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.
In On the Waterfront, the gangsters dole out work based on which union members pay them off and otherwise do their bidding, and deny employment to anyone with a shred of integrity. The shut-out workers are so desperate for a day's pay that they rush the gatekeeper, who throws the tokens in the air, sparking a worker-on-worker brawl. The melee echoes the dog-eat-dog desperation of Communist-affiliated artists scrambling to make a living under HUAC.
The film's bad guys also reveal a lot about the filmmakers' mindsets, though perhaps not in the manner they would have appreciated. With his unapologetically rough personality and vain, up-by-my bootstraps grandstanding, the mob's top thug has less in common with stateside reds than with the prototypical studio boss circa 1954: naturalized immigrants doing whatever it took to preserve the money and power they'd amassed. If Terry's character implies autobiographical airbrushing on the part of Schulberg and Kazan, the mob boss suggests a streak of self-loathing. The film's most despicable character is named Friendly. And when Terry's brother Charlie, Johnny's right hand man, parrots the mob's party line, he doesn't sound like a Red urging a fellow traveler to work pro-Communist messages into art. He sounds more like a left-leaning Hollywood denizen who's decided he'd rather make money than stand on principle.
The film's most curious element is its presentation of informing itself. The first line of dialogue—"Joey! Joe Doyle"—comes from Terry, calling up to Edie's brother, a dockworker who's about to be murdered for threatening to tell the world about the evils occurring on the waterfront. The film's inciting incident—the act that drives Terry's personal evolution—is the act of speaking another person's name, thereby setting him up to be permanently silenced by those who control this world's capitalistic mechanisms.
Throughout On the Waterfront, men poised to tell the truth about abuses of power are literally and figuratively silenced. Here, again, the straightforward reading of On the Waterfront as a stoolie's defense fails. Whatever minimal influence that Soviet sympathizers had in the U.S. paled next to that of Congress and the studios, ideological juggernauts that imposed an artistic death penalty on anyone who wouldn't play their game.
The film's hero doesn't make sense as a stand-in for a friendly witness because his entire story is driven by overwhelming guilt over helping the powerful take down a potential whistleblower. He's not a character who's summoning up the courage to name names; he's a man who already named a name (Joey Doyle's) with tragic results, and is slowly coming around to a realization that by naming the wrong name—and setting up a good guy to be taken out by bad guys—he sided with the powerful over the powerless. Everything that happens to him from that point on is an attempt to set things right—a personal journey that makes more sense as a visualization of what Kazan, Schulberg, Cobb and their ilk should have done after they named names, but for a variety of reasons did not. This is wish fulfillment of an entirely different sort than is usually described when detractors denounce the politics of On the Waterfront. It's surely not intentional—though we'll never know what Kazan and company thought when they looked at themselves in the mirror, publicly they stood by their action—but it's nonetheless strongly present throughout the film.
This is not a revisionist piece arguing that On the Waterfront is "really" a coded attack on HUAC and its Hollywood toadies. Life isn't that simple and neither is art. Just as dreams can bear multiple interpretations—sometimes simultaneously disclosing what we want them to mean, and what we desperately hope they don't mean—so can movies. The moral and artistic muddle of On the Waterfront—its combination of canny self-justification of what did happen, and stark, foregrounded and probably unintended guilt over what should have happened—ultimately works in the movie's favor, merging into a story not beholden to any particular political reading, and letting the film transcend its origins in the filmmaker's own lives and become archetypal, universal.
It's worth noting that High Noon, a political call-to-arms written by blacklisted Communist Carl Foreman out of frustration of Hollywood and America's collective complicity in the blacklist, is the movie most often screened at the White House, beloved by Ronald Reagan as well as Bill Clinton. On the Waterfront is an equally malleable fable. It's a conflicted work by conflicted men, a story fueled not just by defiant assertions that its makers did the right thing, but also by a gnawing fear that they didn't, and that their cowardice, unlike Terry's, can never be redeemed.