Revisiting On the Waterfront (1954)


To view On the Waterfront click here.

In a limited engagement on FilmStruck, Criterion is streaming On the Waterfront (1954) through October 31. The offer also includes Criterion’s extensive bonus material package. I hope young subscribers will take this opportunity to watch the film, which should be on everyone’s must-see list. As mentioned by one of my readers recently, fewer and fewer young people are turning to classic films for their viewing pleasure. Unable to see beyond the black and white surface and unfamiliar stars, they assume “old movies” have little to offer them.

Teaching the most famous of classic films to students who have never seen them—or even heard of them—is always a challenge. How do I summarize its importance without sounding like a text book? What can I say in a single class period that will help them love it like true film fans? What if I take the wrong tactic, and it confirms their suspicions about “old movies?”

I find that approaching a classic film from their perspective helps. They want to know “what the big deal is;” what they should remember about it; and, what about it is relevant to films they do watch. While this sounds simplistic and obvious, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to stray into fun facts and behind-the-scenes stories that are ultimately not helpful to them.

In teaching On the Waterfront, a story of corruption and redemption among longshoremen on the docks of New York, the main focus is Marlon Brando and the Method. Developed by Lee Strasberg and based on Konstantin Stanislasky’s the System, the Method is an interior approach to acting in which actors attempt to create honest emotions while playing a given scene. The actors don’t simulate, mimic or pretend. They try to recall what anger actually feels like, for example, so their character will seem natural, or genuine. A lot of jokes, misinformation and misrepresentation have muddied this principle idea. The misperception of the Method is that when actors express anger, they actually get angry. It’s not that simple. Instead, actors channel an experience from their past that resulted in anger, and they try to retrieve the sense memories of that experience. In other words, how did anger affect vocal inflection, facial muscles, anxiety levels or other physical responses. The actor then incorporates these sensations into his or her depiction of an angry character.

Other parts to crafting a Method performance include creating a spine in which the actor establishes an interpretation or view of the character that includes behaviorisms, gestures and physical habits. Sometimes, a back story is invented so the actor better understands the character’s motivations. The Method encourages improvisation to keep the performance fresh as well as the incorporation of props and objects for expressive value. Strasberg liked to stress the power of communication among actors in ensemble pieces in which all of the players followed the Method. Actors should really listen to each other as their characters speak during a scene—instead of merely waiting for their turn to say a line. Actors should pick up on each other’s cues and strategies, organically growing the performance as an ensemble.

The Method’s most famous proponent, Brando, embraced this approach to acting, and he became one of the most influential actor of the twentieth century. His early performances crackled with an intensity that was rarely a part of the personality style acting that dominated Hollywood film. He was willing to experiment with improvisation in ways that seemed daring. Most influential was his preference for playing flawed characters. Early on, he excelled at working-class characters such as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. They tended to be inarticulate, uneducated or short-sighted—not heroic in the Hollywood sense. In bringing a measure of realism to characters of all classes and backgrounds, Brando influenced the next generation of actors, which included Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, and the generation after that, including Johnny Depp, Edward Norton and Sean Penn.


Once students are aware of the Method and how it works, it is easy for them to see Brando using it in On the Waterfront. Most obvious is his use of props to express something about Terry that the character is incapable of articulating in words. In the scene where Terry meets Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) on the playground, he plays with her delicate glove, putting it on his big workman’s hand. Director Elia Kazan asked Brando to put it on during the scene, and the actor took it from there, using it to express Terry’s attraction to Edie. He seeks a connection with her that he can’t put into words; it even has a subtle sexual connotation, though not in a crude way. In another scene, Terry chews gum broadly, revealing his lack of manners and couth. He offers gum to Edie, who is angry with him in this scene, so she refuses. He puts the gum in her mouth, eager to restore the connection that was building between them.

All of the principle and secondary players were Method actors in On the Waterfront, and together, they created an ensemble. In the playground scene, Terry recalls Edie’s hairstyle when they were children, but he can’t think of the word “braids.” He’s unschooled, inarticulate and so hems and haws around. Finally, Edie fills in the word “braids” for him. She picked up the sentence where he left off.

In creating a spine for Terry Malloy, Brando devised a stance and walk derived from his background as a boxer. He holds himself in, hunching his shoulders and shoving his hands in his pockets. It’s a defensive posture—one that a former boxer as well as a person controlled by others might take. It contrasts with the body language of Johnny Friendly, played by Lee. J. Cobb. As the crooked head of the longshoreman’s union and top boss on the docks, he struts and gestures expansively.


The taxi scene between Terry and his brother Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, is lauded for Brando’s interpretation of Terry’s lament, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” But, Steiger also pulls his weight in that scene, which is the turning point in the movie. In trying to pull Terry back in line for Johnny Friendly, Charlie goes through a series of emotional changes. At first he’s paternalistic, but this fails to move Terry. He becomes verbally abusive, then threatening, then distraught. Charlie begins to feel guilty over his part in Terry’s failures, then resigns himself to his fate. In the same conversation, Terry realizes the truth about himself and his brother when he discovers that Charlie sold him out long ago. At the beginning of the scene, Charlie is in charge, and Terry is under his thumb; by the end, Charlie’s fate has been sealed, and Terry is a wiser, stronger person. As a star, Brando’s name is still recognized by younger viewers even if they have never seen one of his films; as a character actor, Steiger is destined to be forgotten.

In my experience, most students like classic films once they are exposed to them and given tools to look beyond their black and white surfaces. While some high schools teach filmmaking and even film studies, movie appreciation should be a standard part of the curriculum, just like art or music appreciation.

Susan Doll

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7 Responses Revisiting On the Waterfront (1954)
Posted By Doug Miller : October 16, 2017 1:54 am

My God, you have a tough job! I remember taking a film studies class in 1974. No one explained to me what was great about Prisoner of Zenda, but I got it. Perhaps I have been immersed in movies too long, but when I saw your first paragraph, I thought “If someone needs to be told why On the Waterfront is great, it may be too late for that person.” But then your deft explanation of the Method and the examples you used brought home your point. Thank you. Streamline is itself an education. (Oh, could you follow up with The Pawnbroker? Steiger shout out.)

Posted By swac44 : October 16, 2017 9:56 am

Old habits die hard, I guess Vito Corleone’s cat in the opening scenes of The Godfather was also an on-set improvisation, not found in the script. But the cat clearly took a shine to Brando, the kitten’s purring was so loud that much of his dialogue had to be looped (a process that must be painful for Method actors, having to redo dialogue for a scene they’d already poured so much into).

Posted By Susan Doll : October 16, 2017 10:52 am

Thanks Doug for the kind comments. I love my job, especially when the students respond to the films. The sad part is the realization that without exposure to these films, young people ignore them. With most streaming services focusing on new films they have already seen, their exposure is becoming more and more limited. And, the past couple of generation don’t surf tv; they simply download what they have already seen or heard of.

Posted By Patrick : October 16, 2017 12:39 pm

Good post Susan.!

Posted By kingrat : October 16, 2017 1:16 pm

Thank you for telling us how you introduce classic films to young students. Your explanation of the Method is clear and concise.

Posted By George : October 17, 2017 4:05 pm

Yes, the cat in THE GODFATHER’s opening scene was not in the script. Coppola found it roaming the set and handed it to Brando.

Posted By AL : October 17, 2017 7:47 pm

Don’t forget Leonard Bernstein’s contribution. He organized his magnificent score into a symphonic suite.

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