Blog Directory CineVerse: Escape from Palookaville

Escape from Palookaville

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Few films come as highly praised and audience beloved as "On the Waterfront." Last night, CineVerse met to hold up the magnifying glass on this 60-year-old gem. Here are the facets we observed:


·       It, along with previous recent movies by Kazan and his Actors Studio thespians like Brando, exemplified a new era of acting that was more emotionally plausible and realistic—a style that is both “physical and introspective and distinctly more nuanced, immediate, unpredictable—more truthful—than most acting that preceded it. It’s the style of poetic realism that informs the great performance,” wrote essayist Michael Almereyda.
·       It woke Americans up to the unfair conditions suffered by longshoremen working on American docks where corrupt leaders and politicians prevent them from earning an honest wage and practice racketeering and extortion; the screenplay is based on a New York Sun series of expose articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1949.
·       Unlike prior films noir, crime thrillers, message pictures and heavy dramas, this one benefitted from hyper-realism in its look and feel: it’s shot in various real locations in and around Hoboken, N.J., including the docks, bars, rooftops, alleys and tenement dwellings; it’s filmed during cold weather, so we actually see the cold vapor breath trails coming from actors’ mouths; it features handheld camera techniques for heightened verite style filmmaking; the nighttime scenes are not day for night but night for night, although expressive horror/noir shadows are often used.
·       It’s also a topical political film that was personally relevant to director Kazan’s life: in 1952, he agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and name names of friends and colleagues affiliated with the Communist party, an extremely controversial move that haunted Kazan the rest of his life, but that he justified as the right thing to do at the time. He saw himself as personified in the character of Terry, who also has to testify against oppressive forces to do the right thing. It’s debatable how these two things can be equitable, but Kazan nevertheless envisioned himself as a martyr-like outsider who’s forced to make a moral choice, like Terry. Many saw Kazan as ratting on friends who got blacklisted simply because of their political beliefs so that Kazan could continue to work in Hollywood—which he did with much success.

·       Making the right ethical choice: Terry is caught in the middle between two opposing forces—the morally righteous duo of the priest and Edie on one side, and the cruel, manipulative thugs led by Johnny Friendly on the other. He must decide whether to protect the evil status quo or inform on them to aid the cause of their exploited workers.
·       The corrupting nature of power: Johnny Friendly is depicted as having a tough childhood, but his lust for power has stripped him of any kindness, grace or humility. Even his overlord, Mr. Upstairs, doesn’t hesitate to drop Johnny when Johnny is in trouble.
·       Redemption: this is ultimately the story about a troubled young sinner who has a chance to do the right thing and redeem his self-respect, dignity and soul. This theme ties in nicely with the backstory that Terry was a prizefighter, one who “could have been a contender,” but lost his chance; this represents his second chance, the ability to fight the mob bosses and stand up for the little guy.
·       Sacrifice, martyrdom and faith: Terry must make a sacrifice and risk his life and those around him by choosing to inform on the criminals and trust in the intangible power of faith espoused by Edie and Father Barry (which is in contrast to the very tangible allure of money and power wielded by Friendly). Joey paid the price earlier by being killed after informing, and he serves as a Christ-like figure when we see his body cradled in Edie’s hands. Other religious motifs and imagery are used throughout the film, including the shot of Father Barry ascending from the cargo hold with Dugan’s corpse like he’s rising to heaven, and Charlie’s body hanging slumped and dead on a hook, resembling a dead Christ-like figure.

·       The Hudson River, which stands as a demarcation line between the exploited workers and the majestic Manhattan skyline beyond—a line that they cannot cross due to their symbolic slavery.
·       Gloves, which are dropped and/or removed by Edie and Charlie, leaving exposed hands that represent their vulnerability. Terry playing with and putting on Edie’s dropped glove, while a subtle move, indicates an intimate, sexual, harmless as well as aggressive gesture.
·       Pigeons, which are identified with Terry and vice versa—Terry wants to live free and simple like them, but they’re also vulnerable to the hawks he mentions to Edie; Terry can also be viewed as a “stool pigeon” by the mob.
·       Hooks, which are used by the longshoremen in their work but which signify the heavy, dangerous weights that hang over them literally and, in the form of Friendly’s thugs, figuratively. Hooks also play into the talon-like imagery of the hawks that endanger pigeons that Terry mentions.
·       The rooftop, which stands as a sanctuary and retreat from the oppressive world below and a step closer to aspiring to new moral, religious and personal heights that Terry, even subconsciously, yearns for. Joey was a past denizen of the rooftop, and became a victim because of it.

·       Metropolis
·       Force of Evil
·       Raging Bull
·       To Kill a Mockingbird
·       Gran Torino
·       Hoffa
·       The Yards

·       A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Viva Zapata!
  • Baby Doll
  • A Face in the Crowd
  • East of Eden
  • Splendor in the Grass
·       Gentleman’s Agreement

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