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February 24th, 2019

On The Waterfront (1954)

On The Waterfront won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of 1954, and picked up another seven, Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Black-and-White (Richard Day), Best Cinematography Black-and-White (Boris Kaufman) and Best Film Editing (Gene Milford). Three of the cast were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Edmond O'Brien in The Barefoot Contessa. Leonard Berstein was nominated for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for The High and the Mighty. That record of eight Oscars was the same as the previous year's From Here to Eternity, and also Gone With the Wind (though both had thirteen nominations to On The Waterfront's twelve). The other contenders for Best Motion Picture were The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in the Fountain.

Both IMDB rakings, by score and number of votes, put it in 4th place for the year, with Rear Window and Seven Samurai ahead in both tables. The only other 1954 film that I think I have seen is The Belles of St Trinian's. (I am not really a film buff.) It's interesting that this is in black and white, fifteen years after Gone With the Wind. This trailer references Going My Way, which won ten years earlier:

It's a gritty story of corruption on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, with Brando's character a naïve young ex-boxer whose brother is the fixer for the local chieftain. The good guys eventually triumph, and the evil mr Friendly's grip is broken. I'm ranking it almost exactly half way down my list of Oscar-winning films (13th out of 26, if you want to know); I think it takes a similar theme to How Green Was My Valley and indeed Going My Way, but does it somewhat better; on the other hand I enjoyed it a bit less than Grand Hotel. I would have put it below Mrs Miniver apart from one redeeming virtue which I'll get to at the end.

All About the Men: Eva Marie Saint is luminous and effective as Edie Doyle, whose brother is killed by the mob in the first scene and who then becomes the love interest and inspiration for Brando's character Terry Molloy. She absolutely deserves her Oscar. (Aged 94, she is still around as of this writing.) But she is the only credited woman actor of the entire film. (There are several uncredited women in minor speaking or non-speaking roles.)

Plot: I'm marking the film down a bit for the actual story. It's pretty clear from early on what's going to happy; the nice characters move along inevitable arcs of redemption at different speeds (apart from those who die trying), and the bad guy is irredeemable. My revolutionary soul is struck by the fact that while the evil unions are clearly portrayed as the problem, there is no corresponding critique of the economic system that keeps the longshoremen trapped in dangerous low-paying jobs. (Also the agents of state coercion are all good guys.) At least collective action does survive to the end. It's a rather right-wing film, and I'm a little surprised to see so little commentary about this aspect of it online.

Whitewashing: This is normally my starting point, but in fact On The Waterfront is the first Oscar-winning film since Casablanca to have a black actor in a speaking part - Don Blackman as Luke, one of the longshoremen. I should add that as far as I can tell, there really weren't a lot of non-white dockworkers in Hoboken in the 1950s. Even today the city's black population is only around 4%. I'll be interested to read the journalism on which the film is based (I have it on order), but this may be an unusual case where one black guy in a cast of several dozen is actually over-representative for the time and place (and that's not a bad thing, let's be clear). Don Blackman, born in 1912 (so 42 when the film was made) had only just ended his career as a professional wrestler, where he fought under the name "Black Panther" and briefly held a world championship. This was more than a decade before Stan Lee invented the character of the same name for Marvel. Several other cast members were former professional boxers and wrestlers.

Brando: Being a film ignoramus as I am, I think the only other films I've seen Brando in are Guys and Dolls and The Godfather, which I will get to in eighteen years' time, plus of course Superman. His performance here is pretty electrifying. I complained above that Terry Molloy's character arc is a bit predictable, but Brando is completely magnetic as he portrays a not terribly bright kid who is compelled to raise his game and do the right thing, depite the potential personal cost. I commented earlier on his spark with Eva Marie Saint; I was also struck by the relationship with his screen brother, played by Rod Steiger (playing the older sibling despite being a year younger than Brando in real life). This is probably also the point to say that Steiger, Lee Cobb as the evil Mr Friendly and Karl Malden as the uncertain priest Father Barry all got Best Supporting Actor nominations. The only other film to get three Oscar nominations in this category is, again, The Godfather.

Cinematography: As noted above, Kazan chose to make the film in black and white, and it gives a tremendous sense of atmosphere which perhaps we might not have had in full colour. (A few seconds of colour film survive from filming.) The town of Hoboken, never actually named, is convincingly brought to life in the location shooting. (I don't think any of it was done in studio.) The camera tells the story as much as the acting, and it's the main channel for the Biblical references which reinforce the plot.

Music: This is really impressive. I wish I had been keeping a separate scorecard for the best incidental music in these films; this is up there with William Walton's Hamlet, Hugo Friedhofer's The Best Years of Our Lives, Miklós Rózsa’s The Lost Weekend and the various arrangements in Grand Hotel, and possibly the best of them if you like Bernstein's kind of thing (and I do). Listen for yourself.

So I was generally satisfied with the film, despite some grumbles. You can get it here.


Next up is Marty, of which I know nothing at all.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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When in Rome...

I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a lecture in Rome a couple of weeks ago, and made it into a long Valentine's Day weekend with Anne. I was speaking to students of the University of Washington in the Palazzo Pio near Campo de'Fiori. The building itself in 15th century, remodelled in the 17th century, but it incorporates parts of the temple of Venus Victrix built by Pompey as part of his theatre in 55 BC. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC at the other end of the building complex, ten minutes' walk away. So it was rather thrilling to speak to students in a building that had been in use, off and on, for over two millennia.






We did a number of the usual tourist things, but also went a little off the beaten track. If you want to do the standard attractions, even in February which is not exactly top tourist season, you have to do a bit more forward planning than we did and get your tickets in advance. (Next time, I want to book a guided tour of the Forum.) Even so, we were very lucky with the light and I think we got some good pictures of:

The Colosseum
The Arch of Constantine



The Forum


Panorama at St Peter's Square


The Portico of Octavia


Marcus Aurelius, not meditating


The Wedding Cake


Castel Sant'Angelo


The Great Synagogue

So we made a strategic decision to concentrate on the earlier Christian monuments in Rome; and gosh, there are plenty of them. I should say that we were tremendously helped in this by the Churches of Rome Wiki, which has a very engaging combination of erudition, enthusiasm and snark.

We started with Santa Maria in Trastevere, partly because I had misremembered it as the burial place of the Irish Earls (actually they are ten minutes away up a steep hill in San Pietro in Montorio; next time). But it turns out to have many points of interest of its own - the church as it is now was built in the 12th century on 4th-century foundations, and has beautiful 12th-century mosaics. In a side chapel is the Madonna della Clemenza, one of the oldest known icons in existence, rather worn but believed to date from around 700.

(Just to add some snark of my own - we had gone over to Trastevere for a Valentine's Day dinner, at a mid-range place on Via della Pelleccia. There were two American women at the next table, and from body language and overheard scraps of conversation it became clear to us that one of them thought they were on a romantic date and the other didn't. The less romantic one made her excuses and departed just as their main course arrived, leaving her friend furiously texting. We've all been there.)

Now that we had got into the early Christian vibe, our next stop was Sant'Agata dei Goti, built (or reconstructed) by Ricimer, the power behind the throne in the mid fifth century (as the Western Empire staggered to its end) as an Arian church for his followers. Rather obviously, it was renovated in the 17th century, but the ground plan and the pillars are still those that Ricimer would have known, and the white structure above the altar topped by a pyramid (the baldacchino) is 12th century. The 17th century paintings at the top depict the life of St Agatha, who was gruesomely mutilated for her faith. The little gold roundels just above the pillars depict Irish saints - the church was part of the Irish College of Rome from 1836 to 1926, and in a weird bit of history it is believed to be the final resting place of Daniel O'Connell's heart, though they have unfortunately mislaid it.
One thing in the church that was not mislaid but destroyed in a ceiling collapse in 1589 was Ricimer's original mosaicfor above the altart, showing Christ holding an open book and enthroned on a globe. Fortunately Alphonsus Ciacconius had made a copy of it. Even in the fifth century, the Arian heretic Goths knew that the world was round; don't believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.


San Bartolomeo all'Isola, in the middle of the Tiber, was built around 998 - so not quite as palaeochristian as some of the other places we looked at, but it is based on the ruins of the ancient temple of Asclepius, and has always been a place of healing (there is a direct link with Rahere and the founding of Barts in London). The peculiar stone structure on the altar steps is the well-head for the ancient well which would have been used to draw water by the priests of Asclepius. I am struggling to think of another Christian church which actually has a built-in holy well. The Orsini side-chapel was rather lovely.


Going back to the old stuff, the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill dates from 432, as the dedicatory inscription implies, and was restored to what was believed to be its original state in the early 20th century. As with Sant'Agata dei Goti, we were almost the only people there - it showed the extent to which Rome concentrates tourists in some places but not others. It is lovely and tranquil, and has one superb and unique asset...



The church's wooden doors are the originals, dating from the early fifth century. The top left panel (not very visible in my pictures, unfortunately) is reckoned to be either the oldest or second oldest depiction of the Crucifixion in existence. The single panel detail in my photo is the Exodus - the 19th-century restorer reshaped Pharaoh's head to look like Napoleon. It is thrilling to look at these beautiful panels still where they were first put almost 1600 years ago.

No pictures, but also worth visiting:

Crypta Balbi Museum - brilliant city centre presentation of life in Rome over two millennia, through archaeology and art; however NB we did the upstairs part backwards, which was a mistake caused by our lack of understanding of the signage

Catacombs of San Sebastiano - we had wanted to do the Catacomb of Callixtus, but it was closed; however this was a very acceptable substitute, including many ancient Christian bits and pieces but also three pagan mausolea, the frescos still as sharp as the day their owners were buried; across the road is the country estate of Maxentius. No photos allowed, but very good guided tour.

San Clemente - a 12th century church with much older crypts which we were frustrated from getting into; the opening times for the downstairs bits were not clearly displayed and I think we missed the window by minutes. However, even so there was plenty to see, the schola cantorum and sanctuary screen having been reassembled from the originals bought by Pope John II during his brief reign in the 530s. Again, no photos allowed, and rather grumpy staff.

Food and accommodation:
Hotel Campo de'Fiori, pleasant boutique place and very central.
Tuesday and Friday dinner at Obicà, Campo de'Fiori, recommended by a friend,nice food, grumpier service on Friday than Tuesday for some reason.
Wednesday dinner at Visconti 2.0, looks a bit unprepossessing but really fine dining.
Thursday dinner at La Tavernetta Di Tony E Andrea, not quite as special as I had expected given location and price, but as noted above we had fun people-watching and it was a busy evening.

I hope they'll invite me back.

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