“Letters to Father Jacob” - Klaus Härö (2009)

Letters to Father Jacob (Postia pappi Jaakobille, 2009), a film set in remote rural Finland, shows mostly the interactions of two isolated people who have trouble interacting with anyone.  Both of these people are very lonely and come to question whether their lives have any meaning; but circumstances have thrown them together.  You might think that, with such restrictions on interactions, it would be very difficult to make a film on this subject, but Finnish writer/director Klaus Härö and his crew do an admirable job [1,2,3,4].

The film, which is based on an original story by Jaana Makkonen, concerns a middle-aged woman, Leila Sten (played by Kaarina Hazard) who has just been pardoned after serving twelve years of a life-term prison sentence.  During her time in prison, Leila was never visited by a family member, and she never applied for temporary leave, either.  She is now a cold-hearted, taciturn misanthrope who barely responds to any efforts to communicate with her.  Since Leila is perhaps the key personage in this story, depicting her persona is crucial to the telling of this tale.  The cinematography (by Tuomo Hutri) and editing (by Samu Heikkilä) is critical to this effort, because a number of darkly-lit scenes opening with wide-angle master-shots are followed by slow conversations in closeup.  These conversations feature many nearly expressionless reaction shots on the part of Leila that subtly display her disdain and indifference concerning what is being said to her.

Anyway, now with nowhere to go on her release, Leila is offered a job working for an old priest in a remote parsonage; so she reluctantly takes it.  When she arrives at the rectory, Leila discovers that the old priest, Father Jacob Ljube (Heikki Nousiainen), is completely blind, and her job is to read intercessory letters that arrive every day beseeching Father Jacob to pray to God for the supplicant’s welfare.  For example, a woman living alone might write to Father Jacob that her dog has run away, and she asks him to pray to God that her dog would return to her.  Father Jacob assures Leila that
“It’s important that people know that none of God’s children are useless and forgotten.”
But Leila, an unrefined, stout, and sullen middle-aged woman, has no interest in these things or in the kindly Father Jacob.  Other than reading the daily letters, she barely says a word to him.  Leila does correctly guess, however, that Father Jacob was behind her getting a pardon from her life-term prison sentence.  When she tells him that, he responds by saying that
“I’m only an instrument of God’s mercy.”
So their boring life goes on, interrupted only by the brief daily visits of the letter carrier (Jukka Keinonen) bringing more intercessory letters to Father Jacob.  The letter carrier, however, grows suspicious of the dour former prison “lifer” living with Father Jacob and worries that she may bring harm to him.  When he sneaks inside one afternoon to investigate, he gets throttled by the robust Leila, and after that he is reluctant to come to the rectory [5].  And soon it doesn’t matter, because the flow of letters to Father Jacob finally falls to zero.

With no letters coming in, Father Jacob gets desperate, and so he dresses up in his formal religious garb and arranges for Leila to walk him over to the church so that he can conduct a scheduled wedding ceremony.  But noone shows up for the wedding, and Leila begins to realize that Jacob is descending into senility.  Father Jacob is starting to feel useless and asks Leila to guide him back home.  But Leila refuses and walks out of the church alone.  She is fed up.

Back at the rectory, Leila packs up her bag, steals some of Father Jacob’s money, and calls a taxi to come pick her up.  However, when the taxi arrives, the driver asks her where she wants to go, and Leila is speechless.  She realizes she doesn’t have anywhere on earth to go.  Now at the bottom of her despair, she goes back inside and prepares a rope with which to commit suicide.

The emotional tide of Letters to Father Jacob has reached its lowest ebb.  Our two protagonists are now in utter despair.  Father Jacob is lying on the church floor feeling abandoned by God and starts wondering if all his past intercessory prayers were just for the sake of his own ego.  And Leila is in the rectory grimly putting a noose around her neck. 

But then Father Jacob manages to find his way back to the rectory and unknowingly interrupts Leila’s suicide attempt.  This life-saving intervention induces a change in Leila, and she goes ahead and arranges for a fake letter-reading session to cheer up the feeling-abandoned Father Jacob.  She plans to make up and recite some intercessory requests in her head and pretend to read them to Father Jacob.  In the event, though, Leila begins thinking about her own past horrific transgressions, and she tearfully fabricates a request based on her own real, sinful past.  This is the first time that the perpetually scowling Leila shows feeling and sensitivity in her facial expression.  She concludes her message by wondering
“Who can forgive someone like me?”
Suspecting that this account is Leila’s own confession and probably her very first opening-up to God (or perhaps to anyone, for that matter), Father Jacob softly responds with
“What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
This heartfelt exchange proves to be salvational for both Leila and Father Jacob.  By reaching out to each other, they have set themselves back on benevolent, meaningful paths.  Depending upon your perspective, you could say this benevolence was achieved through either (a) the instrumentality of religion as a social toll or (b) their serving as instruments of God’s benignity.  In any case, direction has now been restored to their lives.

The ending of Letters to Father Jacob, which I will leave to you to see, is sad, but it is in keeping with the realistic tenor of this tale.  We don’t know what will happen to Leila, but now there is at least hope.

In any case, this is a thoughtful film that you might enjoy.

  1. Betsy Sharkey, “Movie review: ‘Letters to Father Jacob’”, Los Angeles Times, (15 October 2010).   
  2. Jeannette Catsoulis “The Ex-Con and the Priest”, The New York Times, (7 October 2010).   
  3. Andrew Schenker, “Review: Letters to Father Jacob”, Slant Magazine, (3 October 2010).   
  4. Nathan Southern, “Letters to Father Jacob”, TV Guide, (n.d.).   
  5. A friend suggested to me that the letter carrier’s sneak-in visit to the rectory was actually an instance of the letter carrier’s efforts to replenish the dwindling flow of letters to the priest by stealing some already-delivered letters that Father Jacob stored under his bed.  By recycling old letters, the letter carrier could maintain the falsehood that the intercessory letters were not diminishing.  I doubt this interpretation was the case, but you can consider the possibility when you see the film.

Klaus Härö

Films of  Klaus Härö:

“Gran Torino” - Clint Eastwood (2008)

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) was well-received by critics upon its release and seen as a presumable swan song for the then 78-year-old actor/director.   After all, the film seemed to offer a reflective take on some of the characteristic themes in Eastwood’s films: morality, personal justice, and revenge.  And although Eastwood has amazingly gone on to direct nine more films since then, some people would say that Gran Torino still stands as a significant Eastwood statement on the appropriateness of revenge.  In fact some critics felt that Eastwood was finally turning his back on revenge entirely in this film [1].  This was significant, because over the course of forty years, Eastwood had become the iconic face of vengeance – in such films as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Dirty Harry (1971, plus four sequels), and Unforgiven (1992).

Gran Torino, too, includes aspects of vengeance, but it also features some comedic elements and reflections on the decay of traditional American family life.  The question is – does this film show a novel Eastwood renunciation of revenge as a moral instrument?  I would say it does not.

The story of the film, which is scripted by Nick Schenk, is set in a decaying residential neighborhood in Detroit and concerns a retired auto assembly-line worker, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood), who had served in the Korean War (1950-53).  Given those dates, we can guess that the cantankerous Kowalski must now be in his late 70's.  Throughout this story, which comprises five parts, the two themes of retributive justice and family-love redemption keep reappearing.

1.  Two Neighboring Families

The film begins with the traditional Catholic funeral of Walt’s wife, in the attendance of which are the families of Walt’s two grown sons, Mitch and Steve.  Both sons are preoccupied with their own middle-class materialistic concerns and have no interest in and have long since abandoned socializing with their curmudgeonly old father.  As far as they are concerned, Walt should now be shipped off to a rest home.  But Walt wants to stay living in his old house, even though the neighborhood is increasingly rundown and now overrun by new Hmong refugee families from Southeast Asia.  The Hmong people are very family-oriented, just the opposite of the familial-isolated Walt Kowalski.  Walt’s only interests are his dog, his perfectly preserved 1972 Ford Gran Torino, and keeping neighborhood children off his lawn. 

Early on we see Hmong teenager Thao Lor (Bee Vang), who lives next door to Walt, forcibly recruited by his cousin “Spider” (Doua Moua) to join a Hmong street gang.  Thao’s gang initiation assignment is to steal Walt’s Gran Torino.  But Thao bungles the attempt, and Walt almost shoots him with his rifle.

2.  Getting to Know Walt and the Lors
In this part we get know a little more about Walt and the Lors.  Shortly after the botched Gran Torino theft incident, Spider’s Hmong gang starts to punish Thao by roughing him up on the street, but Walt intervenes with his rifle and chases the gang members away.  Later a rival black gang threatens to sexually harass another young member of the Lor family, Sue (Ahney Her), but again the gun-wielding Walt comes to the rescue.

The Lor family are extraordinarily grateful for these interventions, and they come over and shower Walt’s front porch with gifts.  They also compel Thao to come to Walt and formally apologize for his earlier wrongdoing.   

However, we see that Walt didn’t do these things out of kindness; he did them out of hatred and contempt for racial minorities.  Walt is a hard-core racist – he repeatedly calls all the people in his neighborhood “chinks”, “slopes”, “slants”, and “gooks” – an attitude that probably goes back to his experiences in the massively deadly Korean War (roughly 3 million Asians killed [2]).  In fact Walt is the kind of ignorant urban redneck (IUR) that today makes up the core support for Donald Trump. 

Nevertheless, Sue manages to coax Walt into coming over to the Lor household for a wider-family luncheon party, where Walt is shown that the Lors are indeed human beings.  Afterwards, the Lor family insist that, as an act of penance, Thao must come over and work for Walt for a full week.

3.  Walt and Thao
Walt reluctantly takes Thao on, and as Thao performs various odd jobs for Walt, they gradually warm up to each other.  In fact Thao gradually becomes something of a new son to Walt, and Walt’s intuitive paternal concern for Thao is increasingly invoked.  This is culminated when Walt gives Thao permission to use his prized Gran Torino to go out on a date that Walt has encouraged for Thao.  It is in this section of the film that the beauties and subtleties of family concern are brought to the fore.

However, when Thao gets roughed-up again by Spider’s gang, Walt angrily goes over to the gang  members’ house and brutally beats one of their members. 

4.  Hmong Gang Retaliation
We now seem to be in something of a gang war, but a decidedly unequal one.  It is Spider’s Hmong gang versus the Lor family “gang”, which has only one warrior – Walt.  That night Spider’s gang drives up to the Lor house and delivers a massive fusillade of bullets through the windows.  Many of the Lor family members are seriously wounded from the attack.  Then Sue, who had been out at this time, staggers home after having been viciously raped and beaten by the gang members. 

When Walt learns what happened, he is consumed with hatred.  Young Catholic priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who had presided over the funeral of Walt’s wife and who has always earlier been seen advocating forgiveness, comes to visit Walt; but he, too, is filled with anger and doesn’t know what to counsel this time.

So is Eastwood setting up the viewer for another customary vengeance-filled finale?

5.  A Coming to Terms?

The next day Thao comes over to Walt’s house seeking revenge.  For him, Walt is his uncompromising “Exterminating Angel” suitable for the task.  However, Walt puts him off and tells him to come back later that afternoon.  Then Walt calmly goes out to buy a new suit, gets a haircut, and goes to the church to confess his life’s sins to Father Janovich.  Having recently come to feel paternal affection for a young Asian boy, Walt now feels guilt over having long ago killed thirteen young men in the Korean War.  When Thao comes back later, Walt tricks him into getting locked in his basement.  He evidently wants to keep the vengeful boy out of danger. 

That evening Walt goes to the Hmong gang members’ house and stands there in the front lawn loudly berating them, which attracts the attention of many neighboring onlookers.  When he slowly reaches into his inside coat pocket, suggesting to the watching gang members that he is reaching for his gun, they all blast him with a deadly round of bullets.  But Walt was unarmed and was only reaching for his cigarette lighter.  It is clear that he had staged his own heavily-witnessed murder so that he could have the gang members arrested by the quickly arriving police and given lengthy prison sentences.

Later, at the reading of Walt’s last will and testament and with his younger family members eagerly in attendance, it is revealed that he leaves nothing to his family.  He bequeaths his house to the church (i.e. the community) and his beloved Gran Torino to Thao.

A number of reviewers have liked this film, because they view Walt’s final act of sacrifice as heroic [3], and/or they see Walt as ultimately having undergone a transformation suggesting the possibility of a reconciliation between traditionally prejudiced working-class America and non-white immigrant communities [1,4,5].  And the eponymous Ford Gran Torino is a symbol of this sector of American society in need of a more conciliatory outlook.  As Manohla Dargis remarked [4]:
“Made in the 1960s and ’70s, the Gran Torino was never a great symbol of American automotive might, which makes Walt’s love for the car more poignant. It was made by an industry that now barely makes cars, in a city that hardly works, in a country that too often has felt recently as if it can’t do anything right anymore . . .  “
But is it realistic to believe that Walt Kowalski really underwent a transformation fueled by ersatz familial love?  I am in sympathy with critics who question the plausibility of such a reading [5].  To me, Walt is a racist curmudgeon to the very end.  His final action is very much a hate-fueled act of revenge.  Knowing that his future life allotment was limited, Walt chose to carry out the most destructive action he could think of that would inflict the most pain on his collective adversaries through the instrumentality of the punitive system.  This was not an act of heroism or a quest for justice – it was just the maximal possible punishment.

It would have been better for this narrative to have been constructed so that Walt, through his gradual familial relationship with Thao, would develop a more humane way of interacting with all people.  Instead, he relapsed into his own form of self-sacrificing revenge.

So in my opinion, Gran Torino is just another revenge movie, but it lacks the ameliorating narrative elements that are sometimes present in other, more-satisfying Eastwood movies.

  1. John Patterson, “On film: A farewell to vengeance”, The Guardian, (19 December 2008).  
  2. “Casualties”, “Korean War”, Wikipedia, (20 June 2020).    
  3. Roger Ebert, “Get off my lawn”, RogerEbert.com, (17 December 2008).   
  4. Manohla Dargis, “Hope for a Racist, and Maybe a Country”, The New York Times, (11 December 2008).   
  5. Maryann Johanson, “Gran Torino (review)”, FlickFilosopher, (2 January 2009).   

“On the Waterfront” - Elia Kazan (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954) stands as one of the most famous and honored films of its period and for a number of reasons [1].  It was nominated for twelve Oscars (Academy Awards) and won eight of them, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.  And in 2007 it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the nineteenth-greatest American movie of all time [2].  It is also probably actor Marlon Brando’s most famous performance [3].  In addition, there were socio-political aspects of the film that were associated with controversial political activities of the time.  The film's story was inspired by a series of articles, Crime on the Waterfront, by Malcolm Johnson that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949.

Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan was already famous as both a stage director and film director, and in particular, he was noted for directing dramas that had social ramifications.  And such was the case here, too, in On the Waterfront, which concerned corruption among longshoremen’s dock workers unions in the U.S.  The film is a drama about a longshoreman who is asked to testify against union corruption under threatening circumstances.  But that was precisely a situation that Kazan, himself, had faced in real life when he was called in 1952 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC to testify about his past membership in the American Communist Party and to provide names of professional colleagues who had also been members.  Facing the threat of being black-listed, Kazan did supply some names, and for that he was later accused in the film profession of being a traitor to the cause of free expression.  Anyway, some critics have since felt that On the Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to this criticism.  Although this matter may be an interesting topic of discussion for some, to me it is a distraction from looking at the film’s own merits, and I will not discuss it further here.  For those interested, you can find more information about this HUAC issue here [4,5].

Certainly On the Waterfront had its own merits on which to stand [6,7,8].  The film featured outstanding production values, and it won Oscars in this area for Best Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Best Cinematography (Boris Kaufman, who years earlier was the cinematographer for Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934)), and Best Film Editing (Gene Milford).  The acting was superb, as well.  Oscar-winning Brando, of course, was famous for his Stanislavski-inspired Method acting, and he showed if off to good effect in this film.  But there were four other acting performers who also received Oscar nominations – Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint (in her first feature film appearance – she would later memorably appear in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)).  One Oscar nominee whose contributions were, to me, of lesser value was musical composer Leonard Bernstein.  Although I delighted in Bernstein’s music for West Side Story (1961), his music here in On the Waterfront is often intrusive and distracting to the narrative flow.

The story of On the Waterfront is dominated by five people (all Oscar nominated roles, by the way) who represent contrasting perspectives on life:
  • Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) is a longshoreman who had once had a promising career as a prize-fighter.  His perspective now is to just look out for himself.  At one point he says that his philosophy is “do it to him before he does it to you”.  But he does have a conscience, and it is that side of him that some others appeal to.
  • Father Barry (Karl Malden) is a local priest.  He preaches that Christ is always beside you, but more importantly, he believes in reliance on the rule-of-law in order for justice to be maintained for all.
  • Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is the ruthless and corrupt longshoremen’s union boss who will stop at nothing in order to maintain his supremacy.
  • Charley "the Gent" Malloy (Rod Steiger) is Terry Malloy’s older brother and the #2 man in the union hierarchy.  He has conflicted loyalties – he is an opportunist who profits from working under Johnny Friendly, but he also doesn’t want to see harm come to his brother.
  • Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), a convent student studying to become a nun, falls in love with Terry.  She believes in personal virtue, but she wants to run away with Terry in order to escape the widespread evil that she sees infecting the dockside.
All of these characters are very theatrically played, and yet the raw reality of the dockside settings in Hoboken, New Jersey, near New York City, lend a quasi-neo-realistic feeling to the proceedings.  But the five perspectives listed here form the basis of an ethical/moral debate that is at the heart of the story.  The On the Waterfront narrative goes through about eight sequences that constitute the story.  Each one of these segments features moral discussions about what is the right thing to do.

1.  An Injustice
Early on Terry Malloy is shown unwittingly luring his popular workmate Joey Doyle into getting murdered by longshoremen’s union thugs.  Terry, who had thought that the union was just going to rough up Joey a little bit, goes to Mob-affiliated union boss Johnny Friendly to ask why Joey was murdered.  He is sternly lectured by Johnny that Joey had agreed to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission about union-Mob malfeasance and that therefore Joey had to be bumped off for disloyalty.  This is the morality of the urban jungle, and it is the first of the moral exchanges that take place in the story.

Meanwhile Joey’s sister, Edie, is distraught over her brother’s death, and she harshly scolds local priest Father Barry for his remote passivity about concerns on the ground.  The outcome of this second moral exchange of the story is that it inspires Father Barry to go the dockside and become a “waterfront priest”.

At the dockside we see just h ow precarious is the work situation for the dock workers.  The hopeful workers gather on the pier each day hoping to be chosen by the union foreman for a day’s work.  Many are not selected (somewhat like today’s gig-economy, but worse).  When Father Barry sees how unhappy the workers are, he invites them to come for a meeting at the church, where they can talk freely.

2.  The Church Meeting
Having heard about the upcoming church meeting, union officer Charley Malloy gets his younger brother Terry to attend the meeting and to record what happens.  At the meeting, which is attended by some of the workers and Edie, the third moral exchange takes place.  Worker “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning) explains to Father Barry that all the workers are afraid to speak out about mob-union wrongdoings, and so they follow a policy of “D and D” – deaf and dumb.  Father Barry counters by urging them to believe in the rightfulness of the rule-of-law and that he will stand with them if they speak out against injustice.

However, the meeting is then broken up by baseball-bat-wielding Mob hooligans who beat and injure the workers as they flee the church.  In the turmoil, Terry manages to usher Edie out to safety.

3.  Terry and Edie
As Terry walks Edie home, they gradually get to know each other.  Thanks in part to the fact that Edie still doesn’t know about the part that Terry played in her brother’s death, a mutual amorous attraction tentatively develops.  This is one of the most sensitive and beautiful parts of the film, and it is during these sequences that the fourth moral exchange takes place.  Edie is attracted to Terry, but she is politely appalled by the outright selfishness that Terry professes.  At one point their contrasting views are highlighted when Edie proclaims “shouldn't everybody care about everybody else?” and further that “everybody is part of everybody else”; while Terry counters by saying that his own philosophy is “do it to him before he does it to you”. 

4.  The Death of Kayo
It is then revealed that Kayo Dugan, inspired by Father Barry’s words at the church meeting, had gone to the Waterfront Crime Commission to testify against the union.  The next day Johnny Friendly arranges to have Kayo killed in a staged “accident” that Terry witnesses in horror.  Father Barry arrives at the dockside scene and proclaims that Kayo’s death is nothing less than a crucifixion.  His ensuing impromptu sermon about Christ – “Christ is always with you” – visibly moves Terry, whose conscience is finally starting to be stirred.

There are further moral exchanges that Terry has with both Father Barry and Edie that lead to his confession to them concerning his role in Joey Doyle’s death.  As we might expect, Edie is horrified by this revelation and shuns further engagement with Terry.

5.  Terry and Charley
With Terry having been served a subpoena by the Waterfront Crime Commission, Johnny Friendly is worried about the loyalty of Terry, and he orders Charley to turn his brother around or he will have him killed.  So Charley goes to pickup Terry, and they have a famous conversation in the backseat of the cab.  Charley offers Terry, in turn, entreaties, bribes, and threats, but to no avail.  Terry is depressed at the kind of person he has become, and he wants to do something that will help him turn his life around.  Recalling a time when he had, at Charley’s behest, ruined his promising career by throwing a crucial boxing match so that Johnny Friendly could win a big wager, he laments to Charley:
“I could have had class.  I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody . . . instead of a bum.”
They agree to part, and Terry gets out of the cab, while Charley, unknowingly, lets the cabbie take him to his own execution at the hands of the Mob.

6.  Terry and Edie Again
Terry now goes to Edie’s apartment and forces his way in.  Then he forces his affections on her, and despite the misgivings she had felt towards him, she succumbs to his embrace.  But immediately they here a voice from outside on the street calling on Terry to come down and help his brother Charlie.  When Terry goes down, he sees his brother’s corpse hung up on a meat-hook. 

Edie pleads with Terry for them to run away together, but Terry wants revenge.  He goes, armed with the gun his brother had given him, to Friendly’s bar, looking to knock off his nemesis.  Johnny Friendly isn’t there at that moment, but Father Barry shows up and struggles to dissuade Terry from violent revenge.  He tells Terry he can get his revenge in the courtroom tomorrow, by using the truth.

7. The Courtroom
In the courtroom Terry and all the union officers are there.  With Johnny Friendly casting menacing glares at him, Terry testifies anyway, and he heroically tells the truth about what he knows of Joey Doyle’s murder.  This testimony will probably lead to Johnny Friendly’s indictment.  Now the film could have ended here on a triumphant note.  But the story continues, and what now transpires is somewhat problematic.

After his courtroom testimony, Terry is shunned by neighbors as a “stool pigeon”.  And when he goes up to his apartment rooftop and looks at Joey Doyle’s coop of pigeons that he had been guiltily looking after since Joey’s death, he sees that all the pigeons have now been killed.  Edie shows up and again pleads that they should run away together from this dockside world of D-and-D.  But Terry is still obsessed with revenge.  

8.  The Finale at the Dockside

The next day Terry goes to the dockside hiring session, but the union foreman, unsurprisingly, refuses to hire him.  So, with the gathered workers just timidly watching, Terry walks over to the dockside union shack, where, dismissing Father Barry’s past pleas to him to restrain himself, he calls for Johnny Friendly to come out for a confrontation.  When Johnny Friendly emerges, Terry defiantly boasts how proud he is to have exposed the corrupt boss.  The ensuing heated argument soon degenerates into a scuffle, and then a gang of Friendly’s henchmen beat up Terry to within an inch of life.

With Terry still lying knocked-out on the edge of the pier, Friendly orders the workers into the warehouse to start working.  But they say they won’t work without Terry.  Father Barry and Edie now arrive, and they revive the battered Terry and help him to his feet.  Father Barry insists to the bloodied and barely conscious Terry that to “win the war”, he must walk unaided up the pier walkway and into the warehouse.  With great effort, Terry manages to do this, and the other workers follow after him, symbolizing their abandonment of Johnny Friendly’s corrupt union.

So the essence of On the Waterfront, what is at its very heart, is a series of exchanges in each of the eight segments that concern morality and conscience.   The corrupt, unconscionable dog-eat-dog world is symbolized to various degrees by Charlie Malloy (passive) and Johnny Friendly (aggressive).  And the virtuous path is symbolized by Edie Doyle (passive) and Father Barry (aggressive).  Thus Edie is mostly concerned with personal virtue and just wants to run away with Terry to somewhere where they can be alone.  On the other hand, Father Barry is concerned with social justice.  He wants to fight for the benefit of all the dock workers.  Interestingly, however, even though both Father Barry and Edie are more or less people “of the cloth”, they do not spend much time talking about praying to God.  Their values seem just as much humanistic as spiritual.  Father Barry’s main instrument for social justice, for example, is adherence to the rule-of-law, rather than divine intervention or divine retribution in the afterlife.

Terry, and in particular his conscience, is the target of all the moral assertions of the above four people.  He starts out in total innocence, but he is forced to face up to the various claims and demands of the key people in his life.  To some extent he is something of a moral guinea pig; but in the end Father Barry’s passionate recommendations to have faith in the rule-of-law seem to win him over.

Whether or not you buy the ending to On the Waterfront, though, will probably depend on your personal taste.  It is not very clear what exactly has been accomplished by Terry’s act of personal bravery and sacrifice.  Certainly it was good that he did not, in the end, resort to vengeful violence with his gun.  But will the worker solidarity that seems to have been momentarily evoked by Terry’s heroic actions endure and have lasting consequences?  That we don’t know.  Johnny Friendly is still out there, and Terry’s plans or way forward are not at all clear.  Nevertheless, we can still feel exhilaration over the uplifting change that has taken place inside Terry.

And in any case, we can also appreciate On the Waterfront’s uniquely moving cinematic presentation that combines (a) theatrically dramatic acting on the part of the five main characters with (b) the film’s emotive mix of expressionistic and neorealistic cinematography.

  1. “Awards and honors”, “On the Waterfront”, Wikipedia, (20 May 2020).     
  2. “AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)”, American Film Institute,  (20 June 2007).   
  3. A. H. Weiler, “Brando Stars in Film Directed by Kazan”, The New York Times, (29 July 1954).   
  4. “On The Waterfront”, Buffalo Film Seminars, (29 March 2000).   
  5. Peter Biskind, ‘The Politics of Power in “On the Waterfront’”, Film Quarterly (1975) 29 (1): 25–38.   
  6. Michael Almereyda, “On the Waterfront: Everybody Part of Everybody Else”, The Criterion Collection, (19 February 2013).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “On the Waterfront”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (21 March 1999).   
  8. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “On The Waterfront”, Jonathan Rosenbaum, (1 January 1990).  

Elia Kazan

Films of Elia Kazan: