Friday, 20 March 2009

On the Waterfront crime and politics

Having spent the past few days writing and thinking about fictional contemporary politics the reality came on Wednesday lunchtime and David Cameron abandoned his grief and the genuine expressions of sympathy from all sides of the house to revert to confrontational politics of the worse kind. The Political commentators, including those who I usually admire thought it was great. Mr Cameron launched into the Prime Minister with all the venom he and his advisers could muster and Mr Brown matched him point for point. Then Mr Cameron revealed both a flaw and a virtue which makes one question his potential as leader of this nation. He lost it and called Mr Brown a phoney. The Speaker ordered Mr Cameron to make a proper apology for the use of un Parliamentary Language. I like passion especially when politicians feel so concerned about an issues that they let their real feelings show without regard to their effect upon the uncommitted voter. However such outbursts also pose the question: How will you react when facing a real crisis under stress? I am reminded of the recently viewed West Wing episode -- a proportional response. We may all like to sound off and as someone not directly involved in professional politics or government administration I can give vent to my feelings in the same way that everyone else does whether about politics or football. That I have some experience as an insider is relevant but I am free to set the knowledge to one side. My problem is also that the Commons during P.M.Q’s and at other media interested occasion behave like rabid dogs and we all agree what should happen to rabid dogs.

My problem with Mr Cameron is that he and his party are just as guilty of swimming with those who argued for uncontrolled capitalism as is the Prime Minister and other economics orientated Ministers of his government. Only Vince Cable of the Liberal Social Democrats and to a lesser extent, Ken Clark of the Conservatives of all politicians of standing, are known to have warned and counselled against the folly of what was developing

The problem here in the UK is that both front benchers have had their hands in effect well inside this particular cookie jar. Both sets of front benches extolled the benefits of international globalism which involved the exporting of hundreds of thousands of British jobs to Europe, India, China and elsewhere and allowing hundreds of thousands of central Europeans to take the lower paid jobs here in the UK thus making a mockery of employment statistics including new job creation. This would have been fair given the extent to which Britain grew rich over the previous 200 years through slavery and then controlling world wide production and the transport of goods, making full use of the cheapest labour, if the reduced standard of living from reduced work opportunities affected everyone proportionately. What happened is that the capitalist and major land and property owners and developers made huge profits, paid themselves bigger and bigger salaries and obscene bonuses, while the middle classes felt themselves richer because of the false soaring escalation in property prices, and the genuine poor got poorer. I have no sympathy with criminal underclass although everything should be dome to help the families of such individuals, including taking the rest or the whole family into public care in appropriate circumstances and conditions.

If this situation was not bad enough, for the Government to have allowed the continuation of obscene salaries and bonuses, especially in situations where public money was being used is outrageous and contemptible and what is extraordinary that they are so concerned with not losing face or admitting failure that they are prepared to alienate themselves further and further from public opinion.

The splendid Vince Cable and Kenneth Clark, also a lover of jazz and whisky and the good life were both on the panel of Any Questions last night with the feisty Tessa Jowell, the Olympics Minister.
There were also good excepts from across the Atlantic during the day as one Senator or Congressman told one of the responsible bankers what he and the public thought and felt about him. There was also three cheers for a Congress that is trying to impose a 90% tax premium on bonuses over a quarter of million paid in situation when public money has been used to keep the organisation from going bankrupt. For a major bank to go bankrupt is criminally negligent if it is as a result of corporate policies or corporate lack of effective management. The same applies to any agency with the task of monitoring and inspection of the financial “service” industry. All the principals in charge should resign or be sacked.
The This week politics show is getting too cosy again although earlier Andrew Neal was appropriately inquisitorial and abrasive on the Daily Politics with a government Minister before throwing in the towel, although he admitted that he was doing so.
This morning I decided to watch On the Waterfront, the film that brought Marlon Brando an Oscar and Rod Steiger, as his elder brother, Karl Malden as the priest and Lee J Cobb as the union head and racketeer, all best supporting actor Oscar nominations. Eve Marie Saint won support actress and the film-Producer, Sam Speigel, the director Elia Kazan, art direction Richard Day, writing, Budd Schulberg, photography Boris Kaufman and editing Gene Milford all won their respective Oscar nominations, a total of 8 wins and four other nominations which included Leonard Bernstein for the music score.

I first saw the film in theatre in the year it was on general release in the UK and when I was 15/16 and therefore did not appreciate the depth and level of acting until much later although I grasped the main issues of the story. Two images remained throughout the years. The finding of the destroyed pigeons and the final moments of the film. I did not appreciate the famous taxi scene until much later or the extent to which the story was on specific people and rather than a general situation, who were alive and who continued to racketeer or fight the criminality after the film was released.

First the film story. Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy a former promising boxer who was ordered to throw a title chance fight by his older brother so that organised crime could make money betting on the long odds of the winner. He works regularly as a longshore man because his brother is the lawyer for the local criminal union boss, played by Lee J Cobb who is in league with the major crime bosses. The union organised and supported system is for the men to be chosen for work daily by someone on the basis they are willing to top slice their earnings to the union in addition to union dues and a willingness to work the way required, so for example agree to a walk out if he cargo is perishable so the cargo owners will pay a premium to have the produce released. Failure to cooperate resulted in being blacklisted throughout the dockland net work and talking out of turn was punishable by serious injury and death, very similar to the situation which exists still in parts of Northern Ireland to this day

The film opens with Terry being used to trick a friend to go to the roof of his tenement to take a missing pigeon that Marlon says he has recovered and from where the friend is thrown off to his death by hoodlums employed by the union boss because he was about to testify to an investigatory crime commission. Terry is shocked that he has been used in this way and has mixed emotions when he is taken from those doing the rough and heavy worker down in the holds of shops and given a well paid position on shore involving the minimum of work. He find himself even more torn after meeting the sister of murdered man whose widowed father had continued to find ways, with his son, to send his daughter away to a convent school. She is not only determined to find out the truth of what happened but is attracted to Marlon who tries to protect her from the reality of the situation while hiding his own guilty involvement. The catalyst for change is the local Catholic priest who decides to move out from his church and investigate what is happening at the dockside. He witnesses the humiliation and servitude. He calls a meeting and Terry is sent along to spy on what happens but ensures that the girl is protected when an attempt is made to break up the meeting held in the church and beat up all those attending. The priest persuades one of the men to give evidence to the crime commission but the evidence finds it way to union boss because some police and justice department and crime commission people are on the payroll. The consequence is that the man meets with a contrived fatal accident.

Because he had been identified as being present when his girl friend’s brother was killed, Terry is subpoenaed to appear before the Crime Commission and after talking things over with the priest he accepts the advice to tell Edie- Eva Marie Saint what happened. Understandably her immediate reaction is to reject him. When the mob, the union chief and his brother find out that Marlon is considering testifying his brother picks him up in taxi and the world wide recognised scene between the two takes place.

A special feature on the DVD revealed that the producer had only provided part of a taxi cab for the scene and there was no painted or proper back drop to make a proper shoot. The solution was to fit a blind to the rear window, something which in the reality did not exist, but it helped to create the intimacy of the scene. First the camera filmed both together and then there were separate takes with the two characters individually playing their roles to enable close ups and changes in emphasis. However when Marlon who went first finished he left the set. At the time Rod was angry to learn that this was because Marlon had become tired. The truth was he was heavily into psycho analysis at the time and had a daily appointment at 4 pm. Marlon’s Oscar performance was well earned because he successfully communicated a hard man, guilty of crimes under the influence of his elder brother who he looked up to but also was someone who was caring and tender, brought out in previous scenes with Edie and then with the destruction of the pigeons whose care he was taking after the death of the brother.

It is the famous taxi scene that his genius interacting with that of Rod Steiger came to everyone attention. It begins the moment that his brother pulls a gun on him urging him to accept a new big financial bribe but where it is also is clear he will use the weapon if Marlon persists with the intention to tell the truth before the Crime Commission. This leads Marlon to express his sense of further let down toward his older brother who instead of looking after him forced him to give up his only real chance of making something of his life and who was now indicating that he would participate in his killing if refused to do what was required by others. Brando rightly has been acclaimed for the range of emotions he expressed in this scene but too little praise has been given to Steiger who also revealed his resignation about what was to happen to him when he decided to let Marlon go and pretend to his bosses that he has not been able to find his brother.

When Marlon finds his brother shot and hung with a longshoreman’s hook his immediate reaction is to go and gun down those responsible, but he realises this is not the way after an appeal by the priest tells to the truth of what happened to the Crime Commission, and where with the union boss and his associates are summoned to listen before being arrested. They are bailed until their formal indictment and trial and in the meantime continue as before except they follow the rules and ensure that everyone presenting themselves for work is given job without the usual kickbacks, but with one exception Marlon. He calls on the union boss with his men and the two men fight but the henchmen of the union boss intervene beating Marlon into temporary oblivion. The men refuse to commence work unless Marlon walks in with them and the priest persuade Marlon to find the energy to get up, with help and the control of the men is broken.

The main events described in the film are an accurate portrayal of the situation which existed at he time the film was made and which continued after. The New York Sun had published a score of articles by Malcolm Johnson on the lives of the men, the corruption and criminality of the union bosses and their association with organised crime. Work was allocated only to those who paid their union dues and then contributed to the personal funds of the union gangsters and who also did what they were told and did not talk when they witnessed killings, beatings up and extortion. The men involved were practising Christians and the churches largely stood by but for one major exception.

Alberto Anastasia was the New York City Cosa Nostra Boss who founded Murder Incorporated, the contract killing gang. He was the father in law of Anthony Scotto the President of the International Longshoremen’s’ Association. He made a criminal name for himself through killing a work colleague and was originally sentenced to 18 months but was then released pending a new trial which never took place because four key witnessed disappeared permanently. He was gunned down in a barber’s show in 1957, a scene included in the Godfather in 1972. ( The fictional father of Toby Ziegler in the West Wing had been a member of Murder Incorporated. )

Michael Clemente known as Mike Costello and Big Mike, was in control of the East Side Waterfront from the 1950’s to the later 1970’s. His criminal records included rape, assault, disorderly conduct, conspiracy to violate state liquor laws and perjury. He was sent to prison for five years for extortion in relation to the various official positions held in the Longshoremen’s Association but he continued to run things while in prison after release through his assistants. In 1979 after undercover work he was convicted for 20 years for racketeering and corruption and removed from office in the Association He was released from prison shortly before his death in 1987. Aspects of his life and character were used to portray the Union boss in the film together plus others from Anastasia.

Father John M Corridan was a Jesuit priest who openly fought against corruption and organised crime on the New York Waterfront. Son of an Irish born policeman he was assigned to the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations in Manhattan in 1946 and took up the cause of the longshoremen. Father Corrigan collaborated with the writer of the New York Sun exposures and he was then the subject of a book published in 1955 Waterfront Priest by Allen Raymond. Budd Schulberg who wrote the Waterfront script wrote the introduction to the biography. His work led directly to the formation of the New York, New Jersey Waterfront Commission but which proved ineffectual because of the intimidation and corruption and where the injustices continued for two further decades.

Father Corridan was moved by his order to teach economics and later theology. He also served as a Hospital Chaplin. He died in 1984 at the age of 73.

It is a great film but demonstrates such films have no impact on changing society and dangerously they can and do glorify gangsterism.

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