Tag: Rod Steiger

The Pawnbroker (1965)

The Pawnbroker Header
Rod Steiger is superb in Lumet’s drama of grief, The Pawnbroker

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Rod Steiger (Sol Nazerman), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marilyn Birchfield), Brock Peters (Rodriguez), Jaime Sanchez (Jesus Ortiz), Thelma Oliver (Ortiz’s girl), Eusebia Cosme (Mrs Ortiz), Marketa Kimbrell (Tessie), Baruch Lumet (Mendel), Linda Geiser (Ruth Nazerman)

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) lost his entire family – including his wife and two children – in the Holocaust. Previously a University professor, he has now cut himself off from engaging with life by burying himself in a dingy pawnbroker’s shop in Harlem, where he treats his desperate customers like “scum”, offering them nickels for their goods. On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Sol confronts his own grief, tensions from local crime boss Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the offer of a friendly ear from new neighbour Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the unwanted friendship of his assistant Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez).

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that all of this does not end well. The Pawnbroker is almost unrelentingly grim and bleak. Shot in a harsh black-and-white – superbly lensed by Boris Kaufman – it mixes French New Wave realism with a punishingly cold New York aesthetic that catches every grain of dirt on the streets. The past is virtually a character in the film, the events of over twenty years ago having far more importance than many of the trivial events Sol encounters in the present.

The constant presence of the Holocaust, and the scars it has left, are kept in our mind by the film’s constant use of quick – almost subliminal – cuts from current day events to snippets of Sol’s past. Hands pressed against windows turn briefly into hands against barbed wire. A young lady flicks back and forth into Sol’s wife. The sounds of a train inevitably transform into a transport train. Lumet makes it clear to us that everything Sol sees and encounters in the modern world, no matter how small, is just a continual reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust that defined his life.

This isn’t something as ‘simple’ as survivor’s guilt. It’s clear that, while his body survived, Sol effectively died in the camps and what we are seeing is his walking corpse. He’s deliberately alienated himself from the world and his concern, with no real desire to live but also no will for self-destruction. Perhaps he sees his continued existence as a punishment for failing to save his family. This has developed into a loathing for the melting pot of Harlem, a stubborn, conscious refusal to feel any empathy for anyone living there. Instead, he works hard to loath them as much as he loathes himself. Trapped by guilt and grief, Sol slaps away any offers of friendship, pity or warmth.

The film’s greatest strength is Rod Steiger’s towering performance. Normally Steiger was an actor who never shied away from the possibility of over-playing. Here, he’s so buttoned down and spiritually dead, every single movement like he’s walking around in a physical and spiritual straitjacket. Sol scuttles around the cages of his pawnshop, like a guy who has never left the camps. His performance is a masterclass in precision, of carefully restrained movement, gruff speech and eyes that stare into a dread a thousand miles away. Every step Steiger takes is weighted down by an impossible burden of grief, anger, despair and self-loathing.

It also avoids completely easy sentiment. For all that we see the suffering slowly revealed of Sol’s past, Steiger isn’t afraid to show Sol as a difficult, arrogant, even unpleasant character. The defence mechanism of hostility and non-engagement of the world has only increased his prickly aggressiveness. But yet, he remains sympathetic as Steiger also conveys the deep pain Sol spends every single minute of his life suppressing and controlling to stop it overwhelming him.

If there is a fault with the film, it’s that it goes about its carefully bleak and hopeless journey through a few days in Sol’s life with slightly too much precision. The Pawnbroker sometimes mistakes grim, hard-hitting and misery for emotional investment. For all that the film is a difficult, searing watch – and the terrors of the flashbacks are ghastly – it’s somehow not quite as moving as it should be. Perhaps this is because the present-day plot never quite takes off and the other characters – with the exception of Peter’s chillingly ebullient but dangerously violent Rodriguez – don’t quite connect. Fitzgerald’s social worker Marilyn is a character we don’t quite get to know. Not quite enough time is spent with Sol’s in-laws (despite good performances from Marketa Kimbrell and Lumet’s father Baruch Lumet) for their story arc to move us in its own right.

Similarly, the Holocaust sequences – brief and interspersed as they are – sometimes overplay their hand, particularly the rather heavy-handed opening sequences showing the Nazerman family playing in the field minutes before the Germans arrive (accompanied by a thudding musical score – and Quincy Jones’ score sometimes tries to do much work for the viewer). It would be hard not to make The Pawnbroker at least a little bit moving, but Lumet’s film bludgeons us with misery so heavily, that there is no sense of the lightness or warmth of life that has been lost. Scenes of the Holocaust of course are hard to watch, but The Pawnbroker bashes us with them to make us feel things. It’s a film that’s tough and leaves you in no doubt of the horror, but doesn’t always make you feel for individual. You need a touch of what was lost to be truly moved: with no real sense of that, we can’t grieve with the characters.

But, The Pawnbroker is still a daring film that leaves a lasting impression. Lumet’s direction has a New Wave freshness and an immersive sense of the New York Streets. Steiger is fantastic in the lead role – his most restrained (and greatest) performance ever. The film broke new ground for sexuality – including making Rodriguez a non-camp, intimidating homosexual – and while the final beats of inevitable tragedy aren’t quite earned by the events we see, it’s still a grim and powerful look at the lasting damage the past causes the present and the crushing legacy of grief.

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne leads the charge on The Longest Day

Director: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

Cast: John Wayne (Lt Col Benjambin Vandervoot), Henry Fonda (General Theodore Roosevelt Jnr), Robert Mitchum (General Norman Cota), Richard Burton (FO David Campbell), Eddie Albert (Col Lloyd Thompson), Sean Connery (Pvt Flanagan), Curd Jurgens (General Gunther Blumentritt), Richard Todd (Maj John Howard), Peter Lawford (Brig Lord Lovat), Rod Steiger (Lt Com Joseph Witherow Jnr), Irina Demick (Jeanine Boitard), Gert Frobe (Pvt “Coffee Pot”), Edmond O’Brien (General Raymond Barton), Kenneth More (Capt Colin Maud), Robert Ryan (Gen James Gavin), Red Buttons (Pvt John Steele), Christian Marquand (Cpt Philippe Kieffer), Jean-Louis Barrault (Fr Louis Rolland), Arletty (Mdm Barrault), Paul Hartmann (Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt), Werner Hinz (Field Marshall Erwin Rommel), Wolfgang Priess (General Max Premsel), Peter van Eyck (Lt Col Karl Williams Ocker)

Darryl F Zanuck wanted to make the War Film to end all War Films. So, what better way than to restage D-Day itself, with a cast (as the poster brags) of 42 International Stars, playing out almost in real-time. It’s a grand ‘mock-documentary’ shot in black-and-white (so that actual war footage can be integrated into the film) and aims to show the perspectives of the four main combatants (the Americans, the British, the French and the Germans – with all their scenes played in their respective languages). Adapted from a definitive D-Day book by Cornelius Ryan, it makes for huge, now slightly old-fashioned, Sunday afternoon fun and one of the most iconic second world war films.

To make his dream come true, Zanuck left no stone unturned. Pretty much every single part is played by a ‘name’ actor (although, rather like Around the World in 80 Days, time has left some of them less recognisable than others) no matter how small the role. And I mean no matter how small. Many of the actors appear in no more than one or two scenes. Steiger chips in a brief speech as a Naval officer. Burton has two scenes as an RAF officer, one of the last of the “Few”. Fonda contributes a few minutes of heroism as Theodore Roosevelt Jnr. Robert Ryan briefs The Duke as General Gavin. Jean Servais makes a grand speech as a French Admiral. Gert Frobe doesn’t even speak as a (what else?) bullying German soldier. This parade of stars does though does mean you pay a lot more attention to every single part and it makes it a lot easier to keep track of who’s who.

It’s certainly a ‘producer’s’ film. Zanuck held complete creative control, splitting the directorial duties between three hired hands. Annakin directed all the British and French scenes (and most of the American ‘briefing room’ scenes). Martan, an experienced second unit director, was hired to shoot most of the battle sequences. Wicki looked after the German sequences. With the brief being to replicate the documentary style of actual footage, naturally this basically led to a film that doesn’t have the feel of being ‘authored’ (in the way, say, Saving Private Ryan does), but it’s functional shooting style and design does make it fairly easy to follow.

And it needs to be easy to follow, as this is a very long film indeed – and with the cast frequently changing from scene to scene, can become overwhelming. The quick changes of location – and the lack of time spent with any single character – often means it’s hard to connect to strongly to any of the individual characters. Most of the more prominent characters gain their personality solely from the actors playing them: so I don’t really know what the real Colonel Vandervoot is like, but I know his character here is basically ‘John Wayne’.

The more prominent roles in the script rely on these personality parts. Wayne probably has the largest individual role as the Paratrooper commander who breaks his ankle on landing, but doesn’t let that slow him down from hitting his objective. (Wayne also gets a great little speech, the sort of thing much missed in Ryan, where he praises Brit fortitude under the Blitz, which is a lovely moment of Allied brotherhood). Mitchum gets the juiciest action as General Cota, the highest-ranking soldier on Omaha Beach, who leads the first break out. At the other end of the ranking, Red Buttons brings charm and heartfelt emotion to the most memorable sequence as Pvt John Steele, the paratrooper who landed on top of the church spire at Sainte-Mère-Église, deafened by bells and forced to watch the rest of his platoon slaughtered on landing.

The scale is really what it’s all about. The recreation of the D-Day landings is stunning (the first boats, though, don’t hit the beaches until well over two hours into the film), and its genuinely hard to tell the difference between what is recreated and what is actual war footage. The film doesn’t shirk from showing the cost of war, or the slaughter on that beach (although of course, it looks reserved compared to Ryan). But the combat and operations elsewhere are also perfectly recreated. Richard Todd is very good as Major John Howard, in an expert reconstruction of the seizing of the Orne Bridges near Caen (in real life, Todd himself was one of the commandos serving under Howard and even has a scene where Todd as Howard talks to another actor as Todd).

These battle sequences make for compelling viewing. Slightly less so is the long build-up of the Allies to the attack. There are many, many scenes in various briefing rooms and for every delight (such as Jack Hedley’s briefing around “Rupert” a model paratrooper, dropped as a distraction) there are po-faced actors staring into the middle distance and discussing how important everything is. By far and away the most interesting content in the first half is less the Allies (waiting to leave) than the Germans (trying to work out how and where the Allies will arrive). These scenes feature a range of German officers, from the quietly resigned to die-hard, head-in-the-sand Fascists, and revolve around a series of fascinating debates on where, when or even if at all the Allied attack will come. With a cast of excellent German actors – Jurgens, Preiss, Hartmann, Hinz and Wolfgang Buttner are particularly fine – these scenes stand out as they present a perspective we don’t often get to explore. (Even though the film squarely accepts the German military view that the defeat was all Hitler’s fault and the army was completely blameless of any of the crimes of Nazism.)

After the slow-build, the explosion of tension and action is done really effectively. Sure, the film is long and episodic, but the ever-changing locations do frequently help with the pace. The film’s documentary style also lends it a great deal of authority that a more ‘fictional’ film would not have. After all, pretty much everyone in the film is ‘real’ and while the film could be seen as a collection of D-Day anecdotes, strange moments – such as a platoon of Germans and Americans passing each other on opposite sides of a low wall without noticing each other – have the ring of truth. The script was doctored by a host of major novelists and playwright (including Noel Coward) to brush it up, but really this is a producer’s triumph.

And it is a triumph for Zanuck. Everything he sought to do, he accomplished here – and the doubts that he could pull it off were moved as wrong, as those who doubted whether the Allied plan to cross the Channel would work. Hugely impressive in its staging, detailed in its recreation and with a cast of stars and top actors giving every scene a fresh bit of life, this makes for one of the all-time classic war films.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif are star cross’d lovers in Lean’s epic but flawed Doctor Zhivago

Director: David Lean

Cast: Omar Sharif (Dr Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Victor Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Lt General Yevgraf Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (The Girl), Bernard Kay (Bolshevik), Klaus Kinski (Amoursky), Noel Willman (Razin), Geoffrey Keen (Professor Kurt), Jack MacGowan (Petya)

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is one of the seminal 20th century novels. Smuggled out of the USSR after being refused publication, it became an international sensation and led directly to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize (although the USSR insisted he turn it down). A film was only a matter of time – and who else would you call but David Lean, master of the pictorial epic, to bring the novel about the Russian Revolution to the screen. Lean – with his masterful Dickensian adaptations – was perfect in many ways but Doctor Zhivago, for me, is the least satisfying of his ‘Great Films’. It’s strangely empty and sentimental, lacking some of the novel’s strengths zeroing in on its weaknesses.

Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is training to be a Doctor in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his father’s old friend Gromeko (Ralph Richardson), Yuri is part scientist, part poetic free-thinker. Events throw him together with Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman whose fiancé Pasha (Tom Courtenay) has ties to the revolutionaries, while she is trapped in an abusive relationship with the amoral Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). But are all these troubles worth a hill of beans in a country about to tear itself apart?

There are many things you can’t argue with in Lean’s film. It is of course unfailingly beautiful. Ironically filmed in Fascist Spain, it’s gorgeously lensed with a luscious romanticism by Frederick Young (who won his second Oscar for a Lean film). It’s not just pictorial beauty either: Young frequently makes wonderful uses of splashes of Monet red to dapple the frame. From poppies in a field to the ubiquitous communist imagery on uniforms and walls. There are some wonderfully cool blues employed for the snow, while slashes of light pass across eyes with a gorgeous lyricism.

Romance is the name of the game, with everything working overtime to stress the star cross’d lovers plot. Maurice Jarre’s score – in particular its balalaika inspired Lara’s Theme – mixes Russian folk inspirations with an immortal sense of longing. It plays over a film that, while very long, often feels well-paced, even if (just as the novel) its episodic and at times rambling. Lean’s direction of epic events revolving around personal loves and tragedies is still exquisite in its balance between the grand and intimate. The film is wonderfully edited and a fabulous example of long-form storytelling.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Zhivago? In a film with so much to admire, is it possible Lean and co spent years working on something only to bring the word but not the spirit to the screen? The key problems come round to Zhivago himself. This is man defined by his poetic soul. His poetry becomes a sensation after his death. His balalaika is a constant companion, and his playing of it an inherited gift (which even has major plot implications). Inexplicably, the film has not a single word of poetry in it (when it had Pasternak’s entire back catalogue to work with) and Zhivago never so much as strums the strings of his balalaika. It’s like filming Hamlet and then making him a mute.

The problem is, removing the character’s hinterland makes him a rather empty character. Zhivago is a liberal reformer, in sympathy with the revolution but not it’s methods. This should be at the heart of understanding his character, but like his poetry the film has no time for it. Instead, Zhivago is boiled down into a romantic figure, nothing more. He has no inner life at all, a blank canvas rather than an enigma.

Suddenly those long lingering shots of Sharif’s puppy-dog eyes end up carrying no real meaning. They aren’t the windows to his soul, only a big watery hole with not much at the bottom. Sharif is awkwardly miscast – and lacks the dramatic chops O’Toole bought to Lawrence – but it’s not completely his fault. His character has had his depth removed. When we see him struggling at the front, trapped on a long train ride to Siberia or forced to work with partisans, he’s not a man who seems to be considering anything, but just buffeted by fortune, neither deep or thoughtful enough to reflect on the world around him. That’s not really Pasternak’s intention.

Instead, the film boils the novel down to his plot-basics and, in doing so, removes the heart of what got the book banned in the first place. Lean misunderstood the future of Soviet Russia so much, he even chose to end the film with a romantic rainbow at the foot of a waterfall. The horrors of the civil war and the revolution are largely there briefly: a gang of deserting soldiers unceremoniously frag their officers and Zhivago frequently stares sadly at villages burned out by Whites or Reds (or both). But the film is more of a romance where events (rather than politically and social inevitability) gets in the way of the lovers – like Gone with the Revolution.

By removing the more complex elements – and the poetic language of Pasternak – you instead have the rather soapy plotline (with its contrivances and coincidences) left over. Again, it’s Hamlet taking only the events and none of the intellect or language. (And Pasternak’s novel didn’t compare with Hamlet in the first place.) Both Zhivago and Lara are shot as soft-focus lovers, with Julie Christie styled like a perfectly made-up slice of 60s glamour. It’s a grand scale, but strangely empty romance, because both characters remain unexplored and unknowable – in the end it’s hard to care for them as much as we are meant to do. For all the epic scale, small moments – such as an aging couple sharing a cuddle late at night on a train floor – carry more impact. How did the director of Brief Encounter – a romance that speaks to the ages for its empathy – produce such an epic, but empty, posture filled romance as this?

Julie Christie does fare better than Sharif – she’s a better actor, and her character has a bit more fire and depth to her. But she’s not in the picture enough, and Lean quietly undersells the terrible trauma of her eventual fate. Ironically, the smaller roles are on surer ground. Geraldine Chaplin is rather affecting as Zhivago’s wife, a dutiful and caring woman who her husband loves but is not besotted with. Ralph Richardson is witty and moving in a tailor-made role as her eccentric father. Tom Courtenay landed the films only acting Oscar nomination as the reserved and conflicted Pasha. Rod Steiger is very good as the mass of greed, selfishness and barely acknowledged shame as Komarovsky. Alec Guinness is bizarrely miscast as Sharif’s younger brother (!) but handles some of the film’s duller scenes well (Lean’s decision to have him never speak on screen except in the film’s framing device works very well).

There is a lot of good stuff in Zhivago, but this is a neutered and even slightly shallow film, that’s far more about selling a romance than it is telling a true adaptation of the themes of the novel. In Lawrence, Lean showed us multiple aspects of a conflicted personality to leave us in doubt about who he really was. In Zhivago, he just presents a rather empty person and seems unsure if he wants to use to ask who he is. The film concentrates on making the romance sweeping and easily digestible. What it doesn’t make us do is really care for them as people.

Waterloo (1970)

Rod Steiger chews the scenery as Napoleon in this epic restaging of Waterloo

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Rod Steiger (Napoleon Bonaparte), Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (Lt-General Thomas Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O’Herlihy (Marshal Michel Ney), Rupert Davies (Colonel Gordon), Philippe Forquet (Brigadier-General Bédoyère), Ian Ogilvy (Colonel De Lancey)

In 1970 there was no CGI. Want to stage a battle scene? Well you’re going to have to use real people, rather than populating your screen with pixel soldiers. I’ve always had a fondness for epic films of this era, where you look at the screen and know everything is real. And one of the best examples of this battle-heavy genre is this 1970’s chronicle of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Because in 1970 the only way to recapture the battle on camera was effectively to re-fight it with a cast of tens of thousands of extras and horses, across a film set the size of the original battlefield. Can you imagine anyone attempting that today?

An international co-production, the film throws together an eccentric hodgepodge of actors. No more than you would expect of a film co-financed by Italy and the Soviet Union, shot in English, directed by a Ukrainian (with a team of four translators) with a lead actor from New York and the cast stuffed with dubbed actors from across Europe. In fact the slight air of Euro-tackiness about the film is one of the things I sort of love about it.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon delivers the sort of OTT performance he loved to give, capturing the self-aggrandising, larger-than-life nature of the Emperor while frequently chewing the scenery and oscillating between whispers and shouting. It’s perhaps no more than you would expect when playing a man whose entire life was a stage-managed performance of dangerous charisma. It does though make a nice contrast with Christopher Plummer who, perhaps aware of who he was working with, goes for an archly low-key, even wry touch, as the more austere Wellington.

The film covers the time period of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from his arrival from Elba to the final defeat at Waterloo (with a neat prologue showing an exhausted Napoleon accepting he must abdicate and head into exile in 1814). Much of the first half hour is a showpiece for Steiger’s bombastic Napoleon. Few other characters get a look in (Welles cashes another of his cheques for one-scene cameos, as a bloated Louis XVIII fleeing into exile). To be honest, much of the first half of the film is a slightly stodgy (more-or-less) faithful trot through historical events leading to the battle.

But this is really to set the table for the film’s central appeal, which is that astonishing recreation of the battle itself. Shot in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union (as their part of the deal) effectively recreated the landscape of Waterloo, bulldozing hills, planting thousands of trees, sowing fields and laying over six miles of drainage to help create the muddy fields. On top of which, the USSR threw in 17,000 troops to serve as extras (insanely impressive, even considering it’s only a fraction of the nearly 191,000 troops involved at various stages in the battle).

Marshalling all this was Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Used to commanding film sets like this – he had previously directed a four-part version of War and Peace, where similar number of Soviet troops had recreated Austerlitz and Borodino – Bondarchuk certainly knows how to show the money is all on screen. Aerial shots and long tracking shots take in regiments of soldiers taking up position. Cavalry charges of hundreds of horses are brilliantly shot. The French cavalry charge against the British infantry squares is stunning in its scale and size. Everywhere you look, wide-angled shots demonstrate the depth of extras, the vast scope of the battle and the huge numbers of soldiers marching across screen. If nothing else it’s a superb marshalling of resources.

Bondarchuk brings a number of stylistic flourishes from his War and Peace to the film here. Sadly many of these choices have dated badly – and even at the time, looked a little silly. Interior monologues are demonstrated with close-ups and the sound of actors whispering over the soundtrack (although Bondarchuk also mixes this up with a prowling Napoleon addressing the camera directly). The film loves crash-zooms and fast wipes – one crash zoom generates giggles as it zooms in on Napoleon as he turns fast to face the camera after particularly bad news. Bondarchuk at times drains out the noise of the battle to focus on small details, most notably in the British cavalry charge. It gives moments of the film an odd dreamy film, particularly striking because most of it is so baked in realism.

To be honest the film is workmanlike, rather than inspired, with all the focus on marshalling the thousands of extras. There are moments of character for both Napoleon and Wellington – flashes of doubt, insecurity, fear are mixed in with supreme confidence. The film also hits a neat line in the horrors of war. The camera tracks along the mangled bodies after the battle, while at the peak of the clash a British soldier has a mental collapse, breaking from his square to bemoan “Why are we killing each other?” Not exactly subtle, but it works.

But the film’s main appeal is that scope – and its breath taking. The film itself is more to look at than think about, but with the detail of its recreation of the battle makes it a must for any Napoleonic history buff. Peter Jackson has said his own cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings were inspired by this film – the difference being Jackson’s horses were CGI, while Bondarchuk literally charged hundreds of horses direct at the camera. And you won’t see scope like that anywhere else.

And that’s partly because the film was a bomb, putting an end to such huge scale films as this and also leading to Stanley Kubrick’s plans for a Napoleon biopic being cancelled. Perhaps the worst part of its legacy.

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.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger confront racism In the Heat of the Night

Director: Norman Jewison

Cast: Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Chief Bill Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Mrs Colbert), Larry Gates (Endicott), James Patterson (Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Schubert), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba), Peter Whitney (Courtney)

A slim, tight thriller with a social message, In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture in 1967, beating out Bonnie and Cyde and The Graduate (both films with a revolutionary impact on films making) as well as another Sidney Poitier starrer, the even-more message heavy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. An unflashy, cleanly made, efficient film, In the Heat of the Night is in some ways a surprising winner – but the shocking depiction of racism in the Deep South at the time still hits home today.

In Sparta, Mississippi a wealthy industrialist from Chicago is found murdered in the street. Who committed the crime? Well surely it’s the well-dressed black man with a wallet full of money waiting to get out of town at the train station. The man is hauled in – only for him to reveal he is an expert homicide detective from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Tibbs is sucked in to assist local police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to investigate the crime, partly on the order of his boss, partly due to his disgust at the police department’s racism and incompetence, and partly at the pleading of the victim’s widow (Lee Grant) who recognises him as the best officer for the case. But will Tibbs’ expertise crack the case in a town where the idea of a black man in a suit, asking questions and taking no shit, is a still a surefire recipe for a lynching?

Nominally In the Heat of the Night is a murder mystery, but you’ll be hard pushed to remember much about the case after you finish the film. The eventual killer emerges from left field and the steps of the investigation are often unclear. While the film is trim, it does mean the tension around the killer’s identity never really builds up and we never get a real sense of the personality of the suspects (apart from the uniform racism).

Where its real strength is, is in the mis-matched “buddy” movie structure of two men forced to work together, the difference being that both casual and violent racism underpins every interaction Tibbs has in the town. Poitier was seen as a calm and graceful figure, but In the Heat of the Night finally gave him the chance to mix dignity with resentment and anger that had never been seen in a black character on screen before. The film works due to Poitier’s inherent toughness, his lack of compromise and anger at injustice. Poitier was never more hard-edged, defiant and determined to get what he deserves. Unlike Poitier’s other racial buddy movie The Defiant Ones, you can’t imagine Tibbs jumping off the train to freedom to try and save Tony Curtis.

Tibbs isn’t just the smartest, toughest policeman on the screen – he demands to be treated like it. The film’s most famous scene – and shocking at the time – is during Tibbs’ questioning of genteel racist Endicott in his orchid greenhouse. Endicott – whose home resembles nothing more than a plantation, loaded with black workers – is well spoken but inherently racist, and slaps Tibbs when his questions go on too long – only to immediately receive a backhand from Tibbs in return. Endicott is as shocked as audiences were – the idea of a black man striking back was on unheard of.

It’s terrifying and sickening to realise however that the American South at the time was genuinely like this. The slap is a proud moment – but it marks Tibbs for retribution. There is a genuine danger Tibbs will get lynched in this film (twice he narrowly escapes murder at the hands of a gang of furious rednecks). In real life, Poitier was very hesitant to film in the South, and for the brief location shooting in Tennessee slept with a gun under his pillow. The film is littered with casually dropped racial slurs, the politest of which is “boy”. It leads to the famous line from Tibbs that back home “they call me Mister Tibbs” – but you forget that it follows from Gillespie asking him what an n-word copper is called in Philadelphia. And even after that Gillespie only calls him Virgil, as if still not quite able to compute the idea of a black man who can be a “mister”.

The relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie is the heart of the film. And the film is brave to not have this turn into “they were opponents but then they became the best of friends”. Instead there is a sort of grudging respect that grows, even though Tibbs clearly thinks Gillespie is an impulsive racist and Gillespie thinks Tibbs is a stiff-backed but brilliant n-word. Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor, and he does some fine work as the complex Gillespie. Keeping his explosive energy in check (despite the inevitable outbursts), Steiger sketches out a character who is smart enough to know he isn’t smart enough, who can respect Tibbs’ professionalism and understand on some level that racism is beyond all sense but still drop racial words with an instinctive ease.

Steiger’s Gillespie is a tough-talking, stereotypical cop but he’s also got a sad little hinterland – a late dinner at his home with Tibbs has him confess that Tibbs is his only guest for years – and while he arrests no fewer than three innocent people for the crime, there is no doubting his dedication to justice. Steiger doesn’t apologise for Gillespie’s appalling attitudes, but also does enough to suggest that his racism is learned rather than innate. While never completely sympathetic, especially today, the film lays hints of hope that a racist cop from the South could work side-by-side with a black officer – and that was considerable progress at the time.

But it’s Poitier’s movie, and while in many ways he has the simpler part (and Poitier generously ceded his admiration for Steiger’s skill and craft pushing him to a level he felt he not reached before), Tibbs is the centre of the film. Jewison skilfully shoots Poitier as always the outsider, from his looks and Sherlock Holmes style skills, to the way the camera focuses on his hands touching things – from dead bodies to door knobs – to the visible discomfort of the white men watching him. Tibbs may be arrogant but he’s right and Poitier’s refusal to compromise or offer any concessions is a striking thing – Tibbs is who he is and he won’t change a thing to be accepted by the white man. At the end, he may respect the steps Gillespie has taken – but I doubt he’d consider the man a friend and certainly not a professional equal. 

In the Heat of the Night is still shocking for the openly displayed racism and menace of violence that black people faced in the Deep South in sixties America. Jewison’s film is efficiently assembled and tightly edited – not a single minute is wasted in one of the shortest Best Picture winners ever – and while its mystery is little to write home about, its portrait of racism in America is still shocking and stirring and its two lead performances are things to linger in the memory.