At the age of 29, boxer turned dockworker Terry Malloy feels that his best years are behind him. He's still a good-looking bad boy, but his expressions have taken on an overcast quality -- moody and potentially volatile. When he laughs, it's like the sun peeping through storm clouds. Something in his life has stunned him; Terry carries a hard-knocks malaise, a reflex withdrawal from the compromise and corruption he's sunk into.
Eva Marie Saint) who helps a priest (Karl Malden) fight for Terry's heart and soul.
The fulcrum of On the Waterfront is Terry's relationship with his brother, Charlie the Gent. It's a variation on the Cain and Abel theme, with the brainy brother being more destructive than the brawny one. Rod Steiger is brilliant as Charlie, embodying a glib maturity that even Terry sees through at the end. But Brando is the one who makes us see and hear what we never have before. He mixes an odd languor with physical menace, shadowy gestures with sudden decisive actions, and an unconventional stop-and-go phrasing that makes each line his own. He expresses the inexpressible and gets at the core of Terry's angst -- his throttled howl against a world that would label and box him without the love with which he pigeonholes his pigeons.
Director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg had intended this child / thug to emerge as the epitome of their brand of liberal working-class heroism. And Terry Malloy is a valiant whistle-blower. But when Brando says, "I could have been a contender," his lament, as Kael realized, goes beyond a lament for social corruption. It's a cry for authenticity and meaning -- a cry in the dark that lights up the dark.
For the dozen years after On the Waterfront, Brando ping-ponged between wildly various projects, sometimes testing himself and sometimes merely toying with expectations. The roster of these films will defeat the efforts of most Brando-philes to strike through to instances of undiminished brilliance. Desiree (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Sayonara (1957) -- all are white elephants in widescreen and color.
Trying to play a decent man who became a Nazi officer in the fitfully compelling The Young Lions (1958), he tackles ethical conundrums but skews the meaning of the material. Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) is probably the most enjoyable of Brando's mid-career debacles, though neither the two halves of the story nor the two halves of his interpretation of mutineer Fletcher Christian -- as dandy and underdog hero -- jibe effectively.
But Brando's own directing effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961), available only on a bargain-basement DVD, exudes a sexual glow and fascination. Even the film's relocation of the Billy the Kid saga to Monterey and the California coast shows the visual instinct of a genuine movie director. Brando's chemistry with Pina Pellicer, who plays his love interest, is simultaneously erotic and neurotic.
And in John Huston's 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye, scandalously available only on a pan-and-scan VHS print, Brando once again forges a fully-rounded performance in a first-rate movie. As a repressed homosexual major on a Southern army base, Brando connects with us in his first shot of the man lifting weights -- there's something amazing and pitiable about his determination when this hefty soldier curls and jerks. Playing a man who alternately is living beyond his emotions or in total denial of them, Brando registers as forcefully as other actors playing warrior-kings. Whether preening before a mirror -- giving us the major's pathetic imitations of both a Cary Grant bon vivant and a John Wayne drill sergeant -- or fantasizing about his enlisted men's existence as a life lived "as clean as a rifle barrel," he makes this homunculus breathe.
After Reflections in a Golden Eye bombed, Brando went slumming again, in his pal Christian Marquand's ragged film version of the porno classic Candy (1968). But as the elusive agent of colonialism in Pontecorvo's surging if self-destructive Burn! (1970) he wryly articulated imperial capitalism to the delight of campus radicals. He exploded with sexual sadism in Michael Winner's nasty melodrama The Nightcomers (1971). And later in 1971 and '72, nearly two decades after Terry Malloy, Francis Ford Coppola gave him the opportunity once again to play a zeitgeist-defining figure -- this time, a massive patriarchal force who ensures both his family's survival and its moral downfall.
To this day it's jolting to see Brando as Don Corleone -- the receded hairline, the gray pencil mustache, jowls hanging off a twisted mouth, and a voice cracked from years of command. Brando makes the character extraordinarily complex largely through his physical expressiveness. He walks as if his shoulder blades were pinned behind him. But the sensibility beneath the authority is surprisingly agile: the Don can suddenly break into mimicry, or turn his daughter in a waltz with a slight protective bent that catches sentiment in movement.
It's hard to overestimate the influence Brando's uncanny acting had on this masterpiece. Even cinematographer Gordon Willis' daring, shady visual scheme was designed to preserve the mystery of Brando's characterization. And Brando's sway over the rest of the cast vitalizes the film on every viewing.
Al Pacino's Michael seems to draw on his father's emotional reserves while learning to bank his own. James Caan plays the eldest boy, Sonny, like the Don without his lid on or a Brando action hero on amphetamines, animating his body with a high-strung, barely-controlled rage. John Cazale's Fredo has the surprising vulnerability and sensitivity Brando showed in movies like The Men. Robert Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Vito's German-Irish adopted son and consigliere, echoes Brando in his eloquent wariness, his furtive intelligence.
Brando, of course, had an even more total and immediate influence on his next film, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Brando poured all his knowledge of life and acting into the role of an American expatriate devastated by his wife's suicide and determined to have a sex-only liaison with Maria Schneider. And he was working with a director who resolved to take Brando's and Kazan's improvisatory, psychodramatic techniques to new peaks in a heightened operatic style. Most lovers of Brando believe this is the performance of his lifetime, and it inspired Kael to write her most impassioned and controversial review.
But there is so much that is laboriously wrong with the movie that I've never been able to give myself over to it. It's best seen after reading Kael, who articulates the movie's themes better than Bertolucci does. Brando, she says, "plays out the American male tough-guy role -- insisting on his power in bed, because that is all the 'truth' he knows." What he and Schneider "go through together in their pressure cooker is an intensified, speeded-up history of the sex relationships of the dominating men and the adoring women who have provided the key sex model of the past few decades -- the model that is collapsing."
And if you read the biographies of Brando, his reminiscing in Tango about his "supermasculine" father and "poetic" mother seems to expose the marrow of a multifaceted man -- and put you in a state of voyeuristic awe.