On the Waterfront Suite

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            On the Waterfront (1954) is easily one of the most important of American films.  Directed by the great—and controversial—Elia Kazan, with a screenplay by Budd Schulberg, and an all-star cast of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint, it just doesn’t get much better than this in cinema.  It won eight Academy Awards (but not one for the music!), and is almost always on the list of American top-ten movies.   The film-score was composed when Bernstein was thirty-five, and is unique for the composer in that it was totally original, with no connections to any stage production.   The story, about corruption and violence on the New Jersey docks, was unremittingly dark, and the composer’s music is eloquently reflective of it—perfect for a kind of “film noir.”  The movie is in black and white, the sun never shines, and violence is always threatening.  It's all in the music, and makes for one of Bernstein’s masterpieces—it certainly set the mark for many following contemporary film scores.  

            The stark brass of the opening sets the mood perfectly.  Later, this kind of writing comes back with even more power and dissonance; if it reminds one a bit of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, is no accident.   For it is no secret that Bernstein’s life-long musical style owed more than a little to the composer’s beloved mentor.  Much of the score references Copland, but with a decided edge.  Rhythmic displacements, jagged gestures, serene simple harmonies—it’s all there.  Bernstein’s score is perfectly suited for the variety of dramatic situations of the film.  The bleak scenes of the docks and the New Jersey tenements; the tender encounters between Brando and Saint; the serenity of the roof-top pigeon coops; the evil of Cobb; the moral ambiguity of Steiger; the firm morality of Malden; and the constant menace of real violence—all are subtly depicted without bathos, and with stylistic evenness.  Like the best of film scores, the music is apt but not distracting. 

            Bernstein initially resisted accepting the commission for the score.  Politically dedicated to liberal causes all of his life, he had deep antipathy for the director, Elia Kazan.  Kazan was marginalized for many years for his coöperation with the McCarthy HUAC hearings.  He named names in the witch-hunt.   Musical posterity is fortunate that Bernstein saw the opportunity and changed his mind.

            In many respects there is a cogent argument that the On the Waterfront Suite represents some of Bernstein’s very best work.  Perhaps the Russian, Mstislav Rostropovich (of Slava! fame) said it best:  “His Suite from On the Waterfront I have conducted many, many times, and this music smells of the United States.  But, it is a good smell.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan