Kazan and On The Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954) was a subtle defense of informing.  It was a film of undeniable power with a strong central performance from Marlon Brando.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

While informers were slated in Stalag 17, there was a small group of films which defended their role.  These films were for more successful than the studio’s anti-communist efforts.  On the Waterfront (1954) was a subtle defense of informing.  It was a film of undeniable power with a strong central performance from Marlon Brando.  The film began as a screenplay by Arthur Miller called The Hook about a doomed attempt to overthrow gangsters on the waterfront.  Arthur Miller was a close friend of director Elia Kazan and they planned to write and direct the film between them.[1]  Studio head Harry Cohn had the story checked by the FBI and Roy Brewer, the powerful and corrupt head of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, for any possible communist taint.  Brewer told Cohn that if the movie was produced in its present form he would pull out projectionists in any cinema that showed it.  The FBI regarded it as dangerous because it could cause trouble on the nation’s waterfront at the time of war in Korea.  Cohn demanded that the central gangster figure be turned into a communist to refute these criticisms.  Miller withdrew the script and received a caustic telegram from Cohn saying:

‘IT IS INTERESTING THAT THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT. HARRY COHN’.[2]

Kazan was annoyed by Miller’s backing away from the project.  The pair had a further falling out over their individuals public and artistic responses to the HUAC investigations.  Kazan had quit the party in 1935, but the committee still wanted his testimony before he could continue his career in Hollywood.  Kazan decided to testify before he committee and to name names.  He felt ostracized for his decision to testify and inform.  Kazan gave vent to these feelings in On the Waterfront.  The film was about the plight of Terry Malloy, played by Brando, who was unwittingly involved in a dockside murder by a gangster union.  After they murder his brother, – shades of I Married A Communist – he declared to stand up to the gangsters and testify before a Kefauver-like commission.[3]  It was scripted by Budd Schulberg, who like Kazan, had testified before the HUAC investigators and named names of former communist party members.  Schulberg had a long association with the communist party and had introduced one of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr., to the party and then later named him in testimony.[4]

Terry Malloy’s testimony to the inquiry and his subsequent rejection by the dockers can be seen to mirror Kazan’s history when he broke from the Communist party in the 1930s and later testified in the HUAC hearings as a friendly witness.  Kazan claimed that he testified against the communists because he saw them as a threat to America, and was then forced to suffer the ostracism of his former colleagues.  After many years of half-hearted denials, Kazan admitted in his autobiography that he used the film to hit back at those in the Hollywood community who shunned him.

He wrote:

I doubt that Budd (Schulberg) was affected as personally as I was by the parallel of Tony Mike’s story.  (Tony Mike was the basis for Terry Malloy)  his reaction to the loss of certain friends was not a biter as my own; he had not experienced their blackballing as frequently and intensely as I had in the neighborhood known as Broadway.  I believe Budd regarded out waterfront story with greater objectivity, an objectivity I appreciated.  But I did see Tony Mike’s story as my own, and that connection did lend the tome of irrefutable anger to the scenes I photographed and to any work with actors.  When Brando, at the end, yells at Lee J. Cobb, the mob boss, “I’m glad what I done – you hear me? – glad what I done!” that was me saying with identical heat, that I was glad that I testified as I had.  I’d been snubbed by friends each and every day for many months in my old show business haunts, and I’d not forgotten nor would I forgive the men, old friends some of them, who’d snubbed me, so the scene in the film where Brando goes back to the waterfront to “shape up” again for employment and is rejected by the men with whom he’d worked day after day – that, too, was my story, now told to the world.  So when the critics say that I put my story and my feeling on the screen, to justify my informing, they are right.[5]

Panic in the Streets (1950) also supported informing.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Similar themes about informing had appeared before in Kazan’s films.  Panic in the Streets (1950) also supported informing.  Two criminals killed an illegal alien after a card game and become unknowingly infected with plague.  After examining the body, a doctor realised he had 48 hours to track down the infected killers or the disease would cause a large scale epidemic.  The film was about a desperate search for the villains by the health authorities and the police before the plague took hold.  The criminals continued to spread the disease throughout their haunts as the search continued.  Those who did not inform were vulnerable to the disease.  One café owner with a key lead did not tell the authorities what he knew even though his wife was already dying from the disease.  Informing to the authorities was not only good civic duty but essential for the survival of the community.  The authorities could heal only those who confess, those who did not could infect with a deadly plague.

Kazan always appeared troubled by his decision to name names before HUAC.  In 1952, he directed a film called Viva Zapata which was about the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and his struggles.  Kazan had to juggle the complex and contradictory demands of extolling a revolutionary leader and maintaining an anti-communist line.[6]  In 1953, he directed an anti-communist film called Man on A Tightrope, in which he took great pride in using Fredric March who he claimed to have rescued off the blacklist.[7]  Critic Nora Sayre has pointed out that the themes of informing and betrayal reappeared in many of Kazan’s later works.  In his film The Visitors (1972) which was based on his son’s script, two Vietnam veterans took vengeance on a former friend who had given evidence against them after they had raped and murdered an young Vietnamese woman.  In the film, the informer felt that he should have prevented their actions rather than turning them in, which was useless.  Following The Visitors, Kazan wrote a novel called The Understudy where a reluctant informer’s testimony brought an old friend before the grand jury.  The informer was extolled by the police for informing against a criminal and he did everything to help his friend while dying.[8]


[1] Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life, Methuen, London, 1987, p. 195.

[2] Miller, Timebends, p. 308.

[3] Senator Estes Kefauver headed a Senate committee for investigating organized crime in 1950.

[4] Remark by Ring Lardner Jr. at Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991. Notes taken by author.

[5] Kazan, A Life, p. 500.

[6] For an excellent account of Kazan’s problems with the film see Paul J. Vanderwood, ‘Viva Zapata: An American Cold Warrior’, in John E. O’Connor and Martin A. Jackson, (ed.), American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, new exp. Edn. Continuum, New York, 1988, pp. 183 – 203.

[7] Kazan, A Life, p. 479. Kazan’s claim is doubtful.  March appeared in no films between 1947 and 1950 and in a British film in 1948 which suggests that he was blacklisted for a time, He was credited with a film in 1951 which indicates that he was off the blacklist when he came to make Man on A Tightrope in 1952.  Based on listings from Ephriam Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper & Row, p. 774.

[8] Nora Sayre, Running Time, Dial, New York, p. 172.

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