On the Waterfront
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy communicates the angst and confusion of an inarticulate speaker trying to form his own identity in familiar but newly threatening surroundings. He strives to be an individual with strong principles, and his movements reveal his struggle. He chews gum expressively, shrugs, lags behind, pulls his collar up, and stuffs his hands in his pockets. All of these nervous, almost evasive gestures and behaviors represent a stark contrast from the goons in Johnny Friendly’s gang. Though they are just as verbally inexpressive, the henchmen stand strong in twos and threes, in solid hats and long overcoats, sure of what they’re doing at all times. The henchmen make eye contact, while Malloy frequently looks away. Brando must convey Malloy’s interior life through these physical gestures, since the script gives Malloy so little verbal eloquence.
Kazan worked with Brando at the Actors Studio, so he knew his talents and knew the benefits of improvisation in acting. Improvisation means deviating from the written script and exploring an urge, a path, a riff, or an intuition because it feels right or “in character.” Improvisation can become scripted if, for example, an exploration works extraordinarily well in rehearsal. The famous “white glove” scene began as improvisation. Brando’s seemingly unconscious fiddling with the glove throws off the entire rhythm of the scene and adds to the unexpected nature of each step. It creates a second dynamic. The first dynamic is their private, delicate conversation, and the second gives meaning to their physical interaction. Dropping the glove makes Edie unsure of what she wants to do with her body. Should she reach out to grab the glove, or politely await its return? She cycles unconsciously and hesitantly through various options, even as she keeps up an intimate conversation. Each parry and thrust of her initial step and Malloy’s teasing counterstep sends an electric charge through the scene.
Strong acting is also notable in Charlie and Terry’s scene in the taxicab. Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando are large men stuck in a cramped environment, navigating through charged emotional territory. The actors choose unconventional reactions to throw the audience off guard. Steiger’s ultra-cool Charlie can’t stop fiddling with his gloves, for example, and Terry doesn’t flee the pistol but rather calmly turns it aside. The men speak very few words, and the words, too, are rather conventional. The actors’ symphony of facial expressions makes those few words eloquent. The pauses and ellipses between and around the spoken words, combined with the expressiveness of the faces, create volumes of meaning and emotion.
The scene in the taxi was shot three times. Once the crew rolled in a two-shot, with both Brando and Steiger visible. Once the camera closed in on Brando so that Steiger wasn’t seen, even though he was there with Brando as someone for Brando to interact with. However, when it came time for Steiger’s close-ups, the notoriously complex Brando had to leave for a psychotherapy appointment—so Steiger did all his close-ups with an extra on the set playing Terry Malloy off-screen. That the scene is such a success is a testament to the power of the acting.
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