Authors: Budd Schulberg
Tags: #General Fiction
On the Waterfront
For Father Phil Carey, still on the beat; the late Father John Corridan, “the waterfront priest”; and his banty disciple, Arthur Browne, irrepressible “Brownie,” who led me to and guided me along the waterfront through many days and nights. And for Tony Mike, Tommy Bull, Timmy, Pete, Joey, and countless others—men on the docks who gave me a hand. And for the hundreds of martyred longshoremen who should not have died in vain.
LTHOUGH THE FILM “ON
The Waterfront” is now part of motion picture lore, the background of this novel is less familiar. This was no “novelization,” that bastard word for a bastard byproduct of Hollywood success. Reviewers, actually invoking Zola and Dreiser in their praise of the work, were surprised that after all the kudos the film had received, there was still so much more to say than a ninety-minute movie—even one of the best of them—could possibly suggest.
Truth was, I had taken a rather unorthodox approach to the writing of the screenplay, applying not a month or two, but years of my life to absorbing everything I could about the New York waterfront, becoming an habituée of the westside Manhattan and Jersey bars that were unofficial headquarters, or homes away from home, for waterfront racketeers and Irish and Italian “insoigents” alike, drinking beer and talking into the night with longshore families in the cluttered kitchens of their $26.50 per month railroad flats, interviewing longshore-union leaders and getting to know the fearless and outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen who gave me an insight into Catholic social action I had never had before. While I had read about the French working class priests, and the Central and South American clergy who related their devotion to Christ to the peasant (or peon) resistance movements, I had not realized that just a few blocks west of comfortable watering holes like Sardi’s, there were men in cassocks and turned-around collars who were just as defiant in their stand against greed, oppression, and corruption as their brother priests in more exotic parts of the world.
I became fascinated with a particular “waterfront priest,” Father John Corridan, a rangy, ruddy, fast-talking, chain-smoking, tough-minded, sometimes profane Kerryman, a welcome antidote to the stereotyped Barry Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby “Fah-ther” so dear to Hollywood hearts. Days into nights, I listened intently to Father John, whose speech was a unique blend of Hell’s Kitchen, baseball slang, an encyclopaedic grasp of waterfront economics, and an attack on man’s inhumanity to man based on the teachings of Christ as brought up to date in the Papal Encyclicals on the reconstruction of the social order.
Long before I was ready to write either a novel or a film, Father Corridan and his rebel disciples in the mob-controlled International Longshoreman’s Association had begun to obsess me. I wrote a long piece for The Saturday Evening Post, “Father John Knows The Score,” and even broke into the Catholic left-liberal magazine Commonweal, with a short essay on this maverick priest’s application of Catholic social ethics to the meat-grinder of men the New York waterfront had become.
The research took a dramatic turn. One of Father John’s most devoted disciples was little Arthur Browne, proud of the fact that he was one of the stand-up “insoigents” in the Chelsea local run by the fat cats and their “pistoleros.” With his flattened nose, his cocky laugh, and his stringpiece vocabulary, Brownie reminded me of those tough little bantam-weights who used to delight the New York boxing fans.
Brownie promised to take me in hand and “walk me through the waterfront,” but first we had to work up a cover story. Even in the bars friendly to the “insoigents,” his pals would wonder what he was doing with an obvious outsider. They would think “reporter” or “cop” and in either case Brownie (and I) would be in jeopardy. Since I knew boxing and co-managed a fighter, and since longshoremen are avid fight fans, Brownie would tell the curious that we had met at Stillman’s Gym, fallen into conversation about fighters and had simply drifted over to the West Side to quench our “thoist.” “I’ll point out the various characters and shoot the breeze and you just listen ’n’ drink your beer.”
It worked fine. We drank boilermakers, Brownie got a group talking, I listened and made mental notes as to how I could work the dialogue into the script. One night we worked our way from bar to bar until we were opposite Pier 18. A saturnine man in a gray suit was at the bar and somehow, on my fifth boilermaker, I forgot my usual role and asked the stranger what he did. Brownie grabbed me, and the next thing I knew we were running down the street toward our “home block.”
“Jesus, Mary, ‘n’ Joseph, you wanna get us both killed? Y’know who that guy was? Another Albert A. He’s topped more people ’n Cockeye Dunn. I’m gonna tell Father John you’re fired! We need a smarter resoicher.”
Then he gave that undefeated laugh of his. The “cowboys” had flattened his nose, thrown him through a skylight, and even into the river, unconscious. “Lucky it was winter and the cold water revived me.” I lived with this sawed-off Lazarus and his wife Anne in their cold-water flat. I sat at the kitchen table and wrote down lines I could never make up: “Ya know what we gotta get rid of—the highocracy! Wait’ll I see that bum again—I’ll top ’im off lovely.” And for revenge: “I’ll take it out of their skulls!”
Father John (and his more prudent but equally dedicated superior, the still active Father Phil Carey) enlisted me as a journalistic ally in their efforts to prepare the men for a crucial National Labor Relations Board vote that might have thrown the “Pistol Local,” the Anastasias, and the rest of them out of office in favor of honest rank-and-file leadership. I wrote articles for
The New York Times Magazine
that helped convince St. Xavier’s and the rebel movement that I was not a Hollywood opportunist looking to cash in on their “story,” but a writer devoted to their cause.
When my film script was thrown back in my face (and Elia Kazan’s) by Hollywood’s leading moguls, I took refuge in the thought that I had such an overabundance of material that I could develop the same material as a novel.
Even when the film had been launched successfully, I had thought so much about its potential as a novel that I simply could not resist taking a year out of my life to get it down. Having attended all the hearings of the State Crime Commission (on waterfront crime), until scrapbooks and notebooks bulged—even with that Oscar perched on the mantelpiece—I could not overcome the conviction that my job as chronicler of waterfront people and waterfront tensions was far from completed.
I found that far more was involved than extending a one hundred and twenty five-page screenplay to a four hundred-page novel. The difference between a novel and a film is more qualitative than quantative. Film is an art of high points. It should embrace five or six sequences, each one mounting to a climax that moves the action onward to its final crescendo.
The novel is an art of high, middle and low points, and while I believe its form must never be overlooked, it’s the sort of form you lock the front door against, knowing full well it will climb through one of the back-windows thoughtfully left open for it. The film does best when it concentrates on a single character. It tells the
superbly. It tends to lose itself in the ramifications of
War and Peace.
It has no time for what I call the essential digressions—the “digression” of complicated, contradictory character; the “digression” of social background. The film must go from significant episode to more significant episode in a constantly mounting pattern. It’s an exciting form. But it pays a price for this excitement. It cannot wander as life wanders, or pause as life always pauses, to contemplate the incidental or the unexpected. The film has a relentless form. Once you set it up it becomes your master, demanding and rather terrifying. It has its own tight logic, and once you stray from that straight and narrow path the tension slackens, the air is let out of the balloon.
The film was focused on Terry Malloy, a half-vicious hoodlum caught between the waterfront mob and the groping, anxious beginnings of a conscience. His brothers are to be found on New York’s troubled West Side, or along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, or in the corrupt political-machine towns on the Jersey shore. Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando did sensitive and brilliant things with this character, and I had written his dialogue carefully, with an ear to my wanderings along the riverfront. But the restricting form of He said-She said allowed no time to relate Terry to his background, to explore his mind with its groping efforts to shake off its sloth—to catch him off-guard, so to speak. More important, the film’s concentration on a single dominating character, brought close to the camera-eye, made it esthetically inconvenient, if not impossible, to set Terry’s story in its social and historical perspective. In the novel Terry is a single strand in a rope of intertwining fibers, suggesting the knotted complexities of the world of the waterfront that loops around New York, a lawless frontier still almost unknown to the metropolitan citizenry.
In the early 50’s when I was researching the waterfront, I knew that the wholesale crimes of the harbor were not to be explained merely by the prominence of certain gentlemen from Sing Sing and Dannemora in positions of authority on the docks. The shipping companies and the stevedore management had accepted—in some cases encouraged—the thugs for years, and in many cases city politicians were nothing less than partners of the longshore union racketeers. It was this unhealthy axis that made it so difficult to bring any real democratic reform to the graft-ridden docks. I even discussed with my film collaborators scenes that would dramatize this civic blight. Those scenes were not eliminated through any cowardice or fear of censorship, as some critics have suggested. No, it was another tyrant, the ninety-minute feature form, that lopped off their heads.
But the novel is both an X-ray and a wide-angle lens, the ideal medium for self-appraisal and the development of social themes. The novel isn’t a straight piece of string. It’s a ball of twine. In the novel, I found my opportunity to put Terry Malloy in proper focus. It only required retelling his story from another point of view, and with a different end in mind. I mean this literally and figuratively. Terry’s decision, even his fate, became subordinated to the anxious balance and the fate of the waterfront as a whole. This demanded an entirely different ending, as well as fuller development of characters who were secondary figures in the film. So Father Barry, the “waterfront priest,” is brought to stage center, is allowed to share the action with Terry and to dominate the thinking of the book. As a curate in a poor parish he must take grave chances if he is to follow Christ his way. How could he reach difficult decisions except by interior monologues? The film had no time for this sort of thing. The novel has not only time but the obligation to examine this with great care. This searching becomes, in fact, the stuff of the novel, and the violent action line of Terry Malloy is now seen for what it is, one of the many moral crises in the spiritual and social development of Father Barry.