Italian Neorealism in American Film

This week’s assignment calls for an analysis of cultural values and/or fantasy themes, which means I look at a work and decipher what preexisting ideologies the creator is drawing on to make a statement.

Example: If I asserted that someone gave up something valuable for another, I would be implying that they were selfless, which would create a nice, alluring glow around this person, because we, as a culture, frown upon selfishness and value sacrifice. –> Cultural Values

Example: If I make a movie about the triumph of an underdog, I’m capitalizing on the David and Goliath myth that I assume the majority of readers in this predominantly Christian culture is familiar with. –> Fantasy Theme

My overall subject is the Italian Neorealism movement, but since I’m not Italian, nor am I an expert on Italian cultural values, I decided to look at the American film that most closely followed techniques of Italian neorealist filmmakers: Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). This film premiered after the Italian neorealist movement lost its momentum in Europe, but is the closest Hollywood ever got to the truthfulness of post-war Italian film, for three reasons:

1)   the use of real locations (not on back lots or soundstages),

2)   non professional actors (real thugs as extras and supporting characters), and

3)   a topic revolving around social responsibility and true-to-life situations (narrative adapted from a series of newspaper articles called “Crime on the Waterfront” about corruption and racketeering in NY longshoreman unions)

The Premise:

Terry Malloy (Marlin Brando) is a boxer nearing his thirties who gets cajoled into the racketeering business by his brother, Charlie, who works for mob boss Johnny Friendly. Friendly pulls strings on the docks, smuggling shipments in and out and controlling workers through the union. He’s about to be put up on the podium in court and needs to get rid of the snitches. Charlie uses Terry to lure out one of the witnesses, Joey—he thinks the thugs are just going to “lean” on him. Joey falls to his death right in front of Terry’s eyes.

Now Terry is suspicious. He’s guilt-ridden and second guessing if he really wants to be involved in this kind of life. But should he testify against Johnny or stay loyal to his brother? A priest and a love interest urge him to testify, even as Johnny and Charlie pressure him to stay quiet. And then Johnny makes a huge mistake: he kills Charlie as punishment for letting Terry off the hook and as a warning to Terry (this is what happens when you defy me). Of course he also gave Terry all the incentive he needed to want to testify against him in court.

Terry testifies and goes back to work on the docks. The union thugs warn him not to enter to dock, he doesn’t really think they’ll let him work after everything that’s gone down. But Terry doesn’t back down, despite the beating he’s getting, and eventually the other workers band together and declare a strike unless Terry gets to work. The final shot shows Terry limping, injured, onto the docks to work alongside his fellow longshoremen.

Now, why is this story so compelling? Let’s break it down.

First off, Terry is in a kind of David and Goliath situation; he’s one poor, powerless man going against the brute force of a ruthless gang. We root for him because his chances are slim and because we’ll always want the underdog to win.

In most cases, the Informant character would be portrayed negatively, as a Snitch—since we value loyalty—but in Waterfront, the hero is a snitch. His betrayal is justified because he sides against corrupt criminals, even though he doesn’t decide to testify until the third act of the film.

Any audience today would consider the film with less awe than moviegoers did at the time of Waterfront’s release; the core of the narrative reflects certain cultural values that were more prevalent in post-war America than they are today. The 1950s were a time of fear, a time in which McCarthy’s anti-Communist paranoia put many Hollywood filmmakers on black lists and under heavy suspicion. Director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg were driven to create this film in direct response to their experiences with the tumultuous politics and extreme factions of the “Red” debate.

Both Kazan and Schulberg stood before the House Committee of Un-American Activities as witnesses and named several fellow filmmakers as Communists. Naturally, they got a lot of heat for their decision to testify, especially since one of the accused was Kazan’s close friend and collaborator, playwright Arthur Miller. However, the political climate at the time only made the hero’s dilemma in Waterfront more compelling and relatable to audiences who had strong opinions about the idea of “snitching.”

The narrative’s origin in real life events hints of a strong Italian Neorealist influence, and obviously paid off for Kazan, since the film took home eight of the 12 Academy Awards for which it was nominated and has remained in many of AFI’s “Top 100” lists for Movies, Heroes and Villains, and Film Scores.

Basically, what I’m saying is: “You need to watch this movie; it’s amazing.”

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