For those that find in them a certain joy every time the orchestra of film kicks, when those studio logos lighten the dark of the screen and the familiar trumpet notes sound, you know what I mean when I say that the greatest films ever made are a must see for everyone. Those top 100 or 200, or 500 films that everyone should see before they die. Film is subjective though, and there are many lists. Fortunately for us, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. From top to bottom, the list compiles the greatest American films released in the first 100 years of cinema.
The eighth film on AFI’s list is Marlon Brando’s great performance in On the Waterfront. The film was made from Budd Schulberg’s Oscar winning screenplay and directed by Elia Kazan in 1954. Starring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, it tells the tale of an ex-prizefighter working on the docks for a local gang boss.
The gang boss orders the killing of one of Malloy’s childhood friends filling the washed up fighter with guilt. He’s stuck with the guilt though as the gang boss runs the docks and his options are severely limited. That is until he meets the murdered friend’s sister, played by Eva Saint Marie who tries her hardest to convince Malloy to stand up for himself and his beliefs against Friendly, the gang boss.
He doesn’t though, until he’s faced with the death of another friend who refuses to take action against Malloy himself. After testifying against Friendly and confronting him on the docks in front of all the workers there though he regains their respect and comes out as the victor in a battle he didn’t think he could win.
The film was loosely based on a series of Pulitzer prize winning articles in the New York Sun by Malcom Johnson titled “Crimes on the Waterfront”. The tales of mobster activity, long shoremen standing up for themselves, and a Catholic Priest operating in the area to try and counteract as much as he can were true and led Schulberg to the majority of his screenplay’s plot.
The film itself was steeped in interesting political intrigue as both Schulberg and Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming Hollywood insiders as communist sympathizers. The original screenplay writer, Arthur Miller was removed from the project because of his position on the blacklist of likely communists.
The film went on to win eight academy awards including best picture, best actor, best director, and best screenplay among others. The film’s success at the time was not only a political punch from Kazan and Schulberg but a shift from the films of the day that strayed from politics and controversy.
Malloy’s “I could have been a contender” line is also notably marked as the third greatest line in movie history by the American Film Institute.