Fuck the Third Act of ‘On The Waterfront’


Fuck it right to hell, man. I don’t even.

On The Waterfront (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Budd Schulberg
108 min.

Very mild spoilers ahead.

Of the three acts which make up the three act structure, the third act is really the only one which has the ability to fuck you in the ass. You’re watching a movie, you’re digging it, you’re having a good time, you feel safe, and then all of a sudden it’s forcing itself into your butt. We’ve all been there.

A movie is like a penis, basically, and you are like a vagina. When you a watch a movie, you’re letting it inside you, and there’s a certain degree of trust which goes along with that. ‘Don’t hurt me, or at least, if you do hurt me, hurt me in an enjoyable way’—that sort of thing. And if a movie tries to fuck your ass in the first act, you can stop it before the tip is barely in and put on some other movie. Same goes for the second act. But when it fucks you in the ass in the third act, you’re in shock—it goes in and you can’t even believe what’s happening and you just have to lay there as it tarnishes the relationship you had built with it up until that point. And then when it’s done, you don’t know how to feel about it anymore. You remember the good times, sure, but the bad is fresh in your mind.

I had this very experience with On The Waterfront last night, and my booty hole is still twinging with pain.

I’d never seen it before, avoiding it for damn near ages because I like to watch classics with as little on my mind about its greatness as possible. If I let it slip that I haven’t seen a particular one and someone is all “What?! Oh my god, you’ve GOTTA see it!” then I can’t bring myself to watch it for another few years. I just can’t. I need to be able to watch it like it’s just any ol’ film, with no expectations.

The time finally felt right for On The Waterfront, so I popped it in, and right of the bat, I was into it. Brando’s Terry Malloy is instantly interesting, even though, for a while, he’s not really doing much, and doesn’t seem like he has much going on upstairs. But he does have something going on upstairs—in particular, on his roof: pigeons. Nowadays, a coop is a pretty well-worn trope for showing that someone is sensitive and thoughtful despite their physical appearance and behavior in their day-to-day life. Ghost Dog, The Wire, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Lords of Flatbush come instantly to mind as examples which have aped this from Waterfront, and there are definitely tons more. But even though you’ve seen it a million times, it’s quite effective here. Brando sells it, like he sells everything. To quote David Spade’s character in Tommy Boy, “He could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves.” And over the course of the film, he does pretty much that to his love interest, and really the only female character in the film, Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint.

As he seduces her, we are seduced. It’s hard not to be a little gay for Brando, watching this picture. It’s not so much his looks as it is the honesty in which he delivers his lines. You feel the pain behind ever word he says to her. Kazan himself said that their scenes are the best in the entire movie, and he’s right. The scene with him and her in the bar sharing beers is damn near required viewing. Watching it, you just want to hug him and kiss him and drag him out of this godforsaken town forever.

The writing is certainly the unsung hero of this film though. Everyone goes on about the acting, but the words, third act aside, are just as phenomenal. It almost has the feel of an HBO drama pilot, like Deadwood or Treme, where you’re introduced to all these intriguing characters and you can sense that each of them will have their own captivating arc over the course of the series. The only other old movie I can remember getting that distinct feeling from is Sweet Smell of Success. As such, you certainly an inkling that this style of snappy, all-cylinders 50’s cinema was swirling in David Milch and David Simon’s minds as they were creating their masterpieces.

They certainly didn’t draw from the third act, though. Nobody in their right mind would draw from that shit. To start, it does the annoying old movie thing of suddenly thrusting everyone into a courtroom. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Leave Her To Heaven, Written on the Wind, and countless others all do this. I guess courtrooms were really cool to audiences back in the day, because it seems like every damn drama, except westerns, had to be settled there. And I can’t think of a worse goddamn place to settle a movie. Unless you’re watching My Cousin Vinny or that courtroom parody skit in Kentucky Fried Movie or something, court is fucking boring. Thankfully, On The Waterfront doesn’t actually end in a courtroom though. Its real climax is later on. And lame as hell.

The climax of this film casts away all the other good characters as essentially meaningless, focusing all the attention on Terry, as though no one else had arcs. His love interest and this dope chain-smoking priest I forgot to talk about suddenly become one-dimensional, existing solely to cheer him on in one of the most cornball climaxes to an otherwise dope movie ever. In the booklet of the Criterion release of this movie, one of the essays defends the climax by saying it’s meant to be a little unrealistic, and even ironic, and I can see that to a certain extent, but it does this in a way that ruins the journey you were on. When Adaptation did this very same thing, it was tongue-in-cheek and smart—here, it just feels disrespectful to not just the viewer, but to the story being told. In a Stallone movie, I probably could’ve rolled with this climax. Cheese is fine when the whole thing is cheese, but this was cheese thrown on top of like, a bowl of Cheerios or something. Just totally discordant and nonsensical.

I have to grade this movie on a curve though, because when it’s good, it’s ridiculously good. I guess I’d give it four out of five stars. I don’t know, though. I still feel violated. I’m gonna go take a shower.

4 out of 5 Codys (I guess)

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