Friday, April 9, 2010

The Waterfront Jungle

As a thing to watch, Port of New York (1949) is stolid, head-cracking drama-- a dragnet story that seems not so much torn as neatly clipped from the day's headlines. "This is the Port of New York," announces the narrator, NBC News's Chet Huntley. "To the merchant, it's the biggest, busiest seaport in the world. But to others, it is a battleground, and a battle is constantly waged against illicit traffic and contraband and against the unknown forces that deal in the most dangerous of all contraband--narcotics." But, seen as dispatches from a historical battleground, the movie is more interesting. Beyond featuring Yul Brynner (with hair) as a cunning young narcotics dealer who runs a yacht club as a front for a heroin smuggling ring, the movie highlights the very different views of two federal law agencies in the late forties. At the same time that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was still reluctant to publicly admit the possible existence of organized crime in America, customs agents from the Treasury Department saw the tremendous networks who were smuggling heroin and other drugs into the ports. The main criminal case the film dramatizes, the real events around the S.S. Florentine, is a terrific tale, and much of the dicey investigating by the agents, following the drugs and the money, put them in harm's way along the Red Hook piers. A body thrown from a ship leads to a double-cross and ultimately a master-smuggler befriended by an undercover agent. With some jilted mols thrown in, at least on paper there are the makings for a good movie.

Port of New York is also interesting because it's the kind of film that On the Waterfront might have been. In 1949, the movie rights were first bought to Mike Johnson’s waterfront crime series in the New York Sun; the Hollywood offer came only weeks after the reporter had won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing racketeering and corruption around what he called New York's “Waterfront Jungle.” The original producers envisioned a movie very much in the docu-drama style. The original idea was for a story that followed its intrepid reporter all over the docks of New York. There is no romance in Budd Schulberg's original script, and no turncoat “rat,” either, that would develop along with the real-life government investigations that Johnson's work inspired: It would certainly be a forgotten film today, lucky to be on DVD at all, unless the reporter was played by Jimmy Stewart. Even so, chances are it wouldn’t have all the elements that On the Waterfront eventually had when, after a series of drafts by Schulberg in collaboration with director Elia Kazan, a masterpiece emerged five years after its original source material had won the Pulitzer. Port of New York is news from a "battleground," but Schulberg and Kazan's picture rises to something else.