This particular scene, is regarded universally as one of the most profound and masterful scenes in cinema history. No individual aspect can be given the credit for making it what it is; it is a combination of many elements that accentuate each other beautifully to create this stunning piece of cinematography. Upon first impression, it may appear to the audience as any normal, run of the mill scene. However if inspected and analyzed more closely, it’s true beauty and power become evident.
The scene has been dubbed, the “I could have been a contender speech” and from its title, we see that the dialogue which takes place cannot be a normal one, but one that is much more profound. It is indeed the conversation that takes place between the two brothers that brought it it’s fame, but, as previously stated, the beauty and power of the dialogue would not have been as pronounced without the combination of the camerawork and setting all working together harmoniously to create this scene.
The setting of the scene is anything but stunning. It takes place in the back seat of a typical cab of the times. Only a driver, Charlie, and Terry are present however the driver does not come into the picture until later on. No distractions or background elements are in use here, the back window is covered by a blind, and the only thing that is used to maintain the realism of being on the road is the occasional shaking of the car, and the light from street lights which gradually fades away as the car travels on.
The cab itself is a very symbolic element. It is a chauffeur driven cab, it’s exterior is painted black as the night through which they travel, the interior is of plush cream-coloured leather, and the main passengers are Terry, the ex-mafia man, now trying to escape from its grasp, and Charlie, the Mafioso, sent to bring his brother back to the mob, or eliminate him. Each of these three elements of the car represent something. Its exterior colour represents the evil within which the mafia operate, evil, the night, surrounds the car.
Unlike the exterior however, the interior is lightly coloured leather, the plush and wealthy surrounding within which the mafia thrive, the colours of inside and out completely opposing each other. The rear window is covered with a Venetian blind, the mafia choosing not to take into account the damage they leave behind. Finally, the fact that the car is chauffeur driven reflects the way the mafia is run; with one person at the head, choosing which route to take and his cronies simply following his lead with little or no influence on the boss’ decisions.
The camera work in this scene accentuates the dialogue and forces us to focus on the two characters that are present, as we have little else to look at. Unlike many of the other scenes in “On the Waterfront”, the camera barely moves at all, but instead keeps both of the conversationalists participating in the shot at once. This cleverly eliminates the need to switch the camera from person to person for two important reasons. The first is that by keeping the camera still, with little distraction or other interesting elements to observe, the audience’s attention is focused on the brothers and what they have to say to each other.
The second reason is that by keeping Charlie and Terry in the same shot, we are given the opportunity to observe the reaction of each of the characters in real-time, to what the other has just said. Such an intense scene with such wonderful camera work, naturally demands top quality acting, and this is delivered superbly. The scene features two actors at the peak of their careers. In a quote from the film’s director, we are reminded that: “If Marlon Brando has ever performed better than he did in this scene, then I certainly have yet to see it”.
As the scene moves on, it leaves behind some of the serenity with which it commenced and the screenplay grows more intense and fast-moving. As both characters are in the same shot, we see their reactions to each other’s last words, and this serves to add yet another dimension and degree of realism and credibility to the scene. We can now see a huge change in Terry from the beginning of the story to this point. He was initially presented to us as a young mafia prodigy, tough and emotionless, who was climbing the mafia ranks in the boss’ favour “I like this kid”.
Now however, we can see the result of the gradual change Terry has been undergoing throughout the course of the film. Here he is crying, and full of emotion. He has shed his tough mafia exterior and is now reflecting on his past. The conversation itself initially begins with Terry telling Charlie how he destroyed his career. We learn that Terry, who used to be a professional boxer, was preparing for yet another fight to defend his unbeaten record when he was visited by his brother.
Charlie told him that he was “going to lose this one”, as the mafia, for whom Terry was working, had bet a hefty sum of money against him. With the thought of the mob’s wrath on his mind he threw away the fight, putting an end to his clean sheet and subsequently ending his career as a boxer. Emotions are high as Terry pours his heart out to Charlie, “I could have been a contender Charlie, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it… ” The scene’s climax comes whenever Charlie offers Terry the job that is to seal both men’s fate.
Terry refuses the job, thus leaving Charlie to make a cruel decision; his brother’s life, or his own. At this point, the music which had been softly playing in the background gets louder, it reflects the past of both men, and foreshadows the events to come. Charlie himself thinks back to what Terry had accused him of; being the root of his misfortune, and realises that he now has the chance to repay Terry by giving him another chance in life, at the cost of his own. The car pulls over and Terry is let out. Charlie has made his decision.
This final part of the scene, the pulling over of the car is again very symbolic. Terry steps out from the black car representing the mafia and into the street. He has left the mafia now, and as the car drives away, Terry moves into the dim light of the street lights, symbolic of the hope that he is now presented with. In retrospect, I feel that everything concerning this scene, its every aspect is a work of genius. Never before, and possibly never again, will a cinema audience be given the chance to experience such emotion in such a short space of time.
The intensity as Charlie is calculating his decision is overwhelming, and the screenplay is nothing short of a masterpiece. We are cleverly made to focus solely on the brothers, whose superb acting upholds the script beautifully, leaving nothing to be desired. I feel that this scene easily merits the stunning reputation it has acquired as one of the most famous scenes in cinema history, and I’m sure it will retain its title for years to come.