Saturday, June 10, 2006

Speaking of maps, I think Palookaville is just a few miles past Chumpsburg: "On the Waterfront"

Here's one of those classics that I Tivoed 2-3 times -- then erased when something better, like "Iron Eagle," came around -- before buckling down this week and watching it. I know ... and I call myself a movie buff. But there's nothing wrong with having seen more movies starring Michael Ironside than Marlon Brando. (All together now, as low as you can go: "That was some of the best flying I've seen yet ... right up to the part where you got killed.")

Anyway, everyone knows the big scene from this movie, but let's build up to it, shall we? Brando, a mere babe at 30 years old, plays Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer mixed up with the mob guys who run the New Jersey docks. Those guys decide who works and who doesn't, and anyone who gets out of line is liable to get dead. In fact, that's what happens early on, and while he doesn't do the deed, Terry is involved, and the guilt eats at him after a while.

The big reason for that: the dead guy's sister, played by Eva Marie Saint. I was about to say I couldn't tell you what else she's been in, but then I saw she was opposite Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Not bad work if you can get it. In "Waterfront," Saint is a wounded blonde who falls for the boxer, which means she's worried he might get dead, too.

As for the heroes and villains, we get Karl "Don't Leave Home Without It" Malden as a priest who wants to restore peace and dignity to the waterfront; he leans on Brando, who is impressive in his ability to not stare at Malden's nose. Seriously, that is one hypnotic schnoz. You also may recall that Malden and Brando were in "A Streetcar Named Desire," also directed by Elia Kazan. Clearly these guys know how to work together.

The top bad guy is played by an actor I really like, Lee J. Cobb. At first blush -- at least for someone of my generation -- you can't help but think, "Hey, he looks like Frasier's dad!" But he's got more of an edge, both here and in the first movie I saw him in, "12 Angry Men." True, he softened a bit in later years as a cop in both "The Exorcist" and "Coogan's Bluff," but I generally enjoy the menace he brought to the screen in the '50s.

One last actor of note is Rod Steiger, whomI didn't recognize at all but plays Terry's brother, another mob guy. At first he tries to keep Terry in line, but he eventually comes to realize that Terry has a conscience and can never get over giving up his dreams -- nay, his life -- for the mob. This comes while the two ride in the backseat of a car delivering Terry to his doom. Here's the dialogue, in all its glory:

Charlie: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Terry: It wasn't him, Charlie, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville! You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charlie.

You know it, you love it, even if you haven't seen the movie. And I gotta say ... it works. It's a pretty good scene in context, and Brando definitely had the chops to pull it off.

Sure, "Waterfront" drags a bit in the first hour, when you're waiting for Terry's crisis of conscience to kick in. But right about the 70-minute mark -- just before the famous "contender" scene -- you're rewarded with both action and suspense, and all the players pull their weight.

Now I'm curious whether people think this is Brando's best scene and movie ever, or if "Stellaaaaaaaaaah!" in "Streetcar" wins out. Or "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" in "The Godfather." (Although I dig "You can act like a man!") Or "You're an errand boy ... sent by grocery clerks ... to collect a bill" in "Apocalypse Now." Or when he and that little dude wear matching outfits while playing their pianos in "The Island of Dr. Moreau."


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