“On the Waterfront” (1954) is one of the most illustrious and rousing depictions of humanity ever put to film, poetically illustrating the eventual triumph of justice over the suffocating mob corruption of the longshoremen’s union on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey.
Caught at the center is the amoral Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a cynical former boxer whose life had been mired in venality via his brother Charley’s (Rod Steiger) wicked ties. Nevertheless, Terry is primarily swayed by the prevailing good of both Father Barry (Karl Malden) and especially newfound romantic interest Edie Boyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of longshoreman Joey who is offed before he could notify authorities of the racketeering. Ultimately, two symbolic victories by Brando’s character finally undoes the influence of mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) – in both the courtroom and in a battle-lost-but-war-victorious fight on the waterfront.
Though as moving as the film has been in the last 62 years, the Elia Kazan-directed and Budd Schulberg-written masterpiece saw its original score by Leonard Bernstein highlighted in magnificent fashion by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on November 18th at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Leading the proceedings was conductor/composer David Newman, a legendary scorer of over 110 movies, whose interpretation of Bernstein’s work manifested as robust accents to the picture and dialogue with grand bursts of suspenseful sound and soothing, heaven-sent melodies.
In reminding us how significant music is to not only our senses, but in coloring our kaleidoscope of emotions, Bernstein’s one and only original film score glows with resonant tones and galvanizes each would-be goosebump. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine how none of “On the Waterfront’s” eight Academy Awards went to Bernstein, but nonetheless, as the L.A. Philharmonic demonstrated with poignant precision, his work has endured with great dignity because of how well his score knows the human spirit.
For instance, the purposeful percussion in the opening scene when Terry Malloy is introduced — and Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) becomes another victim to the foul power structure — jump-starts the chest with frantic fear. Yet, the same booming bass that underscores much of the conflict becomes sublimated by melancholic exhortation to temper Father Barry’s solemn message about unity in the face of exploitation, and is absorbed by the gentleness of stringed instruments to signify the burgeoning love between Terry and Edie.
However, the most memorable of Bernstein’s suite is heard during the film’s climax when Brando stirringly gets across the willful fortitude of a man – battered and beaten to a bloody pulp – who musters inspiring strength by merely walking, even stumbling, on his own accord as a show of exhilarating solidarity. The battering of the timpani, amid the fervency of the brass section, palpitates the cockles of the heart in the most electrifying of motivational pleas to succeed. And when Terry, at long last, changes the complexion of his town by sheer force of his determined grit, we are left feeling contentedly exhausted by the musical measures that prodded him toward the proverbial finish line.
The exultation provided by the finale perhaps meant a little more on the evening of November 18th, undoubtedly on account of the skilled live orchestration, but also for another reason – the fact that the vivacious Eva Marie Saint, 92 years young, gave a heartwarming speech that segued into the concert-film extravaganza.
As one of the last remaining survivors of the indelible motion picture that earned her the Oscar for best supporting actress, Saint charmingly described how nerve-racking it was to do her inaugural film after years of TV and theatre work. She was so overwrought that she cried in the car on the way to her first day of shooting, which took place on the rooftop with Brando and the pigeons. When Kazan asked her to act terrified in the scene, she humorously recounted not requiring any inspiration because she already was scared out of her wits.
Upon fulfilling all her responsibilities to the production, the revered actress revealed, in a touching parallel, that she again cried in her car on the way back – but this time from bittersweet sadness. Saint knew she had been a part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience that Bernstein recognized, too, when he turned to her at the end of the premiere and said, “It is a great film.”
For more information about upcoming events at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, please visit laphil.org