On The Waterfront

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Should you tell?

In the wake of the scandals at Penn State and now Syracuse, it’s easy to say yes, but whistleblowers pay a high price. Consider that the main defense strategy of the accused Penn State coach is to attack the credibility of the coach who turned him in.  Not too long ago, whistleblowers were called “rats,” and I was raised in a culture that taught ratting someone out was as contemptible as committing the original crime. These issues are at the heart of Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece of corruption On the Waterfront.

Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy is a former prizefighter turned thug for the mafia-controlled union that controls the shipping docks of Hoboken, New Jersey.  He develops a conscience (with the aid of both a young woman played by Eva Marie Saint and a priest played by Karl Malden) and laments the compromises he’s made.  The question the movie turns on is whether or not Terry will tell a crime commission what he knows. Brando’s performance is regarded by many as the finest ever by an American actor.

Director Elia Kazan personally knew the cost of “naming names.” He testified before the House Un-American Activities commission in the early 1950’s, naming people in the movie industry he knew were Communists. Kazan was greatly reviled for his willingness to testify. As late as 1999, when a 90-year-old Kazan was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar, some members of the audience at the Academy Awards refused to applaud.

Is it the right thing to tell what you know?  Elia Kazan knew the pain of trying to find the right path from personal experience, and On the Waterfront dramatically illustrates it.  The film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It’s generally regarded as one of the ten best American films ever made.