Elia Kazan's “On the Waterfront” is one such movie.
This is, of course, an observation made by countless others but it's one that bears repeating, although I suppose I'm mostly making it to myself. My point is that this is one of those classic movies that I'm both embarrassed to have taken so long to get around to watching and impressed by how well it holds up in the face of such universal praise.
The film follows Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a kid with a once-promising boxing career cut short due to a fixed fight. Now he's in the pocket of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a corrupt union boss who controls the workers at the local shipyard. He's assured Johnny that he's “D and D” (deaf and dumb) when it comes to the death of Joey Doyle, a fellow worker who was about to testify about the corruption running rampant in the union.
However, with the spurring of a Catholic priest (Karl Malden) and Joey's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), whom he falls in love with, Terry begins to suffer a crisis of conscience about his loyalty to his benefactor and doing the right thing.
Brando gets the most attention from the film, and for good reason. His work with Kazan was a huge factor in helping to change the way actors performed in film and his work as Terry feels even more involved and complete than in “Streetcar.” It's a bravado bit of acting and is rightly praised. It's really that good.
That said, while it's Brando's bits that get quoted most often, it's the speeches from Malden's Father Berry that I loved most. He's the unsung backbone of this group of stevedores (and by extension, the film), the only one who thinks it possible to stand up to the greed that keeps them in their place. Father Berry defies the typical passive portrayal of priests (or really any religiously-inclined character) in movies and frames him as a man of action, willing to stand with anyone brave enough to defy their master. It's not often you find a movie with a priest you want to stand up and fight with, but Malden's performance provides just that and in turn delivers the soul of the film.
Next week I'll take a look at the film that introduced one of cinema's immortal icons to the silver screen, “East of Eden.”