Sunday, February 24, 2013
All of these various writing jobs Schulberg took upon himself could also cause him to stumble, as in the “this is why he’s like this” section of What Makes Sammy Run?, which, not coincidentally, was also no doubt the driving force behind Schulberg writing that novel in the first place. But it could all pay off for him, or mostly pay off, as I saw firsthand when I recently read his 1955 novel Waterfront. If Budd Schulberg’s name and the word “waterfront” immediately form an association in your mind, you should probably also note that year of publication. On the Waterfront, the Academy Award-winning film he wrote, directed by Elia Kazan, was released in 1954. Schulberg was one of the many artists to win an Oscar for that film, but he apparently wasn’t thoroughly satisfied by that and chose to expand on his own script, to novelize it, essentially, and the results were published the following year. And it’s a fine book, I’m happy to report, though its basic goodness isn’t the most interesting thing about it. Referring to Schulberg’s novel based on his own screenplay as a novelization implies certain things, none of them good, so I’d like to go on record now and say that Waterfront (which is now in print under the title On the Waterfront, a fact that I find regrettable) does not embody any of the negative things you’d normally associate with movie novelizations. It’s its own curious beast. Watching the film again today, for the first time in a long time, I was surprised and fascinated by how much it felt like an adaptation of the novel Schulberg wouldn’t publish for another year. Certain events feel condensed now, character histories and motivations hacked to the bone, the environment, while rendered with beautiful precision by Kazan, nevertheless now seems less sprawling and less populated and less wild. Yet at the same time, when I read the “contender” scene in the novel, I thought “Oh well of course he put this in verbatim. If he didn’t fans of the movie woulda flipped!” Similarly, when Terry Malloy, the lazy, dumb, apathetic, but morally tortured mug played by Marlon Brando, takes Katie Doyle (oh, I should point out here that Edie, the Eva Marie Saint character in the film, is for some reason named Katie in the novel, a fact I also find regrettable, for rather obscure reasons), the young woman whose union-firebrand brother Joey is murdered at the story’s opening by the corrupt thugs who currently run the New Jersey longshoremen union around which everything whirls, Joey having been lured to his doom by an unwitting Terry (he thought they’d just lean on him a little), out for a drink and urges the innocent and pious Katie to knock back her shot, that whole business, with Katie/Edie turning green and dazedly muttering “Wham,” is a pure movie scene, but it makes it into the novel intact.
So it’s like that, sometimes. Meanwhile, Father Berry, the neighborhood priest who takes up the mantel of the deceased Joey Doyle and tries to unite and inspire the longshoremen who have been spiritually and financially pulverized by the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), can at times seem like the lead character of Schulberg’s novel. On the Waterfront is entirely Terry Malloy’s film, but Father Berry – and Katie, too, at times – takes over great whacks of the book, as Schulberg focuses on his reaction to Katie (or Edie’s) rebuke that saints never hide in churches, and his rousing of himself out of his own apathy – apathy is almost a theme of the book – and actually do the hard job of being a priest that he’d originally signed up for. In the novel, this is all rather interesting, and depicted by Schulberg with a lot of passion. He quotes Saint Francis Xavier at length, for example, and Father Berry uses his teachings as his blueprint. The question “Can Father Berry pull this off?” almost overshadows “Will Terry do the right thing?”
Loading and unloading is an art and a fever. The dock boss is on you all the time. Unload, load and turn ‘er around. The faster she puts a cargo down and picks up another, well, that’s where the money is. Do a three-day job in two and there’s your profit. Legitimate profit, that is. Oh, there’s plenty of the other kind for the mob who’s got the local and the Bohegan piers in its pocket. More ways to skin this fat cat than you ordinary citizens would ever dream. You take sixteen billion dollars’ worth of cargo moving in and out all over the harbor every year and if the boys siphon off maybe sixty million of it in pilferage, shakedowns, kickbacks, bribes, short-gangs, numbers, trumped-up loading fees and a dozen other smart operations, why, who cares – the shipping companies? Not so you could notice it. The longshoremen? Most of them are happy or anyway willing just to keep working. The city fathers? That’s a joke on the waterfront. The people, the public, you’n’me? All we do is pay the tab, the extra six or seven per cent passed on to the consumer because the greatest harbor of the greatest city of the greatest country in the world is run like a private grab-bag.
This is a good passage, because it encompasses a lot of what’s going on in the novel. This is from the beginning of the book, taken from several pages of such stuff, and while the sardonic humor of this prose doesn’t travel too far into the rest of the novel, save for in some very sharp dialogue, it gets across the very specific anger driving Schulberg. Father Berry was based on a real priest, Father John Corridan, and the corruption, murder, and apathy that made up daily life along this New Jersey piers was not invented – I know you all know this, of course, but the novel is much more specific than the film, is my point (you probably also noticed Schulberg’s use of the phrase “on the waterfront.” That happens in the film, too, a couple of times, but unfortunately Schulberg hammers it pretty hard in the novel, and perhaps he, too, wished he’d used that for the book’s title). The drunken lives of the longshoremen who would rather drink up the money they haven’t earned yet for doing jobs they haven’t done yet because the option to live under these conditions sober is clearly off the table, and to try to do anything about it would not only ruin them but would ruin their families as well, is really the meat of Waterfront. This is the suffering Schulberg wants to see end. The murders, too, obviously, but the murders are the exclamation points scattered around the rest of the tremendously sad and infuriating story. In the film, Schulberg and Kazan only had time to allude to these lives, but in Waterfront the main characters are constantly walking in and out of them.
Plus, as we understand him, Kazan gave us Brando. The amazing thing I realized today as I watched is, well, first: you know how one of the qualities of great acting, or the results on the audience of great acting, is that you forget about the actor and believe you’re simply watching the character? Certain qualifiers have to be put in place in order for this to work, not least that it is I believe neurologically impossible for a healthy and sane person to actually do this, as well as that considering this to be the one true goal of acting is to restrict the kind of acting you can enjoy, but anyway, we all understand what’s being gotten at here, and can acknowledge that in many, many cinematic circumstances, the kind of acting being described is to be hoped for. With that understanding, the amazing thing I realized while watching On the Waterfront today is that at certain times Marlon Brando, the most famous American actor in his most famous film role in one of the most famous films ever made is making me think more about Terry Malloy than about him. Take that scene where he takes Edie out for a drink, and he's telling her his story, and says “my dad got bumped off, never mind how.” That “never mind how” is absolutely brilliant, because there’s a pause just before it, and among the many things you can intuit Terry is thinking about in that pause are the way his father died, how he doesn’t like thinking about it, how he doesn’t want to tell Edie about it and so he should cut off her natural question before she can ask it, how, “bumped off” implying homicide as it does, Terry’s moral compass has just gone crazy again, because who “bumped off” his dad “on the waterfront” if not some version of the men he now (kinda) works for? And so on. Brando’s performance here is positively overflowing with that kind of thing. He’s Terry Malloy, and that’s it.