I found On the Waterfront enjoyable, even despite my prejudice against slow-paced black-and-white dramas. Marlon Brando’s character in particular was fun to watch: he never hammed up his performance, and often played it more subdued than I would have expected a character to act – when he finds all his pigeons’ necks snapped, for example, he mildly says something along the lines of “now why did he have to do that?” Even in the tensest scene of the film, when his character is confronted by his older brother in a life-or-death situation, Brando keeps his emotions moderately bottled. It reminds me of plenty of guys I know, and seems true to the character of a 50’s wharf rat.
The film seems dark and dejected, shot entirely in a setting of brick, mortar, and wooden docks, so I was a little surprised that it had a decently uplifting ending. (I looked up the real life story it’s based on; the actual ending is a downer.) The black and white contrasts are sharp in several scenes: boats and docks are dark and dividing lumps. The scenes on the rooftops, too, are divided, with the black building below and the white overcast sky above.
I only noticed a few shots that seemed to have deeper symbolic meanings behind them: a shot right before a church is attacked by mobsters shows a contrastingly serene statue of the Holy Mary praying; one scene of a priest chastising waterfront workers is shot from above the priest to signify his underdog status; and a following shot tilts upward as the priest is winched up, to signify his true moral high ground.
The actual plot of the story, however, feels old: an underdog fights a system, does the right thing, and gets the girl. This is probably because, as a fifties film, the story’s plot is indeed old. It’s ultimately entertaining for Brando’s portrayal and for the random bits of fun old-timey mobster dialogue like “time to get some ambition” being countered with “I always thought I’d live longer without it.”