My intention in posting these dispatches is not as clear to me as the consequences of writing them – I’m learning something. Analyzing fiction not only helps me in constructing my own stories , but it increases my enjoyment of watching movies and reading novels. Here’s a flick that improves with every viewing, largely because it stands up to continued analysis. On the Waterfront.
Lots to say about this story, which won the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’ in 1954. For now, I’m going to focus on something I introduced last time – the seamless evolution of the hero’s transformation. I’ve long felt – I must have read it somewhere – that the protagonist’s character doesn’t ‘change’ so much as it ‘unfolds’. He’s always had it in him. We all have a higher self waiting to be released, don’t we? I think so. The character transformation of Terry Malloy as acted by Marlon Brando is a masterpiece.
It was while writing my last post about Rocky (‘Best Picture’ 1976) that I began to wonder if Sylvester Stallone hadn’t drawn his character from Brando’s “Terry Malloy”. The set-up in both stories forewarns of suffering along with a soft-hearted gangster.
In Philadelphia, Rocky hasn’t the heart to break a debtor’s thumb, while over on New York’s waterfront, Malloy is horrified to learn of his unwitting participation in a murder. In each case the hero spends the first two acts trying to ignore the personal consequences of being a low-life, a bum, a fighter who ‘coulda been a contender’. Malloy’s transformation is foreshadowed in the first scene, where it’s clear that he’s a misfit among a band of thugs. How Malloy escapes his world – or how he sticks around to change it – those are the protagonist’s two options. Terry Malloy seems incapable of either.
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg keeps his hero hanging around the waterfront in spite of his ‘damn conscience’ torturing him. He’s trapped there by a profound inertia. This is the perfect situation in which to show a character’s inner life leaking out in myriad ways. His love of a girl, his compassion for the work of a politicized priest, his guilt and hope and loyalty to family.
He’s a man chased by the Hounds of Heaven. His higher nature is sure to catch up with him, it’s only a matter of time.
After a lengthy series of humiliations (this is what Act Two is for) Malloy is reminded of the time he threw a fight, the night he ‘coulda been the contender’. When he is able to verbalize his regret at being such a ‘bum’, we know that the hounds of heaven are all over him, and that his suffering will soon be over.
It’s easy and delightful to visualize Brando’s Malloy as a man trapped inside a cocoon. Eventually it has to burst, turning a new entity loose upon the story landscape to bring the story to a resolution. So skillfully is the part of Malloy written and acted that we don’t doubt that the events are real.
The writer doesn’t give us the chance to believe anything else!
By the time Terry Malloy charges into Act Three, he would appear to have no other course of action than the one that’s unfolding on the screen. That’s good writing. I’ll look at how the writer accomplishes that in my next post.
In the meantime, if you’re a student of film, read (or watch) Budd Schulberg’s script for On the Waterfront. Try to isolate Terry Malloy’s watershed moment. By that I mean the point in the story before which he’s still acting like a bum, and after which he’s in the force field of his higher self. The before and after constitute the two main building blocks of story architecture.