This is the transcript to Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay, viewable here.
On the Waterfront is a masterpiece with an asterisk. The asterisk refers to the film's storyline. It's widely described as a self-justification by artists who gave the names of suspected Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The most prominent of the informers was On the Waterfront's director, Elia Kazan.
In 1952, Kazan, already a famous and influential theater and film director, was pressured by HUAC to supply the names of colleagues suspected of Communist affiliation. After previously refusing to cooperate, Kazan eventually caved in and named names. A few of the people he named were already known to the committee as Communists. Others—including actor Zero Mostel—became new additions to the Hollywood blacklist. From the instant he cooperated, Kazan's legacy was tarnished, and in some quarters negated, by his stool pigeon status. Though he expressed ambivalence and even outright remorse, he never officially apologized for the damage he inflicted. And he sometimes defended himself on the grounds that the American Communist Party's defense of Stalinist Russia's brutality was a greater sin than his decision to inform.
It seems strangely fitting, then, that On the Waterfront would prove to be Kazan's most compelling and durable film. The recipient of many Academy Awards, it fuses seemingly incompatible genres into a unique whole. It's a muckraking expose, a love story, a gangster picture with traces of film noir, and a how-to manual for theologians looking to apply Christian teachings to a secular world. And it's a parable of self-improvement, with its protagonist, ex-boxer Terry Malloy, transforming himself from a shiftless chump into a dockside Christ taking a beating for the little guy.
Over the decades, much liberal ire has been directed at On the Waterfront, thanks to the participation of Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and actor Lee J. Cobb, all of whom named names before HUAC. The film has been derided as a rat's fantasy, recasting HUAC interrogators as kindhearted government gumshoes and the American Communist Party as the equivalent of the mob lorded over by Cobb's character, waterfront boss Johnny Friendly. This description implies that On the Waterfront is fueled by a simplistic agenda that can be easily defined and dismissed. What's onscreen is more confounding and rewarding than that.
For one thing, in the film's world, the gangsters run the show. The American Communist party never had the power to determined who worked and who didn't. But studio bosses and the United States Congress did. Their blacklist destroyed the careers of many artists with Communist affiliation and forced others to work under assumed names.