This article is part of the 2016 Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. For the month of August, Turner Classic Movies will devote a day to a particular star. Friday August 5 is Karl Malden's Day.
The subtitle of this article is "The Dependable One." An apt description for Malden. When you watch a movie that starred Karl Malden, there is little doubt that you will see a performance that grabs your attention and won't let go. There is little doubt that he will stand toe to toe with some of the best actors of that time and still command the scene. There are many films that one can choose to highlight when talking about Karl Malden: On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire, Gypsy, Baby Doll are just a few. This blog post will focus his performance in On the Waterfront.
On the Waterfront (1954) was directed by Elia Kazan and is considered one of the best movies ever made. There were many variables that has made On the Waterfront a classic not to be missed: the directing, the music, the film's atmosphere, the writing, and of course the acting. The acting which included a memorable performance by Karl Malden.
On the Waterfront is about life on the docks. It's about secrets. Loyalty. Snitching. Standing up for your rights. Marlon Brando plays Terry. He's a fairly simple, easy going dock worker who loves his pigeons and his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger). The docks are run by a local thug, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who isn't afraid to resort to murder to keep control of those docks. Terry has information on a murder that could help put Johnny away. His new girlfriend, Edie ( Eva Marie Saint), happens to be the sister of the victim and wants him to speak out. However, in that neighborhood speaking up and out is snitching. No one snitches. No one wants to be a rat, especially Terry. So on one hand, Terry has his brother Charley, who works for Johnny, imploring him to keep his head down and his mouth shut. No surprise he also has Johnny Friendly stressing that it is important to his health to remain quiet. And on the other hand he has his conscience and Edie telling him he has to do the right thing and tell on Johnny. Not only does he have his conscience and Edie, he also has a Priest on his case. Father Barry has made it his duty to help the dock workers find justice and have their God-given rights enforced. The Father knows Terry has something to say against Johnny Friendly, and he pushes Terry and shows Terry that he has a duty and a responsibility to speak. It's his job as a man to speak up. So who plays this Priest? None other than Karl Malden.
Karl Malden's Father Barry is a tough Priest. He doesn't do his job only in a church. He goes out on the streets. He goes to the docks. Father Barry once said in regards to the Waterfront and Docks: "This is my church!" He is committed to rallying the dock workers to stand up for themselves. Testify against Johnny Friendly. He stands in a room with people booing him and throwing things at him, but he keeps speaking for what he knows is right. He keeps standing up for the little guys. In that memorable scene , Malden showed such passion and righteous anger as Father Barry. He portrayed that Priest to perfection. He truly is fantastic in this movie and absolutely commands the screen.
There is also a scene where he confronts Terry in a bar. He is telling Terry that if he truly wants to get Johnny Friendly, then the best way to do it is in a courtroom. Terry says something derogatory and Father Barry knocks him to the ground. Malden was so great in that scene! He wasn't overshadowed. He had such a strong presence. There was strength in his voice and in his body language in both scenes mentioned.
Now it should be said, there are some extenuating circumstances connected to those scenes. However, I won't share them, because I don't want to spoil too much. If you haven't seen this movie, then I recommend it to the highest degree. It is truly a brilliant film and Karl Malden is one of the reasons.
To go back to the beginning; you know to expect a great performance when you see Karl Malden is in a film. He didn't have the classical good look but he didn't need it. There was power in his performances, and he could do both drama and comedy. He was a tremendously talented actor. Truly one of the greats and definitely deserving of a day dedicated to him on Turner Classic Movies.