Our next screenings are 'ON THE WATERFRONT' starring Marlon Brando & Eva Marie Saint Thursday 18th August 19:30 & Sunday 21st August 14:00 & 'THE GRAND ILLUSION' by Jean Renoir Thursday 25th August 19:30

Get your tickets: HERE


Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.

So says Terry Malloy, the longshoreman who testifies against his union in “On the Waterfront.” The line, said by Marlon Brando, resonates all through the picture because the story is about conscience--and so is the story behind the story. This was the film made in 1954 by Elia Kazan after he agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, named former associates who were involved with the Communist Party and became a pariah in left-wing circles.

“On the Waterfront” was, among other things, Kazan's justification for his decision to testify. In the film, when a union boss shouts, “You ratted on us, Terry,” the Brando character shouts back: “I'm standing over here now. I was rattin' on myself all those years. I didn't even know it.” That reflects Kazan's belief that communism was an evil that temporarily seduced him, and had to be opposed. Brando's line finds a dramatic echo in A Life, Kazan's 1988 autobiography, where he writes of his feelings after the film won eight Oscars, including best picture, actor, actress and director: “I was tasting vengeance that night and enjoying it. `On the Waterfront' is my own story; every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and - - - - themselves.”

In that statement you can feel the passion that was ignited by the HUAC hearings and the defiance of those who named names, or refused to. For some viewers, the buried agenda of “On the Waterfront” tarnishes the picture; the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum told me he could “never forgive” Kazan for using the film to justify himself. But directors make films for all sorts of hidden motives, some noble, some shameful, and at least Kazan was open about his own. And he made a powerful and influential movie, one that continued Brando's immeasurable influence on the general change of tone in American movie acting in the 1950s.

“If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don't know what it is,” Kazan writes in his book. If you changed “better” to “more influential,” there would be one other performance you could suggest, and that would be Brando's work in Kazan's “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). In those early films, Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh, alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kind of heightened riff on reality. He became famous for his choices of physical gestures during crucial scenes (and as late as “The Godfather,” he was still finding them--the cat in his lap, the spray gun in the tomato patch).

In “On the Waterfront,” there's a moment when Terry goes for a walk in the park with Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a man who has been thrown off a roof for talking to crime investigators. She drops a glove. He picks it up, and instead of handing it back, he pulls it on over his own workers' hands. A small piece of business on the edge of the shot, but it provides texture.

And look at the famous scene between Terry and his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), in the back seat of a taxi. This is the “I coulda been a contender” scene, and it has been parodied endlessly (most memorably by Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”). But it still has its power to make us feel Terry's pain, and even the pain of Charley, who has been forced to pull a gun on his brother. Here is Kazan on Brando:

“ ... what was extraordinary about his performance, I feel, is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read `Oh, Charley!' in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?”

Kazan's screenplay was by Budd Schulberg, and his producer was Sam Spiegel, one of the great independent buccaneers (his next production after “Waterfront” was “The Bridge on the River Kwai”). Spiegel at first proposed Frank Sinatra for the role of Terry Malloy, and Kazan agreed: “He spoke perfect Hobokenese.” The young, wiry Sinatra would have been well-cast, but then Spiegel decided that Brando, then a much bigger star, could double the budget available for the film. Kazan had already discussed costumes with Sinatra and felt bad about the switch, but Sinatra “let me off easy.”

The film was based on the true story of a longshoreman who tried to overthrow a corrupt union. In life, he failed; in the film, he succeeds, and today the ending of “On the Waterfront” feels too stagy and upbeat. The film was shot on location in Hoboken, N.J., on and near the docks, with real longshoremen playing themselves as extras (sometimes they're moved around in groups that look artificially blocked). Brando plays a young ex-prizefighter, now a longshoreman given easy jobs because Charley is the right-hand man of the corrupt boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). After he unwittingly allows himself to be used to set up the death of Edie's brother, he starts to question the basic assumptions of his life--including his loyalty to Charley and Johnny, who after all ordered him to take a dive in his big fight in Madison Square Garden.

The other major character is a priest (Karl Malden), who tries to encourage longshoremen to testify against corruption. After one rebel is deliberately crushed in the hold of a ship, the priest makes a speech over his body (“if you don't think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another think coming”). It would have been the high point of another kind of film, but against Brando's more sinuous acting, it feels like a set piece.

Eva Marie Saint makes a perfect foil for Brando, and the two actors have a famous scene in a bar where he reveals, almost indirectly, that he likes her, and she turns the conversation from romance to conscience. At one point Kazan and his cameraman, Boris Kaufman, frame her pale face and hair in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen, with Brando in lower center, as if a guardian angel is hovering above him.

The best scenes are the most direct ones. Consider the way Brando refuses to cooperate with investigators who seek him out on the docks, early in the film. And the way he walks around on the rooftop where he keeps his beloved pigeons--lithe and catlike. Steiger is invaluable to the film, and in the famous taxi conversation, he brings a gentleness to match Brando's: The two brothers are in mourning for the lost love between them.

Schulberg's screenplay straddles two styles--the emerging realism and the stylised gangster picture. To the latter tradition belong lines like “He could sing, but he couldn't fly,” when the squealer is thrown off the roof.

To the former: “You know how the union works? You go to a meeting, you make a motion, the lights go out, then you go out.” Brando's “contender” speech is so famous it's hard to see anew, but watch the film again and you feel the reality of the sadness between the two men, and the simple words that express it.

“On the Waterfront” was nominated for 11 Oscars and won eight. Ironically, the other three nominations were all for best supporting actor, where Cobb, Malden and Steiger split the vote. Today the story no longer seems as fresh; both the fight against corruption and the romance fall well within ancient movie conventions. But the acting and the best dialogue passages have an impact that has not dimmed; it is still possible to feel the power of the film and of Brando and Kazan, who changed American movie acting forever. 


Le Grande Illusion (1937)

Apart from its other achievements, Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion” influenced two famous later movie sequences. The digging of the escape tunnel in "The Great Escape" and the singing of the "Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in "Casablanca" can first be observed in Renoir's 1937 masterpiece. Even the details of the tunnel dig are the same--the way the prisoners hide the excavated dirt in their pants and shake it out on the parade ground during exercise.

But if "Grand Illusion” had been merely a source of later inspiration, it wouldn't be on so many lists of great films. It's not a movie about a prison escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics; it's a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilisation. Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behaviour. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I.

"Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” the captured French aristocrat Capt. de Boieldieu tells the German prison camp commandant, Von Rauffenstein. A little later, distracting the guards during an escape of others from the high-security German fortress, the Frenchman forces the German to shoot him, reluctantly, and they have a final deathbed exchange. `" didn't know a bullet in the stomach hurt so much,” he tells the German. "I aimed at your legs,” says the German, near tears. And a little later he says: "For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I--it's a good way out.”

What the Frenchman knows and the German won't admit is that the new world belongs to commoners. It changed hands when the gentlemen of Europe declared war. And the "grand illusion” of Renoir's title is the notion that the upper classes somehow stand above war. The German cannot believe that his prisoners, whom he treats almost as guests, would try to escape. After all, they have given their word not to.

The commandant is played by Erich von Stroheim, in one of the most famous of movie performances. Even many who have not seen the movie can identify stills of the wounded ace pilot von Rauffenstein, his body held rigid by a neck and back brace, his eye squinting through a monocle. De Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), from an old aristocratic family, is a pilot von Rauffenstein personally shot down earlier in the war. The other two major characters are also French prisoners: Marechal (Jean Gabin), a workingman, a member of the emerging proletariat, and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish banker who has ironically purchased the chateau that de Boieldieu's family can no longer afford. The movie, filmed as the clouds of World War II were gathering, uses these characters to illustrate how the themes of the first war would tragically worsen in the second.

So pointed was Renoir's message that when the Germans occupied France, “Grand Illusion” was one of the first things they seized. It was "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1,” propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced, ordering the original negative seized. Its history since then would make a movie like "The Red Violin," as the print moved across borders in shadowy ways. For many years it was assumed that the negative was destroyed in a 1942 Allied air raid. But as Stuart Klawens reported in the Nation, it had already been singled out by a German film archivist named Frank Hensel, then a Nazi officer in Paris, who had it shipped to Berlin. When Renoir supervised the assembly of a “restored” print in the 1960s, nothing was known of this negative. He worked from the best available surviving theatrical prints. The result, the version that has been seen all over the world until now, was a little scratched and murky, and encumbered by clumsy subtitles.

The original negative, meanwhile, was captured by Russians as they occupied Berlin and shipped to an archive in Moscow. In the mid-1960s, Klawens wrote, a Russian film archive and one in Toulouse, France, exchanged some prints, including the priceless "Grand Illusion.” But since many prints of the film existed and no one thought the original negative had survived, the negative waited for 30 years before being identified as a treasure. What that means is that the restored print of "Grand Illusion” now being shown around the country is the best seen since the movie's premiere. 

This film clearly illustrates Renoir's visual style, his mastery of a subtly moving camera that allowed him to film extended passages without cutting. In the paintings of his father, Auguste Renoir, our eyes are led gently through the composition. In the films of the son, there is a quiet voluptuousness; the camera doesn't point or intrude, but glides.

As "Grand Illusion” opens, we meet von Rauffenstein in the German officers' mess. Having shot down two French fliers, he issues orders: "If they are officers, invite them for lunch.” Marechal and de Boieldieu are later sent to a POW camp, where they meet Rosenthal, already a prisoner, and benefit from the boxes of food his family sends him; often they eat better than their captors. Here are the tunnel-digging sequences, and the famous talent show scene, where total silence falls as they regard a man costumed as a woman, for it has been so long since they've seen a real one.

The tunnel digging is interrupted when all the prisoners are transferred. A few years pass, and now the three principal characters have been sent to Wintersborn, a fortress with high, unscalable walls. After a back wound ended his flying days, von Rauffenstein has volunteered to be commandant here as a way of remaining in service. He is strict but fair, still deceived by notions of class loyalty.

In these scenes von Stroheim makes an indelible impression, as a man deluded by romantic notions of chivalry and friendship. It is a touching performance, a collaboration between the great silent director and Renoir, then emerging as a master of sound. The performance is better even than it seems: Audiences assume Erich von Stroheim was a German, but mystery clouds his origins. Born in Vienna in 1885, by 1914 he was working with D.W. Griffith in Hollywood, but when did he immigrate to America (and add the "von” to his name)? Renoir writes in his memoirs: "Stroheim spoke hardly any German. He had to study his lines like a schoolboy learning a foreign language.”

The break from the fortress prison produces the touching deathbed farewell between De Boeldier and von Rauffenstein, which is the film's most touching scene, and then we join the workingman Marechal and the banker Rosenthal as they try to escape by walking cross-country through German territory. They're given shelter by a farm widow who sees security in Marechal, and perhaps Renoir is whispering that the true class connection across enemy lines is between the workers, not the rulers.

Jean Renoir, born in 1894, is on any list of the half-dozen greatest filmmakers, and his "The Rules of the Game" (1939) is even more highly considered than "Grand Illusion.” He fought in World War I, then quickly returned to Paris and entered the movie business. In his best films observation and sympathy for the characters define every shot; there is hardly a camera decision made for pure effect, without thinking first of where best to stand to see the characters.

Renoir moved to America in 1940, and made several Hollywood films, notably "The Southerner," with a screenplay by Faulkner, before going independent in the 1950s with "The River," based on Rumer Godden's Calcutta story. In a long retirement he was sought out by younger filmmakers and critics, who found him as sunny as a grandfather in one of his father's impressionist paintings. He died in 1979. 

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