Thursday, October 21, 2010

Schulberg's Contender Speech

Among the shocks produced by Mike Johnson’s 1948 crime series in the old New York Sun was the allegation of an international crime ‘syndicate,’ at a time when J. Edgar Hoover himself was loathe to publicly admit the existence of such a syndicate, let alone a Mafia. If you are old enough to have watched the New York gangsters brought before Sen. Kefauver’s television cameras in hearings also inspired by Johnson’s crime series, or if you have seen any of the scores of Mob films and dramas made since the Sun series—from “On the Waterfront” to The Sopranos—you have been part of a national conversation that Mike Johnson bravely began.

The novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg was hired in 1949 to adapt Mike Johnson’s waterfront stories to the screen, and the first draft of his screenplay portrays a heroic reporter trudging intrepidly around the docks. It was only after Schulberg brought the project to Elia Kazan and they were able to incorporate the revelations coming out of the 1952 New York Crime Commission hearings, which Schulberg attended for 40 days, that their final film began to emerge. (Brought before the Crime Commission, ILA President Joe Ryan turned out to have spent thousands of his longshore union’s “Anti-Communist” fund on shirts, vacations, car repairs, dinners and funeral expenses.)

Schulberg ate it up, and, being a terrific reporter as well as novelist and screenwriter, found much of the material he would need to complete his movie with Kazan. He certainly was paying attention the day that a man named Dominick Genova described to the committee how he’d escaped death while riding with a waterfront associate in a taxi cab: It closely resembled what became his movie’s most famous scene, the tense cab ride shared by Charley the Gent and his subpoenaed brother Terry Malloy. One day, Genova recalled, his friend the trucker invited him to have dinner with his family:

We had dinner there. And he said to me, ‘Listen, I’ve got to meet somebody over this bar and grill,’ he says. ‘Do you want to come with me?’ I said, ‘All right.’ Well, we got in a cab and started to go to this bar, and suddenly he changed his mind and told the cab driver to go some place else. When we got to this other place, he started telling me what it was all about, that he had seen ‘Apples’ that day and ‘Apples’ had asked him to set me up.

Q. Asked him to ‘set you up’?

A. In other words, he meant to bring me some place where they could get at me. So he says, ‘Before I do anything like that—I always liked you; I want to hear your side of the story.’ So I told him about the milkman incident; told him why they were after me....So he said, ‘Well, in a case like that,’ he says, ‘they told me you’re marked ‘lousey’ up there,’ he says, ‘but I’m going to say that I missed you; that you wouldn’t go with me.’

Well, I quit the job there and didn’t have no part of him either.

Q. You haven’t worked on the waterfront since that time, have you?

A. No, I haven’t.

(Crime Commission testimony as quoted in Dark Harbor, p. 198)

In the film, moved by his brother’s “It was you, Charley” speech Charley the Gent relents and rides off alone instead of delivering Terry to his death, then turns up on a cargo hook in his camel’s hair coat.

Brando himself would later claim to have created this scene, but clearly it had an earlier inspiration. In the hands of Schulberg, it became art. (Budd’s father, B.P. Schulberg had produced the Twenties waterfront drama, Docks of New York, which has been beautifully restored on a new DVD from Criterion.)

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