Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) is often ranked among the greatest films made in the US. I had seen it when I had been very young but, because of a friend’s suggestion, recently reread the script. I was rather shocked to find that it is a film that celebrates strike-breaking. Yup. Marlon Brando -the hero of the film- is actually a scab.
Turns out Kazan made this film in order to justify his naming names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. And the film definitely bears the traces of this justification. Strike-breaking and betrayal become heroic attributes. And the union rep who is the villain of the story ends up being an archetype of so much Hollywood cinema: a mafioso (I really have to write about the US romance with protection rackets at some point), and an Italian mafioso at that.
The story around the film and Kazan, however, is actually much more interesting. Kazan had originally co-authored a screenplay for a film about the docks with none other than Arthur Miller. When Kazan named names to HUAC and Miller refused to do so their longstanding friendship was unraveled. Kazan got another character who had also named names -a guy named Budd Schulberg– to finish the manuscript. In some ways, this sidestory which is born of betrayal is far more interesting than the actual content of On the Waterfront. But it gets even more interesting.
In response to On the Waterfront, Miller goes on to pen a two-act play, A View from the Bridge (1955) whose narrative judgments are a direct challenge to the justificatory arc of the Kazan film. In this one, the protagonist, Eddie Carbone, does betray his Italian relatives, illegal immigrants who have sought shelter under his roof, but the betrayal is not celebrated as the heroic act of a beautiful Marlon Brando. Rather, it is a horrifying and ultimately tragic choice – and the feeling of the inevitability of the tragedy and the devastating consequences once the betrayal happens are truly harrowing.
The play is fabulous in a lot of ways. The biblical allusions -of a betrayal with a kiss for example- are subtly and beautifully done. The direct challenges to stereotyping of Italians is fabulously sensitive. The sexual politics of the play are astonishingly reflexive. Its engagement with questions of what counts as masculinity are absolutely brilliant. But what is truly the political response to On the Waterfront are the distinctions Miller makes between “law” and “justice”. Not only are these distinctions subtly woven through the shape of the narrative, but they are declared from the very outset in the voice of Alfieri, who is the Greek chorus figure:
You see how easily they [the Italian longshoremen] nod to me? That’s because I am a lawyer. In this neighborhood to meet a lawyer or a priest on the street is unlucky – we’re only thought of in connection with disasters, and they’d rather not get too close.
I often think that behind that suspicious little nod of theirs lie three thousand years of distrust. A lawyer means the law, and in Sicily, from where their fathers came, the law has not been a friendly ideas sine the Greeks were beaten.
I am inclined to notice the ruins in things, perhaps because I was born in Italy… I only came here when I was twenty-five. In those days, Al Capone, the greatest Carthaginian of all, was learning his trade on these pavements, and Frankie Yale himself was cut precisely in half by a machine gun on the corner of Union Street, two blocks away. Oh, there were many here who were justly shot by unjust men. Justice is very important here.
The play also has beautiful discussions of the backbreaking work of the longshoremen. The wonderful little passage about unloading coffee ships -as opposed to malodorous and dangerous cargo- gives something of a flavour of the corporeal day to day experience of these workers. The way allusions to ships appear everywhere -“my ship of hunger” for example- also firmly locate the play in Red Hook…
But the play also gets at the fundamental problem of capitalism. The illegal immigration, the work women of a certain class do (secretarial work that is considered emancipatory), the organisation of communities around work. And then this from Rodolpho, one of the Italian immigrants:
You think we have no tall buildings in Italy? Electric lights? No wide streets? No flags? No automobiles? Only work we don’t have. I want to be an American so I can work, that is the only wonder here – work!
Which as I may have said before reminds me a bit of Frederic Jameson’s “scandalous” reading of Das Kapital – where he says that “Capital is not a book about politics and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment”.
What Miller manages to do in the play is to beautifully wrap this all up in a story about love, jealousy and honour in their manifest forms. There is a lesson in how undidactic the play is and yet it is such a response to Kazan with that last sentence of sorrow and disdain: “And so I mourn him -I admit it- with a certain… alarm.”