On The Waterfront: Terry Malloy Was A Rat

On the Waterfront as reviewed by a dock mobster...

On the Waterfront, a classic movie, it got Academy Awards, everybody loves it. It’s on every top 100 movie list. It was socially conscious. It was bare-bones filmmaking pulled from the headlines of the day. It was bold. It was daring. It solidified Marlon Brando’s acting rep. Terry Malloy is a rat, a cheese-eater. He’s called it all the way through the picture and there’s a reason for it. On The Waterfront was based on newspaper articles about mob control of the waterfront in Jersey, New York, and Brooklyn called “Crime on the Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson. Mob control of the waterfront? Albert Anastasia, the lord high executioner, ran the waterfront in those days. He’d be taken out by a barbershop quintet in 1957. Waterfront came out in 1954. Elia Kazan took the newsclips to Arthur Miller to write up a screenplay and then Kazan named names at the House Un-American Activities Committee and Miller told him to go fuck himself. So Kazan pulled in another rat, Budd Schulberg, to write it up. On the Waterfront was Elia Kazan’s apologensia for saying all those rotten things about his pinko friends. But it was no mea culpa. On the surface, Waterfront is a late-era classic gangster movie. Mobsters run the docks. Mobsters run the shylarks. They pretty much run all the action. At the top is Johnny Friendly. A tough guy with a soft spot, ask any rummy on the waterfront. He takes care of his own. And he takes care of anyone who fucks with his own.

I could’a had class. I could’a been a contender. I could’a been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it, Charlie

Terry Malloy was a boxer. He took a dive for Johnny Friendly on his brother’s advice and lost a shot at the title. He coulda been somebody with a title. Even as a contender, it’s better than never getting a shot at all. Better than throwing fights for short-end cash. That sticks in Terry’s ass. That’s all a cop needs to turn someone. Of course a priest who can order a beer so dramatically and an airy blonde who’s a jiminy cricket in his ear don’t help. Terry’s bombarded all over. You can see he’s not going to hold up to questioning.

But he does. For a while. Then he spills his own personal beef. The thrown fight. All those years ago in the Garden. That fucking fight gets Terry’s brother, Charlie, killed. Charlie goes soft on account of that fight and lets Terry off, for old time’s sake. Can’t do it. That sort of thing gets you hung on a hook in a garage. So that’s enough to make Terry Malloy go rat. Well, that’s the way it usually happens. Joe Valachi didn’t turn stoolie until after the mob got it in their heads that he was and went after him. Nothing sends you running to the warden faster than a shiv in the shower.

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Let me pause to give a post-preface. Dead End, from 1937, is my favorite movie. It was since the first time I saw it when I was three or four. That and Yellow Submarine which I saw when I was six. I just loved Dead End and no movie has ever supplanted it as my favorite. I’ve watched almost every film by every actor in Dead End, just because they were in it. Almost, because even with Bogart, he made 78 films, I’ve only been able to catch 62 of them, and I look. But watching Sylvia Sidney in Beetlejuice was a thrill. Her Drina was one of American films’ first real strong, independent women. Yeah she goes to Joel McCrea at the end, but only after she lets him know she doesn’t need him. And Dave never goes rat. Sure, he’d go on to kill Baby Face Martin, but he was no squealer. The squealer is perennial Dead End Kid bad apple Leo Gorcey. Gorcey had the chops and the background to go where the other Kids didn’t. In Crime School, he was the one who actually committed the murder that got Dead End Kids sent to reform school. They went because they wouldn’t squeal. It was important. Dead End had it all. The social commentary, the pro-union, pro-left, anti-establishment posture. Gabe Dell shooting out his crotch in an “eat me” gesture. The little fucking hoodlums on the street. They all knew one thing. You can’t trust a squealer.

You don’t snitch in the playground. You don’t squeal to your teacher. You don’t drop a dime on your co-workers. You don’t narc on your friends and you never ever ever fucking say word one to the cops. Not one. Ever. If they ask you what time it is the most you should muster is a gesture. And not a helpful one. Terry Malloy is a cheese-eating rat. They beat the shit out of him in the end, but they don’t give him the “mark of the squealer.” Isn’t this a Warner Brothers movie? It breaks the cardinal rule of gangster films, just like Mafia five-dollar-guy Joe Valachi broke the first rule of cosa nostra, Omerta.

You gave it to Charlie. Who was one of your own.

This was the first era of the squealer. We saw it again in the late 90s, when canaries took down the five families from upper case to lower case. The new lower case five families make sense under Omerta. You think they were silent before? They’re never going to say another word again. Forget about it and don’t expect any tell-all books from the next Mafia generation either. You know Johnny Tightlips on The Simpsons? He’s the new boss. Johnny Friendly was loud and brash, but he kept a clean house. Then that rodent fink fingered him on the stand and he lost his place at the big table. That more than justifies taking him out. Yeah, sure, he hung Charlie up on a hook like anything else on the docks, but he wasn’t taking care of the problem. The problem is the leaky faucet and if you don’t want to use a wrench, don’t give him the fucking gun. It’s on page three of that secret manual that you burned before reading, cos it was that secret. More secret than the saints.

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Okay, that’s another thing that did happen a lot in the fifties. When I mentioned Valachi, it was because the situation’s not that different. Terry probably would have kept his mouth shut if they hadn’t killed his brother and they only killed his brother to keep his mouth shut. It really is and was a mob catch-22 that was an unbreakable rule. It happens over and over again in real life mob cases. It’s like a comedian who always takes it one step too far. It’s a bad game of chicken and its stacked in the Feds favor because they hate both sides. The cop on the stairs calls Terry a squealer. The kid kills every single pigeon in the coop. Think about that. That kid in the leather jacket. Twisted the neck of every single pigeon that Terry took care of. Individually. One at a time. That kid loved Terry. But Terry was a rat fuck. Those pigeons had to die. Innocent fucking birds.

And then years later they honor these guys. Wiseguys, goodfellas like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci went on the Academy Awards to say, hey it’s been years, isn’t it time we forgive Elia Kazan for naming names? And Brando, the fat rat fuck, he was awarded by playing Don Corleone in the greatest mob movie ever. Was that in his witness protection package? Karl Malden yells that Christ is on the docks and Brando gets to be the Christ figure, stumbling three times on his way to shape up for a day’s work. But he’s a squealer. And should wear the mark.

On The Waterfront is a great movie, yeah. Of course. From where you’re standing. But I’m over here now. A cheap, lousy, dirty, stinking mug. From a mug’s point of view the pic should a 2.0 tops. And even that I’m pushing.

Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars 

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5 out of 5