The Best Picture winner of 1954 (missed it, I was just 2 years old), seems a little cheesy on the writing side (Bud Schulberg, Malcolm Johnson, Robert Siodmak), but its universal themes (greed, power, corruption), sadly still resonate in 2021.
The film’s most saving grace—lo these decades later—remains Leonard Bernstein’s timeless score—strains of which (the poignant French horn solo, the rumbling drums and sympathetic strings), definitely set the stage for West Side Story (cross reference below).
It is most certainly Marlon Brando’s film as Terry Malloy (note the eyebrow “cut” that is on trend in the 21st century)—a prize fighter who threw a match for cash, then to repeat the same offence with Hoboken New Jersey’s corrupt longshoreman’s union, only to have to become a “pigeon” (the film’s most tiresome metaphor) in order to (a) save his soul, (b) win the girl—Eva Marie Saint tries very hard, but there are no true romantic sparks seen or felt.
Playing the priest with a permanent fedora to balance the collar, Karl Malden never convinces that he is truly a man of the cloth.
As the incredibly named Johnny Friendly (the mob’s front man in the longshoremen “union”), Lee J. Cobb is appropriately ruthless and cynical as required—perhaps “touching” Terry a few more times than might be considered appropriate in the early going. Rod Steiger is merely passable as Terry’s selfish older brother, Charley. Not many tears will be shed when he meets his fate.
Along the way, the script tries to explain itself (“Do it to him, before he does it to you”; “Don’t do anything and don’t say anything”), but when the pigeons finally come home to roost, viewers will realize, yet again, that there is still nothing new under the sun.
Director Elia Kazan keeps the trains running on time and brings everyone safely into the port of justice. JWR