‘On The Waterfront’ (1954): communists, cowardice and the ethics of stool-pigeoning.

One of our writers looks back on a film from the 1950s and how it reflected the 'Red Scare' in America in a deep dive thought-provoking piece

Matthew Barratt
27th February 2023
Image courtesy of Twitter @projectionistw
On The Waterfront, while a highly decorated and expertly crafted drama, is a larger piece in a lengthy ideological conflict between Director Elia Kazan and Playwright Arthur Miller.

The film follows former boxer Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando (Apocalypse Now, Julius Caesar, The Godfather) who witnesses a murder on the orders of the corrupt boss at the dock he works at, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Feeling guilty for witnessing this crime take place, as well as having a small (albeit unintentional) part in the man’s death, Terry eventually testifies against Friendly. Terry then rallies the dockworkers to his side and they cast Friendly out of the docks. On paper, Elia Kazan’s film can be perceived as an inspirational drama about courage in the face of corruption and redeeming oneself by fighting against an oppressive structure, with Terry being hailed as a hero for his act of testimony. Others, however, don’t see it that way.

At the 71st Academy Awards, famed Director Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar. Director Martin Scorsese, who had credited Kazan as a longtime influence, presented the award. As the camera cut between shots of the crowd, Kazan walked onto stage to give his acceptance speech. Some audience members gave a standing ovation, some sat and clapped, and many refused to applaud at all, stone faced.

Elia Kazan, despite his highly decorated resume, was a controversial figure. Some will firmly decry Kazan whereas others will commend him. Many still, to this day, haven’t forgiven him. On The Waterfront, his 1954 drama, raked in copious Oscars after its release, but remains a part of a personal long-lasting feud between Kazan and playwright Arthur Miller, who responded to ‘Waterfront’ with his play A View From A Bridge, offering an alternative to the concept of stool-pigeoning. Or, in other words, snitching.

a time when McCarthyism was rampant and the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was inducing patriotic paranoia

This dissonance was brought into the spotlight during the height of the ‘Red Scare’ in the 1950s, a time when McCarthyism was rampant and the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was inducing patriotic paranoia throughout America, specifically within the arts and cultural sector. Those who were suspected to be pushing ideas that were ‘un-American’ were interrogated and pressured to give up names of other allegedly pro-Communist sympathizers.

Kazan was brought to testify. Under pressure, he named eight people, including actors and playwrights. They lost their reputations but Kazan, for his contribution, faced no prosecution from the HUAC. But for his actions – for naming names – Kazan’s credibility amongst his now-former friends was dashed. Notably, Arthur Miller, the American playwright, ended his friendship with Kazan immediately afterwards.

The likening of playwrights with socialist sentiments to corrupt murdering mobsters is a poor comparison

Waterfront’ was Kazan’s attempt to justify his testimony to the HUAC. One could perceive Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy as an insert for Kazan himself; a courageous man who stands up against corruption and roots out evil, in this case former Communists. However, Kazan isn’t exactly a patriotic American hero who defeated the Communist regime and ended the Cold War. He snitched on wealthy privileged Hollywood stars who write plays for a living, who are paid for playing pretend on stage, but who were also – most poignantly – his friends and co-workers. The likening of playwrights with socialist sentiments to corrupt murdering mobsters is a poor comparison, also rather ironic given the oppressive regime of the House of Unamerican Activities that Kazan aligned himself with.

In opposition, Kazan’s former friend Arthur Miller wrote his play A View From A Bridge, a tragedy about extreme jealousy, cowardice and family. Eddie, in Miller’s play, acts as a combatant to Terry Malloy; a tragic protagonist who snitches on his own family who are harboring illegal Sicilian immigrants. Miller’s play takes Kazan’s concept of the stoolpigeon (Terry) and reduces them to a cowardly and unlikeable antihero (Eddie) who destroys his entire family as well as his own reputation due to selfish and uncontrollable jealousy; a stark departure from the heroic and valorous Terry Malloy.

While Kazan’s film is well crafted, impressively put together, and entertaining, it’s difficult to separate the quality of his narrative from his personal intent with the piece. ‘Waterfront’ was, and still is, self-indulgent in terms of how much Kazan attempts to justify his actions. The irony of ‘Waterfront’ is how it gave Kazan a voice to express his side, to voice his opinion. He was given that privilege, and yet the voices of the eight artists he snitched on were persecuted, shamed and suppressed for their views. Miller’s ‘View’ was an attempt to humble Kazan, which one could argue he did. When Kazan offered to direct the film adaptation of ‘View’, Miller replied with “I only sent you the script to let you know what I think of stoolpigeons”.

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