Leonard Bernstein wrote only one original film score in his career, for Elia Kazan’s classic film, “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, a troubled longshoreman and one-time contender who’s gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd. Like Brando’s character, Bernstein’s score is a mixture of tenderness, violence, and nobility.
Bernstein was pursued for the picture in part because of the prestige his name would lend to the production. He reluctantly agreed to score the film, and without a working knowledge of film production, took a rough edit home with him to run on a Moviola.
The Criterion Collection edition of “On the Waterfront,” new on DVD this week, includes a 20-minute visual essay on the film’s score by USC Professor Jon Burlingame. He details the themes of the film, which also appear in Bernstein’s symphonic suite from “On the Waterfront,” itself a stirring musical work that stands alone from the picture.
The noble opening theme is played on the French horn, joined by a flute shortly after. It’s heard throughout the movie, and represents Terry Malloy. The second theme opens with pounding drums, which yield to a squealing alto sax solo, to be “played dirty,” as Burlingame notes in his essay. The “violence theme” accompanies Johnny Friendly and his gang. The third main theme is the tender love theme (embedded below), first heard as Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and Terry stroll through the park after first meeting. Bernstein combines this theme and main title theme on occasion, most notably in the closing moments of the film.
Not included in Burlingame’s essay or Bernstein’s concert suite is the sad melody for solo strings that plays under the most famous scene in the film, when Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger) tries to convince his brother Terry--at gunpoint--not to cooperate with the Waterfront Crime Commission. These few seconds of music underscore the heartbreak Terry feels as his own brother turns on him. It’s the third character in a great scene.
Although he received an Oscar nomination for his work, Bernstein would score no more films after “On the Waterfront.” His work on this picture may be unique in his career, but it stands among the greatest film scores of all time, ranked #22 on the American Film Institute’s list of top American film scores.