As we all know, On the Waterfront exists because film and theater legend Elia Kazan, when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in April 1952, complied by naming the names of eight people who had, at one point in the 1930s, been card-carrying Communists. This cost him many of his friends, and he wanted to defend himself, and so he directed this story about how testifying is actually good and in fact very leftist, actually.

Like so many things we all know, this isn't completely true. In fact, the genesis of On the Waterfront was in 1951, before Kazan had been called before HUAC, when his friend and collaborator Arthur Miller - one of the people who abandoned him in '52, no less - wrote the first draft of a screenplay about corruption in the Hoboken, New Jersey longshoremen's union, inspired by true events. And Miller left the project initially not because of Kazan's behavior (though that's what kept him from coming back to it), but because Columbia president Harry Cohn wanted the villains to be Communists rather than generic corrupt union bosses. To be sure, the idea that Kazan continued to develop the project as a way of defending his actions holds water, particularly since Miller was replaced as screenwriter by Budd Schulberg, who also named names in front of HUAC. Not to mention that, in its finished form, On the Waterfront has become less about union corruption per se than it is about the moral debate inside a good-hearted, slow-witted man who knows that the right thing to do is to testify before the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, but also finds it very hard to commit to doing so, given that it will make all of his friends, family, and acquaintances hate him. And that is, at the very least, a self-serving message for the film to have.

That, honestly, is what bothers me most about On the Waterfront as a cinematic object, how very much it's about having that message. Oh, I absolutely do deplore Kazan at a person, and I would certainly not want to have lunch with him, but to think of starting to care about the political content of movies and the morality of artists at my age, good Lord no. I've loved films with worse messages made by more odious people than Elia Kazan, at any rate. But movies that have a mind to lecture at me, that I cannot abide, no matter what the content of the lecture is. At the level of raw plot material, not very much happens in On the Waterfront, and to be sure, at just 108 minutes, the film isn't blatantly overstaying its welcome. Still, a lot of those minutes, especially in the film's second half, are stretching themselves awfully thin putting over a pretty straightforward idea: it's tough to work up the bravery to go against group norms. By message movie standards, this is hardly a harangue - even by Elia Kazan-directed message movie standards, a population that includes cinematic dirges like 1947's Gentleman's Agreement and 1949's Pinky. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Schulberg's script is trying to laboriously explain things to us, walking us through the steps of how a difficult moral decision is made, rather than tell us a story first and hope that we pick up some ideas along the way. Particularly during the blatantly idealistic ending that feels a bit like the filmmakers have fashioned their own cheering section rather than follow the logic of scenes that happened not ten minutes earlier to its logical conclusion.

The good news is that, notwithstanding the deficiencies of the script (which is by no means bad, just a bit overheated in its '50s earnestness. If nothing else, there is some fine-to-great dialogue to be had, including the iconic "I coulda been a contender" speech), On the Waterfront is an extremely good movie. The directing, acting, cinematography, and editing - all of them honored among the film's impressive haul of eight Academy Awards, off of twelve nominations - all do quite a bit to give the film emotional weight and forward narrative momentum that Schulberg's script (which also won an Oscar) can't quite provide. At which point I really must stop burying the lede: what really earned the film its place in history isn't the ongoing controversy over Kazan's behavior but the because this is the film where Marlon Brando changed the course of screen acting. Not single-handedly, of course; he has ample support from his castmates, and his director. And of course I'm being cheeky anyway. But this was, at any rate, a watershed moment in the history of post-war acting techniques onscreen, with damn near the whole speaking cast made up of Actors Studio or Group Theatre veterans, and its unqualified financial and critical success was one of the major reasons that this style came to dominate American screen acting through the 1970s. If the previous Kazan/Brando collaboration A Streetcar Named Desire was John the Baptist, On the Waterfront is Jesus Christ, one might say, though in order to say it one would need to have a much more positive opinion of the branch of psychological realism that Brando represented, as well as Brando himself, than I ever have. I find it to be an approach that very easily falls into the trap of being too mechanically thought-out at the cost of being natural, obsessed to the point of distraction with bits of stage business, and all in service to end results that aren't really any less mannered than the most flagrantly unrealistic movie star acting, just mannered in different ways, and much more exhaustingly fussy to watch. Not to mention that its stranglehold on two generations of performers meant that it wasn't until the '80s that more colorfully stylised acting was able to reinstate itself as a strategy.

Still, one can dislike a thing in general and still love a particular instance of that thing, and On the Waterfront does have, I admit, the one Brando performance that absolutely blows my socks off. And not even because it avoids those traps! The film's iconic glove scene - Eva Marie Saint drops a glove, Brando picks it up, tugs at the fingers for a while, then puts it on his hand, while she keeps uncertainly waiting to pull it off and leave - is absolutely a quintessential example of this acting style: found through accident and improvisation in rehearsal, and dedicated to showing the internal workings of these two characters by making us watch their physical behavior, as completely detached from the contents of the words they're saying. And it is one of the most exciting pieces of film acting of that entire decade, largely because of the energy going on between the actors - you can't say that it's a great Brando moment, even though he's doing all of the visible "work", because most of what his work is doing is to quietly but steadily wind up Saint, who gets to weave in a little tendril of nervous tension that wouldn't come from anyplace else, but ends up being the whole point of her character in this moment. I can absolutely see how someone watching this scene brand-new in '54 would be struck by a a giddy "that's it! That's the future of screen acting!" feeling, for there is something truly electrifying watching it.

And the thing is, for all that's the best scene in the film (and the best scene in either Brando or Saint's careers, for that matter), On the Waterfront is full of little gems like that, moments where the tensions between two characters feel inseparable from the tensions between two actors - Brando was still a few years away from going full diva mode, but he was a bit prickly about the shoot (he hadn't really wanted to take the role, and didn't think he was doing well with it), and perhaps what makes this film work so well is that it's the precise correct amount of Marlon Brando's Ego for a single movie, giving his co-stars something to react against. And with a few exceptions, that is how the movie mostly plays out: scenes between Brando and one or two other actors, where they're mostly bouncing off of him. And when those other actors are folks like Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger, they're able to hold their own against the massive scale of his performance (Karl Malden is the exception; I'm not sure if most of his scenes set him against Saint, but certainly the scenes that stand out in my mind do - and they stand out quite a bit, he's my favorite of this film's four excellent, Oscar-nominated supporting performances).

Because it is Brando's movie, largely because the script belongs so completely to his character, Terry Malloy. Terry is a former prizefighter who was talked into taking a fall for the financial benefit of local mobbed-up union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb); thanks to his brother Charlie (Steiger), Friendly's right-hand man, Terry has become something of a useful idiot for the organisation, not actually serving as muscle himself, but helpful for setting up the dissident elements in the union to end up in spots where they can be quickly and brutally killed off. The genius of the character, and of Brando's performance, is that Terry isn't just a straightforward good-hearted lug, but rather someone for whom moving toward goodness is a real, tangible, film-length effort. It would be easy to play the character as having a kind of working class folk wisdom, but Brando resists that - his Terry is a bit slow and damaged from the fighting, and he does have a hard time figuring things out, which makes it all the richer when he does so. As much as I find the film's intellectual argument dubious and self-serving, Terry's emotional journey, which is inseparable from that argument, is terrific, not least because of how well Saint (as the sister of one of Friendly's victims) and Malden (as a priest in the process of growing his own conscience) help to mirror and amplify that journey.

This journey takes place in one of the most striking settings of 1950s cinema. Shot largely in Hoboken, the film could easily just be part of the docu-realist cycle that had started up in the very late '40s, full of grainy location photography, and it does draw from that. But this is also the first American feature shot by the great Boris Kaufman, brother of the legendary Soviet director Dziga Vertov, and cinematographer to the legendary French director Jean Vigo, and what Kaufman has given to On the Waterfront is just as groundbreaking and important as what Brando did. I can't say if this films is single-handedly responsible for transforming the way New York and environs were shot in movies, though given its prominence (and Kaufman's Oscar), I think that's a fair argument to test out. It's not just that it's grainy; the grain here swims, almost putting another layer between us and the world. And unlike the realist black-and-white cinematography of The Naked City and He Walked By Night and the films inspired by them, On the Waterfront doesn't merely try to capture the essence of a space through detailed, textured monochrome, it actively attempts to create a new essence by using high contrast lighting that turns the streets of Hoboken into an Expressionist world of light and dark, articulating a mood for Terry that he's too fumbling and unsure of himself to put into words.

There's one other way that the film structures itself emotionally, and since I started off complaining, I guess it fits to end the same way. Though unlike when I was sneering at Kazan and Schulberg, it gives me no pleasure at all to say that I frankly do not like this film's musical score at all: it was the only original film music ever composed by Leonard Berstein, one of the defining artists of 20th Century American music. One gets the impression, listening to the On the Waterfront score, that he was well aware of this fact. It's a score that strikes me as a little bit irritated about having to share space with a movie, given how high it rides in the mix, and how very complicated it is to listen to, drawing attention away from the images. I can easily imagine loving it as a standalone composition, with its daring middle-to-highbrow tonality and uncertainty about how its melodies are developing, and to an extent, that's why producer Sam Spiegel picked him: he wanted an impressive name with lots of Respectable Cultural baggage attached to it, and so the point was to get a distinctively Bernstein composition, not to get film music. But the result is music that, for my tastes, completely swamps the movie, taking the reigns away from Kazan and the actors to say "no, we're doing this now". The only moment it feels fully subservient to the rest of the movie is during the "I coulda been a contender" speech, as if even the bullying, insistent music knew that was going to be an iconic scene, and it had best work to support it, not to beat it into shape. And that's setting aside the unfair criticisms, like how damn dated the music is. I do like parts of it - the solo French horn that starts the film is startling and sad in the right ways - but given how well Kazan's relatively spare directorial hand and the delicate acting work to create something subtle and tenative, having the music scream our feelings at us significantly imbalances the movie's energy in ways that I frankly don't find at all rewarding.