Tag: Eva Marie Saint

On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando reinvents film acting in On the Waterfront

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley “The Gent” Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), Pat Henning (Timothy Dugan), John F Hamilton (“Pop” Doyle), Ben Wagner (Joey Doyle), James Westerfield (Big Mac)

When’s the right time to speak out for what you know is right? It’s a question we’ve all faced at some point, and it’s the question that changes the life of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) after he is indirectly, and unwittingly, involved in the murder of a fellow dock worker. The killing was ordered by the corrupt, mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who rules the workers of the shipyards of Hoboken, New Jersey with an iron fist. The victim was going to talk to the cops, and suddenly Terry finds himself in the middle of a major ethical bind: should he give evidence or play “D and D” (deaf and dumb) like the rest of the workers.

His bind grows ever tighter as the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) takes up breaking the power of the union as his own personal mission. Not to mention Terry’s growing closeness to the victim’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), with whom he finds himself slowly falling in love. On the other side is his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a lawyer and right-hand man of Johnny Friendly, who has been running his brother’s life forever, ruining Terry’s boxing career by ordering him to take a dive so Friendly could make a killing on the betting circuit. What will Terry do?

Elia Kazan’s multiple Oscar winner is a powerful, beautifully made, engrossing and uplifting modern morality drama that still packs a wallop today. Shot largely on location in New Jersey, with lashings of Kazan’s brilliant realism and ability to bring poetic beauty and emotional force to the most everyday of settings, On the Waterfront is sublime, a film to make you rail against the injustice of corruption and the unthinking cruelty of everyday folk when given a chance to stigmatise someone.

Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (whose script is a beautifully judged mixture of soulful dialogue and the rhythms of every day conversation) were both drawn towards the story after their engagement with McCarthyism in Hollywood. In this hunt for reds under the Hollywood bed, both Kazan and Schulberg named names. Both of them felt that they had been lied to and exploited by the communist movement in Hollywood – and also that Stalinist Russia was not a cause worth defending – but that didn’t stop many people rejecting them for breaking the rule of silence (the same rule that runs through this film). On the Waterfront is a heartfelt defence of the whistleblower (or the informer), and why that can sometimes be the only option open.

Based on a true story, Kazan’s film is a masterclass in carefully controlled, intelligent direction bringing out brilliant acting performances (always one of Kazan’s major strengths as director). Leading the way here is Marlon Brando, giving possibly the most famous, most influential acting performance in film history in the lead role. It’s not really an understatement to say it changed the face of movie acting. Brando here performs with a low-key, casual, almost tender naturalism that stands completely at odds with the more exhibitionist performers of the late 40s. And he funnels all this beautifully into Terry Malloy, a tough guy whom he inhabits with a vulnerability and gentleness that never once feels out of place with his temper and pride. There is instead an awe-inspiring transformation here, of the actor becoming the mumbling, uncertain character – not afraid for words to be lost, not worried about making eccentric or unexpected choices as a performer.

Two scenes stand out. In the first, Brando has his first long conversation with Edie Doyle, having rescued her from being set on by union men. In a single take – a carefully orchestrated willingness to let the actors explore the emotional truth of the scene from Kazan – Brando’s Terry shyly, gently, haltingly asks about her life and tries to explain his own. At one point, Edie drops her glove and Brando picks up the glove, fiddles with it and then puts it on – the sort of inspired naturalism that feels like nothing on paper, but on film carries a strange emotional force, a physical representation of the bond between them (and don’t underestimate the way Saint pulls the glove gently from his hand). The entire scene has the air of reality to it, Brando chewing gum, Saint wondering how much of herself to show to a man she isn’t sure she can trust. It’s masterful.

The other scene is of course possibly one of the most famous scenes in movies ever: I coulda been a contender. For films, this is like the To Be or Not To Be speech, a speech that has been quoted and riffed on ever since. But again, Brando resists the temptation throughout for histrionics – when Charley pulls a gun, Brando reacts not with shock or anger but sadness, almost tenderly pushing the gun aside and letting his voice fill with a world of regret for what has become of their relationship. Steiger is superb in this scene, but you can’t look at anyone except Brando here, awkward, sad, struggling to work out what to do with his life and finally confronting the broken past between the brothers with pointed regret and calm realisation rather than the anger and rage that other actors would have chosen. This is an actor who redefined his profession, at the top of his game.

The film is crammed with excellent performances. Eva Marie Saint (Oscar winning) has just the right measure of gutsy determination, fear and tender sweetness as the woman who opens Terry’s eyes to right and wrong. The film gained three Supporting Actor nominations (they all lost). Steiger is cocksure but self-loathing as Terry’s ambitious brother. Lee J. Cobb rages as only he can as the blowhard bully Friendly, demanding absolute loyalty. But on this rewatch, I loved Karl Malden’s moral certainty, courage and stubbornness as Father Barry. In any other film Barry’s speech railing against the dockers for being part of the system that oppresses them, all the time being pelted by food, would be the highlight of the film: here it’s just one of several stand-out moments.

Kazan was a superb visual stylist, this black-and-white masterpiece brilliantly shot by Boris Kaufman to create a world that feels the perfect mixture between the documentary realism and the theatrical. And working with a superb script that he felt such investment in helps to create a story that carries real emotional force, carefully investing you right from the start in Terry’s fundamental goodness and naivety, inviting you to feel rage on his behalf as he is sent to Coventry by his workmates. Topped off with a beautiful score by Leonard Bernstein – part jazzy, part wonderful orchestral stylings – this has barely aged a day in it’s over 60 years.

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant is on the run in the sublime North By Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Josephine Hutchinson (“Mrs Townsend”), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)

What is it about? Ernest Lehman went in wanting to write the “ultimate Hitchcock film”. And I think you can say he pulled it off. North by Northwest is the perhaps the most electric, fun, dynamic and nonsensical of all Hitchcock’s action-adventures, a neat bookend with The 39 Steps for Hitchcock’s career. It’s such good fun you scarcely notice the plot makes very little sense and the film is barely about anything at all other than a man getting chased. It has the most Macguffiniest MacGuffin in the whole Hitchcock career, an item of such little interest to the viewer that it never appears on screen and is only cursorily discussed. 

Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, nifty Mad Man-esque ad executive (you can imagine that Don Draper dreamed of being Roger Thornhill) who accidentally gets mistaken by shady goons for the mysterious “Mr Kaplan”, actually a non-person used as a distraction by the FBI. Cue Thornhill’s kidnapping, interrogation by the goon’s suave leader (James Mason, never more James Mason than here), escaping a murder attempt, getting embroiled in the murder of a UN official and fleeing New York in the train compartment of smart and sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). And that’s before we even mention killer crop dusting planes, faked shootings, auction house shenanigans and a vertigo inducing game of cat-and-mouse on Mount Rushmore. Is there a more fun film in the world?

North by Northwest gained its Hamlet inspired title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hawksaw”) and it’s pretty meaningless – Lehman basically liked it and throws in a fictional “Northwest airline” so Thornhill can fly ‘North’ at one point (geddit?!) – but it also captures a sense of manic powerlessness in the film. Thornhill spends a good slice of the film telling anyone who will listen he is notKaplan, while every action he carries out seems to serve only to convince his pursuers he definitely is. The film’s echo of madness in its title carries across to the frantic energy of the film, and Thornhill’s belief that he must surely be the only sane man in a world of lunatic chaos. 

And it’s prime Hitchcock chaos here in his most engaging, fast-paced and funny action adventure. The sort of prime piece of entertainment assembled with such skill, energy and excellence it looks really easy (but of course isn’t). Hitchcock keeps the momentum of this crazed chase perfectly pitched, and stages each of the set pieces so well that all of them have become icons of adventure cinema. Who can look at a crop dusting plane without thinking of Thornhill running in desperation, in the middle of nowhere, from a lethal plan swooping down on him from above? Who can look at Mount Rushmore without imagining Grant and Saint climbing all over it with Landau in pursuit?

It’s Grant as well that really makes the film work. He’s such an accomplished screen presence, so smooth and practised, it’s very easy to see this as a film where he is barely acting. But that would be to do him a major disservice. Not only is such a balance of light comedy and action so hard to pull off (so much so that Harrison Ford as Indy is possibly the only one who can get close – and that character is chalk and cheese with Thornhill) – but Grant builds a character who develops perceptively and clearly over the course of the film. 

Initially the typical Grantish stereotype – so suave, confident and shallow that even his middle initial “O” literally stands, Harry Truman like, for nothing – Thornhill begins as a man who blithely assumes he can drift through his life and getting anything without question. Events – and his embroilment in them – however see him develop from a deeply selfish and lazy man into one who carries moral force, loyalty, determination and dedication to duty and an increasing sense of confidence and derring-do. From the man who is the victim of circumstance at the start of the film, failing to get anyone to believe him, he becomes a man who saves himself and everyone else with his pluck, daring and resourcefulness. And he does it all while never losing his light, almost put-upon, wit and playfulness. It’s a truly great personality performance with real depth and development: a hollow man who becomes a real man of standing and purpose.

He’s backed superbly by the cast who seize their roles with gusto. James Mason drips British superiority and suaveness (has there ever been two such cool actors facing off?) as VanDamme, Eva Marie Saint is every ounce the brave, resourceful, daring and clever lady that prompts Thornhill to man-up. Jessie Royce Landis gets some lovely comic mileage from Thornhill’s pecking-hen mother (hilariously she’s only 8 years older than Cary Grant). Martin Landau simpers rather effectively as VanDamme’s fey sidekick.

The script is crammed with great lines from Lehman, all of which delivered superbly by the cast. But it’s a director’s treat, and Hitchcock delivers it brilliantly. I’ve mentioned that MacGuffin – it’s some microfilm or something in a statue that’s the root of the all the problems – but it hardly matters. The film powers forward with the dynamic energy of a comic farce crossed with action adventure. Thornhill’s initials spell out “ROT” and in an affectionate thing that’s what the film is – something that doesn’t take it self seriously but sets out to entertain at all costs. 

So we get Hitchcock splicing in rom-com flirtations between Grant and Saint (and no less than two shots of trains speeding down lines and into tunnels, just to hammer home exactly what they are doing to kill time on the ‘sleeper’ train) with edge-of-the-seat sequences (the slow tension build at an abandoned bus station while Grant waits for “Kaplan” only to fall victim to assault from crop duster) then segues back into comedy (the hilarious “pretend to be drunk” to escape assassination at an auction) it’s perfectly assembled. And that end sequence at Mount Rushmore – a near perfect mix of comedy, action, adventure, suspense, thriller and romance. It’s flawless.

William Goldman famously stated North by Northwest had the finest, most economical ending of all time – and it ties up perfectly and beautifully about six plot threads and cliffhangers in less than 70 seconds – but the entire film is a perfect package. Hitchcock’s glossiest chase adventure is wonderfully directed and in Cary Grant it perfectly married up possibly the only actor in the history of film with both the charisma and the acting chops to play the part with one of the greatest entertainments in the history of film. It’s mad, meaningless nonsesense – but who cares, it’s a great, great, great film.