The film is about life on the docks in New York. (Or is it New Jersey?) And it’s about how the “union” of dockworkers is really just a variety of organized crime. And it’s about how some people want to change that. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is the brother of one of the big union guys, so he’s protected, but is nonetheless unnerved when he’s used to help perpetuate a murder of someone who was going to squeal.
First of all, Brando’s performance is so mannered and showy that I was continually bounced out of the story. I get that acting styles change, so watching a film from the 50s I can’t compare it to how people perform today. I don’t care. Maybe he’s playing Terry as a meta-performance, indicating that Terry is playacting as a tough guy. Okay, but it still bounces me, regardless. Damage done.
If you say I can’t appreciate acting from this era, hold your horses. Karl Malden as a crusading priest is amazing. Lee J. Cobb as the local mob boss is bombastic, but entirely believable. Rod Steiger as Terry’s brother does some good work. I can’t say Eva Marie Saint as a woman grieving for her murdered brother adds too much to the film, but she doesn’t detract either. There are also some small roles for Arbogast, Commissioner Gordon and Herman Munster. Fun.
I suppose the “importance” of the film, apart from Brando, is the gritty downer of a story which, in 1954, was probably a controversial criticism of the American Dream. Viewed through the lens of a million mob pictures there have been since, it loses some of it’s punch.
I’ll give the film some points for a gripping (and surprising) conclusion, but overall this is not a film I need to ever see again.