the wisdom to separate the leftist wheat from the chaff.

Remember, talk is cheap.

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