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Elia Kazan’s legacy of realism lives on

Director Elia Kazan brought in many non-professionals to act with stars Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando to add realism to On the Waterfront.


Just over 60 years ago, director Elia Kazan was preparing Tami Mauriello's close-up. The movie Kazan was making in Hoboken, N.J. was On the Waterfront, a story of union corruption and racketeering focusing on a young stevedore named Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando). Kazan was determined that his movie be as realistic as possible, and this is why he'd cast Mauriello, a heavyweight boxer who'd once come close to beating Joe Louis, as one of union boss Johnny Friendly's (Lee J. Cobb) chief thugs: the guy didn't look like an actor, and he had a face like something you might find under a plank on the wharf.

But right now that face wasn't paying attention. No matter how much Kazan implored Mauriello to keep his gaze locked just beyond the lens – he was supposed to be looking like he was about to pound somebody into ground chuck – the man's eyes wandered. Instead of looking scary, he just looked stupid.

After whispering a word or two to his cameraman Boris Kaufman, Kazan stepped forward and slapped Mauriello hard across the face. "Action!" he called and stepped back. In the lens, the big man's eyes were focused, his face practically throbbed with rage, and the director had his shot. And it was real as hell.

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If the legacy of Kazan's On the Waterfront can be measured in many ways – as a showcase for the prodigious talents of Kazan's own golden boy Brando; as a case study in how a movie can be both popular and political; as a metaphoric reflection of the director's own checkered past as a so-called "friendly" witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee – perhaps its longest shadow is cast by its conviction that drama is never more dramatic than when it merges with reality, and no medium can facilitate that convergence with quite the power and immediacy as motion pictures.

For Kazan, who had already revolutionized American theatre with his work as director – Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire – and key proponent of the volcanic new style of acting called "the method" – of which Brando was the most charismatically conspicuous practitioner – "realism" was more than a style: it was a conviction.

This is why he had insisted that On the Waterfront be shot on location during the coldest New Jersey winter in recent history, that the story play out on real wharves, in real apartments and real saloons, and that his actors be constantly mingled with non-actors.

To this end, he cast dozens of off-camera longshoreman as extras, several ex-pugilists as thugs, and any photogenically lived-in face he could find. For one thing, he knew it would enhance the performances of his real actors: as performers, method veterans such as Brando, Cobb, Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden thrived on the proximity to the authentic. Sparks flew from the striking of drama against concrete. Kazan wanted to create a cinematic world where the line between life and art was as grey and indistinct as the winter sky over Hoboken.

If you watch David Gordon Green's new movie Joe, you'll see just how long the shadow cast by Kazan has been. While Green's movie is as rough and rural as Kazan's was tough and urban, and if Nicolas Cage's tortured ex-con Joe is – at first glance, anyway – as far on the sensitivity scale from Brando's Terry Malloy as New Jersey is from Texas, the truth is Joe probably wouldn't be the movie it is if Kazan hadn't made On the Waterfront the way he did.

For one thing, Joe is anchored so deeply in its real-world geographical, cultural and economic settings that you can practically smell it: the odour of cheap labour, boozy breath and psychic desperation. For another, it's populated with people who, like those longshoremen over half a century ago, are so obviously not professional actors, but who only thicken the texture of the drama because of this very lack of dramatic artifice.

Indeed, for all the immense and undeniable power of Cage's performance – which, like Brando's once was, is clearly enlivened by its proximity to the dirt – it's the turn of Gary Poulter, a homeless man Green cast as an alcoholic monster from the streets of Austin – that very nearly eclipses every scene he's in. Poulter, who died just weeks after Joe was wrapped, not only conveys an intensity, a violence and an indifference to moral judgment that renders him as unshakably scary as anyone you'll see anywhere on screen these days, he's got a face that looks carved by the blunt, bloody edges of life itself. I'm sure Elia Kazan would have loved that face, and I suspect even he'd have had the guts to slap it.

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