Few films are as raw and powerful as Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT. Marlon Brando stars as Terry Maloy, an ex-boxer who questions his guilt over his part in a mob death and blows the whistle on union corruption on the New Jersey docks. Terry became one of Brando’s signature roles and he leads an impressive cast that includes Eva Marie Saint as Terry’s love interest, Lee J. Cobb as the corrupt head of the union, Rod Steiger as Terry’s brother and Cobb’s right-hand man, and Karl Malden as a priest whose eyes are opened to the corruption.
The film is a true cinematic classic. Kazan’s direction is as taut as ever and the film is complemented by stunning cinematography and down-to-the-wire editing. But it is Leonard Bernstein‘s superb music that underscores the tension and horror of life on the docks. ON THE WATERFRONT was Bernstein’s only foray into film scoring and it’s a doozy.
The opening credits begin with a lonely French horn melody representing Terry’s inner battle to break the mob stranglehold. The tune turns into a fugue with flute and muted trumpets and trombone. The theme comes back triumphant during the final scene as a bloody Terry stumbles into the dock to brass chords, cymbals and gong signaling the end of Johnny Friendly’s (Cobb) rule on the docks.
The action of the film begins right away with the timpani and bass notes in the piano pounding away with the saxophone and syncopated brass adding to the tension as Terry helps lure a stoolpigeon onto the roof. The music comes crashing down, and so does Terry’s conscience, as the man is thrown off the roof. Later a rock is thrown through the church windows to the scherzo of staccato Morse code winds and brass cry for help amidst the swirling strings as the mob attacks the union members fleeing the church.
The most lyrical melody is the love theme for Edie (Saint) and Terry played on flute with harp arpeggios accompanying. The theme moves into the cellos as their love grows deeper. As their situation grows more desperate, the theme yearns ever higher in the violins. During the love scene, Brando let out a belch and Kazan just turned down the volume of the music, brought up the belch and then brought back the love music.
Somber, low strings sit in the back seat of the cab along with Charlie (Steiger) and Terry during the famous confessional scene. These strings serve as a kaddish a couple of scenes later as Terry weeps over Charlie’s dead body.
Critics over the years have complained about the score. Many of the criticisms were not aimed at the quality of the music, but took potshots at Bernstein’s lack of film scoring experience, citing that the music covers up portions of dialogue. Kazan defended the composer, saying it was deliberate since Bernstein’s music told you all you need to know rather than listen to minor dialogue.
Bernstein adapted the score into a twenty-minute symphonic suite “to salvage some of the music that would otherwise have been left on the floor of the dubbing-room.” It was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1955 and has become a concert staple.
Come awards time, it was no surprise that Bernstein, a Hollywood outsider, lost the Oscar to “insider” Dimitri Tiomkin’s safer (and more popular) score to THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY with its hit theme. But for sheer musical complexity, Bernstein’s score is the clear champion and a true film music classic.