Blog Directory CineVerse: May 2024

A comedic force that still blows us away today

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Is silent comedy genius Buster Keaton indirectly responsible for giving the world Mickey Mouse? Probably not, but his 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. certainly inspired Disney to create Steamboat Willie, released later that year, which marked the official debut of that then soon-to-be-world-famous cartoon rodent.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Steamboat Bill, Jr., conducted last week, click here.

Mickey aside, Steamboat Bill Jr. ranks high among Keaton’s filmography. Co-directed by Charles Reisner and Keaton himself, who also served as the producer, the feature tells the story of William "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Ernest Torrence), a gruff steamboat captain eagerly anticipating the arrival of his son (Keaton), whom he hasn't seen in years. He hopes his offspring will be a rugged man capable of helping him compete against a rival steamboat operator. However, Bill Jr. turns out to be a slight, effete college boy who is not cut out for the rough life of a steamboat operator. The film follows their relationship as Bill Jr. tries to prove himself to his father, culminating in a significant part of the plot where the former rescues the latter along with girlfriend Kitty (Marion Byron) during a fierce storm, showcasing Keaton's signature physical comedy.

Keaton was famous for playing a straight-faced, unflappable underdog character who remains composed and persistent despite chaotic situations. What set Keaton, known as “the Great Stone Face,” apart from his peers is that he utilized elaborate and hazardous stunt work, performing all of his stunts himself and often doubling for some of his actors. His films—Steamboat Bill, Jr. included—typically offer a well-balanced blend of action, comedy, romance, and historical epic elements. The brisk pacing of his action and stunts, combined with tight direction, ensures the stories in his features progress smoothly and engagingly.

The film includes one of the most famous scenes in cinema history, where the facade of a building falls around Keaton, who survives by standing perfectly in the window's precise spot. Research shows he used an authentic two-ton building façade and no photographic or magician’s deception to realize this, the most famous stunt of his career.

This shot is part of the movie’s standout scene: the cyclone sequence, which occurs over the final 14 minutes. Debatably, this extended final act of the film is more remarkable for its practical effects and risky physical feats than its amusing bits. Keaton, who meticulously planned and performed his own stunts, was suspended by a cable from a crane that flung him around as if he were flying for the cyclone scene. The dramatic sequence, featuring breakaway street sets and six powerful Liberty-motor wind machines, required an additional $25,000. This cost alone amounted to one-third of the film's entire budget, which was estimated to be between $300,000 and over $400,000. The scale and execution of the cyclone sequence were exceptional for its era, highlighting Keaton's dedication to authenticity and physical comedy.

TCM’s John Miller and Felicia Feaster remarked about Steamboat Bill, Jr.: “The film also highlights Keaton's mastery of composition. He favored the long shot for clarity, to firmly set the elements of the scene in the viewer's mind. Typically, such elements were the little guy (Keaton) set against the larger forces of machines (steamboat, locomotive, hot air balloon, etc.) or nature (cyclone, raging river, rock slide, etc.) in a realistic and defined setting. Keaton economically establishes the workings of the besetting forces, then places himself and the camera for maximum impact. It is by conscious design, not accident, that images from Keaton's films are so iconic. Keaton is always a figure in motion and he is best enjoyed that way, yet his compositions are so pleasing that stills and frame blow-ups from his movies also have power and resonance.”

Many of the sight gags and humorous bits still land with impressive comedic force today, although arguably we don’t start getting to the funny business until just before Keaton’s character enters the narrative, roughly six minutes into the runtime. Arguably, the film isn’t consistently laugh-worthy throughout, and there are stretches where a bit more levity could have been infused.

Viewed through a 2024 lens, the picture reveals the strong patriarchal values of the time, when male characters in movies were expected to throw a punch in protest, act manly and macho, and respect their fathers. The dynamics between Steamboat Bill and his offspring offer a cinematically exaggerated but still antiquatedly semi-accurate sociocultural depiction of familial relationships.

Like Chaplin, Lloyd, and other contemporary geniuses of silent comedy, Keaton regularly incorporated sight gags, slapstick, and humorous chases throughout his filmography. Both Keaton and Chaplin were not only stars but also writers and directors of their own films. Each portrayed underdog characters, with Keaton often donning a pork pie hat and Chaplin a bowler hat. They expanded the formula of simple silent films into more epic narratives, as seen in the expansive scope of Keaton’s The General and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Both were meticulous craftsmen, carefully planning and choreographing their scenes in advance. Their work heavily relied on perfect timing to achieve comedic and stunt success.

However, Keaton was a much more acrobatic comedian and physical risk-taker in his stunt work than Chaplin. The authenticity of the mise-en-scène is evident in Keaton films, with more realistic props, locations, backgrounds, and careful attention to period detail than movies by Chaplin and other peers that often used more stylized or abstract sets.

Roger Ebert always favored Keaton over Chaplin and Lloyd, opining: “The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster. I define courage as Hemingway did: "Grace under pressure." In films that combined comedy with extraordinary physical risks, Buster Keaton played a brave spirit who took the universe on its own terms, and gave no quarter… His films avoid the pathos and sentiment of the Chaplin pictures, and usually feature a jaunty young man who sees an objective and goes after it in the face of the most daunting obstacles. Buster survives tornadoes, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders and falls from great heights, and never pauses to take a bow: He has his eye on his goal. And his movies, seen as a group, are like a sustained act of optimism in the face of adversity; surprising how, without asking, he earns our admiration and tenderness.”

Similar works

  • Modern Times
  • The Keaton shorts One Week and The Boat, and his features Our Hospitality and The Navigator

Other feature films starring and directed by Buster Keaton

  • Three Ages
  • Our Hospitality
  • Sherlock Jr.
  • The Navigator
  • Seven Chances
  • Go West
  • Battling Butler
  • The General
  • College
  • The Cameraman


Oh, my--have you seen Omar?

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Since the terrible events of October 7, 2023, it’s difficult to try and examine the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of recent cinema. But one film that emerges as a touchstone on this topic is Omar, a Palestinian drama directed by Hany Abu-Assad (who is of both Arabic and Israeli descent, raised in Nazareth) that debuted in 2013 and earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This picture—starring Adam Bakri in the titular role along with Leem Lubany, Samer Bisharat, Waleed Zuaiter, and Eyad Hourani—aims to illuminate the Palestinian viewpoint on life amid occupation, delving into themes of love, betrayal, and resistance.

The storyline centers on Omar, a young Palestinian baker who regularly scales the West Bank separation wall to visit his love interest, Nadia, the sister of childhood friend Tarek. Engaged in resistance against the Israeli occupation, Omar and his companions face turmoil after a fatal attack on an Israeli soldier. Arrested and pressured into collaboration by Israeli authorities, Omar grapples with mounting suspicions among his inner circle. Caught between allegiance to his cause and safeguarding loved ones, the film chronicles Omar's journey navigating the intricate dynamics of trust, betrayal, and loyalty amid the ongoing conflict.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Omar, conducted last week, click here.

Omar lingers long in the imagination after the end credits roll because it consistently upends our expectations, throwing us curveballs and sliders. Consider how, each time Omar climbs over the barricade wall separating the territories, we anticipate that he’s perhaps on a dangerous mission; instead, he’s often simply attempting to visit his girlfriend. Or ponder our surprise when we learn (SPOILERS AHEAD) that Omar is to be released not once but twice from custody, not to mention the serious love triangle subplot that emerges toward the end involving a pregnancy we eventually learn is a lie or the cat-and-mouse games played between Amjad and Omar to save their skins or protect Nadia. Agent Rami isn’t the outright villain we thought he’d be, either, showing shades of humanity and compassion we didn’t see coming. And we don’t get any hot and heavy passion scene or sex sequence featuring Omar and Nadia.

The movie isn’t preachy or severely biased toward the Palestinian side. While we see how Omar is humiliated by Israeli police and tortured by Israeli interrogators, we also witness the three friends involved in a random and senseless act of killing an Israeli soldier. We also empathize a bit with agent Rami in a brief scene depicting a minor familial problem. Additionally, none of the major characters are motivated by religious beliefs or a faction like Hamas.

Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir wrote: “Abu-Assad never editorializes about the morality or usefulness of the idiotic scheme that Omar and his pals cook up to ambush and kill an Israeli soldier with a hunting rifle. It’s presented as almost a natural outgrowth of a situation of boredom and frustration… If you want an inspiring political essay about the plight of the Palestinian people, or the promise of a hopeful future, look elsewhere. “Omar” is a story about a place where ordinary people, decent enough on their own terms, destroy each other and themselves. When the cascade of violent climaxes comes, you’ll see it was there all along.”

Omar checks several genre and subgenre boxes, proving to be an effective spy thriller, love triangle romance, coming-of-age drama, and pseudo-documentary-of-sorts revealing everyday moments inside an occupied territory. Tonally, Omar can shift abruptly between tense, comical, disturbing, and tender. Per Critic Geoffrey Macnab: “Some of the sudden lurches in tone in Omar are disconcerting. The film combines gentle comedy and moments of lyricism with scenes of torture and violence. Such shifts are intentional. Abu-Assad is simply reflecting the ever-changing nature of his characters' daily lives in a fraught and strange environment in which betrayal has become endemic.”

You don’t need a PhD to parse the prominent subtexts at work: betrayal, suspicion, and mistrust. Each of the Palestinian friends in this story betrays or is suspected of betraying each other, which reaps devastating consequences on their relationships and the deaths of Omar and Tarek. Loyalties are in a constant state of scrutiny, with paranoia prevailing as characters navigate the repercussions of their choices and confront the looming specter of betrayal from those closest to them. The film also navigates the complex three-way relationship between Omar, Nadia, and Amjad, where loyalties and friendships are continually tested.

The consequences of occupation are also explored. The movie depicts the harsh realities endured by Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as the violent opposition inflicted upon Israeli soldiers. Additionally, the film shows the price humanity pays for prolonged conflict: Omar, Nadia, Amjad, Tarek, and their loved ones can’t live a normal or safe life amidst this ongoing violence and oppression.

Lastly, while shown more from the Palestinian point of view, the film deftly portrays how there are victims and casualties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ruminating on a vicious cycle of violence. It also offers no answers for how to solve this crisis or curb the violence that it creates. Each act of aggression triggers a chain reaction of retribution, perpetuating a destructive cycle of vengeance and reprisal that ensnares the characters and fuels the ongoing strife.

Similar works

  • The Battle of Algiers
  • Paradise Now
  • Bethlehem
  • The Attack
  • Private
  • Salt of This Sea
  • About Elly

Other films by Hany Abu-Assad

  • Rana's Wedding (2002)
  • Paradise Now (2005)
  • The Courier (2012)
  • The Idol (2015)
  • The Mountain Between Us (2017)
  • Huda's Salon (2021)


Coulda' been a contender? Waterfront is nothing less than a champion

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Seventy years since it first hit theaters, On the Waterfront has lost little of its impact as a timeless American classic. Helmed by Elia Kazan, the story centers on Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a Hoboken dockworker who finds himself ensnared in the nefarious dealings of union overlord Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Confronted with a moral quandary upon witnessing the murder of a colleague who intended to expose the union's corruption, Malloy must navigate the tug-of-war between his conscience and the union's coercion.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of On the Waterfront, conducted earlier this month, click here. To access the May episode of Cineversary, which celebrates this film’s 70th birthday, click here.

On the Waterfront is fully deserving of our attention in its 70th anniversary year for multiple reasons. First, the collective talent on display here is astounding. It’s almost impossible for this film to fail when you have stellar names attached like Brando, Cobb, Rod Steiger, Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, producer Sam Spiegel, and composer Leonard Bernstein. More importantly, the movie, 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,” according to Criterion Collection essayist Michael Almereyda. “Kazan virtually invented the style, and refined it in this film, and its power remains undeniable.”

Ponder, too, how Waterfront is a creative personal statement by a gifted but divisive filmmaker—a subtextually political film that is relevant to and revealing about Kazan’s life and beliefs. 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 felt torn and ultimately compelled to testify against oppressive forces to do, in his mind, the right thing. It’s ludicrous to many how these two things can be equitable, but Kazan nevertheless envisioned himself as a martyr-like outsider who was forced to make a difficult 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 successfully for years afterward.

This picture works as an effective amalgamation of docudrama, film noir, and topical social message movie. This was the era when noir was in full flourish, and social message films were building momentum thanks to the efforts of producers like Dore Schary at MGM and independent filmmaker Stanley Kramer, who made movies like Tea and Sympathy, Bad Day at Black Rock, Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, and Judgment at Nuremberg. On the Waterfront drew increased public awareness to the problem of corrupted unions and labor racketeering and also benefited from hitting theaters merely weeks following the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

There’s no denying Waterfront’s critical reputation and status as a statuette heavyweight. It became one of the most honored and decorated films in Oscar history, earning 12 Academy Award nominations and ultimately claiming eight Oscars, among them Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint, Best Director for Kazan, Best Screenplay for Schulberg, and Best Cinematography for Boris Kaufman. This film continues to be regarded as an exemplary, important, and inspirational American work, as well. In the American Film Institute’s top 100 American movies list from 1998, On the Waterfront ranked number eight; in the AFI’s 2007 ranking, it placed number 19. On the AFI’s best 100 movie quotes list, the following earned third place: “You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am." And Terry Malloy earns the #23 spot on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest heroes.

On the Waterfront is credited as a pioneering project in a few ways. It was in the vein of topical social problem/social message movies that were popular in the 1950s – which often drew from the look and verisimilitude of Italian neorealism as well as the visually expressive style of film noir. And it was inspired by a true story of a longshoreman who attempted to bring down a crooked union, as reported on by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Malcolm Johnson in the late 1940s. His articles and the later film brought to light the widespread influence of organized crime within labor unions, a theme that hadn't been thoroughly explored in mainstream cinema previously.

But what’s especially interesting is that the movie employed Kazan’s distinctive blend of “poetic realism” in telling its story. Kazan said: “I don’t think of myself as a realist…I think of myself as a poetic realist or ‘essentialist.’” Typically, poetic realism films, popularized in France in the 1930s, represented a type of reimagined reality, marked by stylized and studio-confined settings versus the raw authenticity seen in documentary-style social realism. But in Waterfront, Kazan and his collaborators chose to shoot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, showcasing real docks, alleys, tenements, rooftops, bars, and even longshoremen who play themselves as extras. They filmed during cold, wintry conditions—you can often see cold vapor breath trails spewing from the actors’ mouths—and used natural lighting, often eschewing a controlled, fabricated set or stage. Consider the ragged handheld camera shots when Terry stumbles his way back to work after being horribly beaten. Waterfront can often look and feel like real life while also playing as a stylized morality tale divorced from the real world.

“On the Waterfront earns its status as a masterwork and a classic by breaking free of strict realism to tell a story that is, finally and enduringly, a poetic fable,” per Criterion Collection essayist Michael Almereyda. Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety… On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member’s daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience.”

Creative decisions from Kazan—who also impresses with his direction of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Splendor in the Grass (1961)—help elevate On the Waterfront to the rank of masterwork. Recall how he shrewdly opted to have a ship whistle overpower Terry’s voice when he’s confessing to Edie his role in her brother’s death, suggesting that the impact of this admission and the emotions triggered by his words are more important than the words themselves. The director also cleverly used geography, landscape, and spatial dimensions to demonstrate moral hierarchy across the narrative. Ponder how the waterfront and docks are slightly above sea level, but Friendly’s ironically cramped shack headquarters is just below that, while Edie’s tenement is high above the street and Terry’s rooftop pigeon coop—enclosed within confining wire yet exposed to the great wide open—is at the highest level. Likewise, Kazan commonly employed two-shots or wider compositions in Waterfront to illustrate a character arrangement or power hierarchy, often carefully placing one character opposite another in dominant-subordinate respective positions.

Additionally, Kazan staged some crucial scenes outdoors that perhaps should have plausibly occurred indoors, such as Edie and Terry’s getting-acquainted scene in the park, Terry confessing his guilt to Father Berry outside the church, and Terry’s discovery of his dead brother hanging on a fence. The takeaway here is that Hoboken is not only an important character unto itself but also a witness to these important events, silently observing and absorbing the good and bad words and actions of its people and bearing the scars of the conflict and violence they create.

More significant historically is that Waterfront ushered in a new age of acting authenticity. Brando's portrayal of Malloy marked a sea change in film acting thanks to the performer’s approach to the role and his adherence to the method acting technique, which was characterized by deeply internalizing the character's emotions and delivering a more naturalistic performance. The offbeat choices he makes depicting this pugilistic lost soul, including his mannerisms, facial expressions, line deliveries, and physical gesticulations, inspired thespians of his generation and beyond.

Furthermore, reflect on how this film influenced many screen and stage works in the years following its release. Playwright Arthur Miller was inspired to write the play A View From the Bridge (1955), and Edge of the City (1957), starring John Cassavetes, was an obvious knockoff. Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and their brawny yet vulnerable boxer characters, drew heavy influence from Brando’s Malloy. The shy and inexperienced Adrian in Rocky also owes a debt to Saint and her personification of Edie. Martin Scorsese pays homage to Waterfront in Goodfellas (1990) in several shots, including the dead mobster hanging from a hook like Charley. Praising Waterfront, Scorsese commented: “The faces, the bodies, the way they moved…the voices, the way they sounded. They were like the people I saw every day. It was as if the world that I came from, that I knew, mattered.” Three movies released in India were inspired by or served as remakes of On the Waterfront: Kabzaa (1988), Ghulam (1998), and Sudhandhiram (2000). (Interestingly, the contender monologue drew from a predecessor, Force of Evil [1948], which also has a similar scene in the back of a taxicab.)

The casting of Brando proved pivotal, for obvious reasons if you pay close attention to his portrayal and compare it to acting styles of this time. Kazan said: “... what was extraordinary about his performance, I feel, is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read ‘Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?”

Roger Ebert believed “Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh, alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kind of heightened riff on reality…He became famous for his choices of physical gestures during crucial scenes…There's a moment when Terry goes for a walk in the park with Edie…She drops a glove. He picks it up, and instead of handing it back, he pulls it on over his own workers' hands. A small piece of business on the edge of the shot, but it provides texture…And look at the famous scene between Terry and his brother…it has been parodied endlessly (most memorably by Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”). But it still has its power to make us feel Terry's pain, and even the pain of Charley, who has been forced to pull a gun on his brother.”

Indeed, the latter sequence has rightfully been cited as a game-changer in cinema history. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice opined: “The scene of scenes, in which Terry reproaches his smarter brother (Steiger) for selling him out, is the most triumphant expression of failure in American movies.”

It’s striking how often Brando elects to, despite facing a character he’s talking or listening to, cast his eyeballs elsewhere, far off in the distance. No other actor in the film does this, which makes this idiosyncrasy stand out. Actors in the classic Hollywood period typically maintained eye contact or looked up at an opposite character’s forehead or hair when engaged in a dialogue, but not Brando.

Quick sidebar: It’s noteworthy that, early in his film career, Brando became known for playing martyr-like personalities who often take a serious physical beating yet defy the odds and fight back, as evidenced in this film as well as Viva Zapata! (1952), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), The Fugitive Kind (1960), The Appaloosa (1966), and The Chase (1966).

It makes sense that neither Cobb, Steiger, nor Malden picked up a win for their Best Supporting Actor nominations because they’re each so good that they likely canceled each other out among Oscar voters. Steiger is particularly memorable in his more mannered style contrasting with Brando—and it helps that the actors look like they could be related. And Cobb practically oozes steam from his pores when he reveals the hair-trigger rage that colors his character and stares with those fiery eyes. Malden’s Father Barry more than capably looks his part, commands a righteous indignation that’s crucial for this story, and deftly leverages the chemistry he created earlier with Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Making her film debut, Saint shines as the angelic-faced love interest and female voice of principle who helps convince Terry to do the right thing. Her slim and delicate physicality, sincerity, and naïveté juxtapose effectively with Terry’s burly presence and streetwise machismo. Everybody remembers the “coulda been a contender” line, but Edie has the most ethically impactful quote in the film: “Shouldn't everybody care about everybody else? Isn't everybody a part of everybody else?”

On the Waterfront continues to impart valuable life lessons seven decades onward. It certainly preaches the virtues of making the right ethical choice and listening to your conscience. Terry is caught in the middle between two opposing forces—the morally righteous duo of Father Barry and Edie on one side, and the cruel, manipulative thugs led by Johnny Friendly and his brother Charley on the other. He must decide whether to protect the evil status quo or expose them to aid the cause of their exploited workers.

Additionally, this is a cogitation on 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 his underling brings heat to their operation.

At its core, Waterfront is an affecting redemption story, as well. This is ultimately a yarn 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 “coulda’ been a contender,” but lost his opportunity; this represents his second chance, the ability to fight the mob bosses and stand up for the little guy.

The film reminds us, too, that we are our brother’s keeper. It teaches us that human beings have a responsibility to help and protect others, especially those in duress. Edie expresses this in her question to Terry: “Shouldn't everybody care about everybody else?” Terry’s responses are telling: “What good does it do ya besides get ya in trouble? You wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you…Down here, it’s every man for himself.” Terry’s change of heart and brave stand against the mob demonstrate that even one determined man – small as he is against the might of the machine – can have a significant effect on the lives of many.

Sacrifice, martyrdom, and faith represent a powerful thematic triumvirate in Waterfront. Terry must risk his life by choosing to inform on the criminals and trust in the intangible power of faith—not religious belief, but personal conviction—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 crucified Christ. Recall, too, how the near-dead Terry is resurrected to life by the priest’s inspiring words.

If you’re a fan of cinematic symbols and motifs, Waterfront’s got plenty. Among the signifiers prevalent are:
  • Pigeons, 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, 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, standing 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.
  • The Hudson River, representing 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 epitomize 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.
Naysayers argue that viewers can’t quite reconcile the confusing ending of the film. Practical questions arise: Why does Terry have to be the first one to report to work in the final scene? What assurances do we have that the dockworkers will be protected going forward and that Friendly is finished? Why does he demand that the workers return to the job, but then tell them not to go back to work a few minutes later? And who is this “Mr. Upstairs” overlord character? DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “On the Waterfront segues directly from its Christ allegory to a strangely ambiguous finale. The battered Terry Malloy leads his miserable fellows to answer the whistle of the real big boss, apparently a shipping executive. Nothing has changed for the dockworkers as they disappear behind a pair of giant warehouse doors.”

Perhaps certain elements of Waterfront haven’t aged as gracefully viewed through the modern lens. Case in point: Malden’s Father Barry comes off as a bit too preachy to some tastes. The character and its performer could benefit from more nuance, internal conflict, and a greater range of emotions. Malden is primarily playing this priest in a one-note fashion, unswervingly virtuous, heavy-handed, and sanctimonious. One can respect that this is necessary for the character as written, but it’s hard to relate to a 1950s-era man of the cloth whose best efforts at appearing human and down to earth are to ask for a cigarette or a glass of beer. Then there’s the scene where Terry busts down Edie’s door, grabs her as she’s clad in a skimpy slip, and forces her to kiss him as she acquiesces to his passion—which doesn’t play so nicely today. While it’s only one short segment, Terry becomes a much less sympathetic character nowadays. Lastly, the brassy, emotional musical score by Bernstein, while superb in many sections, sometimes catches the ear as syrupy and prolonged.

Flaws aside, the biggest present this picture bestows on us in its 70th birthday year is its ability to inspire. Terry’s devolution then evolution from promising pugilist to conformist palooka to rebellious protester to witness for the prosecution to bare-knuckled boss-buster is a stirring flight path we follow and admire. His pluck, and Brando’s extraordinary embodiment and rendering of that underdog gumption and avenging angel resolve, light a fire in the viewer’s belly and help make Waterfront revisits reliably gratifying. Audiences love a good David versus Goliath story, and this film never disappoints on that level. It holds up surprisingly well for a 1950s-era film in the 2020s, primarily because corruption and pessimism never go out of style in the modern era. One of the best exchanges in the film is when Terry tells Edie that pigeons are faithful and “get married just like people,” which provokes Terry’s younger buddy Tommy to say “Better.” That cynical view of humanity in one simple word sums up how far we’ve fallen as a species and how much of a triumph Terry, the pigeon-like ex-prizefighter with a birdbrain but the heart of a champion, achieves by the conclusion of the narrative.


Cineversary podcast honors 70th birthday of On the Waterfront

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Michael Phillips and Stephen Rebello
In Cineversary podcast episode #70, host Erik Martin lights 70 birthday candles for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. Two esteemed guests join him this time around: Stephen Rebello, author of the forthcoming book A City Full of Hawks: On the Waterfront Seventy Years Later; and Michael Phillips, film critic for The Chicago Tribune. Together, they examine why this movie still matters seven decades later, what makes it a movie masterwork, salient themes, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to   


A cookie - and a film - full of arsenic

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Looking for a noir without the bullets or brutality but that still packs plenty of bang? Take a closer look at Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, produced by James Hill, penned by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and released in 1957. Drawing inspiration from Lehman's novelette, the film delves into the murky depths of journalism and publicity and the relentless machinations of a formidable newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, portrayed by Burt Lancaster, and the conniving endeavors of Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis, a sycophantic press agent yearning for Hunsecker's favor. As Falco maneuvers to curry favor with Hunsecker, he finds himself entangled in the columnist's personal vendetta, ensnared in a web of manipulation, deception, and ethical compromise.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

What makes Sweet Smell of Success distinctive, surprising, and memorable? It resembles a noir with its high contrast lighting scheme, caustic tone, pessimistic worldview, and fall-from-grace narrative, but doesn’t involve murder, detectives, wrong-man themes, or femme fatales like proper noir films do. Additionally, the characters, while often rotten, still smell sweet thanks to their complexity. The film presents personalities who are richly layered, flawed, and quotably articulate—especially Hunsecker, who emerges as a compelling antagonist whose manipulation and dominance propel much of the plot forward, and Falco, his obsequious acolyte.

Criterion Collection essayist Gary Giddens wrote, of Tony Curtis’ performance: “He refuses to play the part as cute or malleable, so that a perversely fantastic purity graces Sidney’s relentless grubbing…he secretes energy. We see him as a blackmailer, pimp, fixer, stooge, liar, and betrayer of everyone, but he bewitches the film with the agility of a magician or dancer.According to Roger Ebert, “Although Falco is in exile as the story opens, Hunsecker cannot quite banish him from his sight, because he needs him. How does the top dog know he rules unless the bottom dog slinks around?...The film stands as the record of one of the most convincing and closely observed symbiotic relationships in the movies. Hunsecker and Falco. You can't have one without the other.

No doubt about it, the screenplay is exceptional. Odets and Lehman crafted a narrative that’s celebrated particularly for its incisive and biting dialogue. The rapid exchanges between characters infuse the story with a palpable intensity and tension, drawing viewers deeper into the story's intricacies. Sample some of the great lines and exchanges in Sweet Smell of Success: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years.” “It’s a publicity man’s nature to be a liar. I wouldn’t hire you if you wasn’t a liar.” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “Match me, Sidney.” “Harvey, I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.” “Sidney, conjugate me a verb.” And: “Do you believe in capital punishment, Senator? A man has just been sentenced to death.”

The look perfectly captures The Big Apple in 1957, showcasing the nightclub scene, the prime period of jazz, and the fashions and styles of New Yorkers. Cinematographer James Wong Howe employs inventive techniques, such as low-angle shots and stark lighting, to enhance the film's noir aesthetic. These methods effectively evoke feelings of claustrophobia and moral decay, enriching the viewing experience.

It further feels like a time capsule zeitgeist movie thanks to the jazzy Elmer Bernstein score coupled with the music played by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, who also appear in the film as Steve Dallas’ band.

This is a rags-to-riches story offscreen. Initially met with mixed reviews, Sweet Smell of Success has since earned acclaim as a quintessential example of the film noir genre. Its enduring influence is evident in subsequent works that explore similar ideas of power dynamics, corruption, and betrayal within the entertainment industry.

There’s a hint of an incestuous relationship between Hunsecker and his sister Susan, making for an even more despicable characterization. The Hunsecker personality and his plot to smear sister Susan’s fiancé is loosely based on old-time columnist Walter Winchell. Fixated on the romance between his daughter Walda and her lover, Winchell, with the assistance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, exerted pressure on the boyfriend to leave the United States.  

Its fatalistic themes and cynical tone help the movie maintain an evergreen sheen in the modern age. Despite its 1957 vintage, the film's exploration of the downsides of fame, success, and ambition and its examination of the darker aspects of human nature resonates across generations.

Hubris and karma dominate as key themes. Like Icarus,  Falco flies too close to the sun in his ambitions to get to the top and be famous like Hunsecker. He makes a devil's bargain in agreeing to ruin the jazz musician boyfriend of Hunsucker’s sister, which also involves pimping his match girl part-time lover to a rival columnist – compromising any positive virtues he has left and metaphorically selling his soul.

Sweet Smell of Success spells out the corrupting nature of power and influence, certainly. Hunsecker demonstrates how absolute power corrupts absolutely, wielding the popularity of his newspaper column as a cudgel with which to beat down anyone he disfavors and control others. His ruthless arrogance, smug attitude, and lack of empathy, compassion, and human decency create one of the most formidable and loathsome bad guys in film history. In fact, Hunsecker places #35 on the AFI’s top 50 movie villains list. The film lays bare the grim underbelly of celebrity status and the media exposing the cutthroat world of entertainment and gossip where ambition reigns supreme.

Loyalty and betrayal are key subtextual signposts, as well. The characters in this morality play navigate their relationships in pursuit of personal gain. Falco sacrifices his friendship and romantic ties with Susan as he strives for success, while Hunsecker's controlling demeanor strains his bond with his sister.

Similar works

  • All About Eve
  • The Barefoot Contessa
  • Night and the City
  • The Hucksters
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Wall Street
  • Bombshell
  • Young Man With a Horn
  • Pete Kelly’s Blues
  • Broadway Thru a Keyhole

Other films by Alexander Mackendrick

  • The Ladykillers
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • Crash of Silence
  • Whisky Galore!


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