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On the Waterfront

Marlon Brando starred in two best picture winners involving organized crime. And no, Godfather II isnít the other one. Robert de Niro played Vito Corleone in that one. Brando was in 1954ís best picture On the Waterfront.

Then just at the start of his film career, Brando plays ex- prizefighter turned mob enforcer Terry Malloy. He starts to question his career choice when he entraps a a guy named Joey thinking the mob boss who runs the docks just wants to rough him up, but instead he ends up falling off a building. Most of the longshoremen say nothing to the police, living under the "donít talk, youíll live longer" philosophy of life. The only ones who disagree are Joeyís sister and a local priest, played by Eva Marie Saint (in her film debut) and Karl Malden respectively.

The mob boss, Johnny Friendly, takes a liking to Terry, partly out of respect for his boxing career, but mostly because Terryís brother Charley is his right hand man. That relationship gets a bit strained when Terry begins to spend more time with Joeyís sister. To make matters worse, Terry gets served. Johnny is not 100% sure Terry will keep silent when facing a grand jury, so he dispatches Charley with a disturbing order; convince Terry to not talk, or kill him.

This leads to one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. In the car, Terry remembers a fight he had back during his boxing career when Charley convinced him to lose to a weaker opponent. The other guy got a title shot. Terry got a career on the docks. This is the famous, "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody" scene. What makes this scene one of the best is Brando. Once he figures out what Charley is up to, his reaction is what makes him a great actor. Instead of being afraid or upset that his brother would sell him out, he is disappointed.

Of course Charley lets Terry go and pays for it with his own life. Terry has to be talked out of killing Johnny and instead goes on to testify against him. Terry then bravely shows up at the docks the next day, and when he isnít called upon to work, calls out Johnny who beats him to a pulp. However this proves only to turn the other workers against Johnny, and his cartel is broken, because as they say in Millerís Crossing, "You run it because people think you do. They stop thinking it, you stop running it."

Terry isnít the brightest guy, but he accomplishes what he accomplishes based on his bravery. He isnít giving up, even when the mob boss and beaten him and left him for dead. He stands up and walks into that factory. Brando plays him brilliantly, and won an Oscar for the role. He wasnít alone. Saint won best supporting actress and Lee J. Cobb, Malden, and Rod Steiger were all nominated. Also look for Fred Gwynne in a limited role as one of Johnnyís henchmen. He would later get a TV gig playing Herman Munster. In one of the first scenes you see him leaning over a pool table and think to yourself, "holy shit, itís Herman Munster." (OK, you actually think "holy shit, itís Spock, then you go check imdb and realize itís actually Herman Munster.)

Other nominees that year included the rather uninspiring competition of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Caine Mutiny. Three movies not nominated were quite good, Sabrina, A Star is Born, and Rear Window. Although Rear Window is Hitchcock as his best, and even the lighthearted romantic comedy Sabrina is pretty entertaining, these movies donít offer enough to unseat one of the best movies of its time, featuring the best acting of any time.


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