Karl Malden and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire
Karl Malden was the kind of actor whose whose voice would make me stop flipping the channels and watch whatever he was on. Especially if it was a movie from the fifties and sixties, before he made Michael Douglas's career by agreeing to be in The Streets of San Francisco.
Malden was associated with directors like Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire) and writers like Budd Schulberg (Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd), and many so-called “Method” actors from the Actors Studio like Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter.
Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront
A lot of Malden's most famous roles were conflicts between hope and despair, and hope didn't often win.
The movies with Karl Malden that come to my mind first are the less honored and less well known movies, the ones that formed a background to the politics and culture of the United States after World War II.
Though he sometimes played educated gentlemen (often men of the cloth—the minister in Disney's Pollyanna or the politically minded priest in On the Waterfront), Malden's roles were usually working men.
Bedrock of the community in Pollyanna
Maybe it was because of his voice, which sounded like he had screamed a lot of orders, or his face, which looked like it had been in a lot of fights, but he often played a worker, a non-com, or a middle-level bureaucrat who had to fight to keep his domain from blowing up due to his superiors' incompetence.
I remember an expression I heard a hundred times from NCOs in the Air Force: ”Don't call me sir. I work for a living.” Not officers, not bosses, and proud of it.
In 1953's Take the High Ground (a movie I've watched half a dozen times since I was a kid but still enjoy) Malden played Army Sgt. Laverne Holt, the assistant drill sergeant to Richard Widmark's more violent Sgt. Thorne Ryan. Eventually Sgt. Holt convinces Sgt. Ryan that just because their new troops have to be ready for the enemy in Korea, they don't have to be stripped of all their humanity and turned into nothing but killing machines. Even inside Sgt. Ryan with everything he's been through there's still a human being and not just a violent machine.
In most of Malden's characters there's an underlying calmness (not weakness) that allows him to see both sides of the inevitable conflict that movie characters have to resolve within ninety minutes or so.
Maybe that's why—except in the more intimate storytelling medium of television—Karl Malden was usually a foil to someone like Richard Widmark. Especially in the 1950s, movie heroes couldn't afford to be soft. They could be wrong, and be corrected by more humane partners, but they couldn't be soft.
Richard Widmark in Take the High Ground: The leader can't be soft
Malden was in uniform again in 1957 in Bombers B-52 (which, together with Jimmy Stewart's movie Strategic Air Command, was the best free propaganda the United States Air Force ever got). Malden was Master Sergeant Chuck Brennan, whose daughter (played by Natalie Wood in one of her first roles as a grown woman) falls in love with an officer. Not only with an officer, but with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., the new commander of the unit.
Conflict on the flightline
In Bombers B-52 the best scenes aren't between Malden and Efrem Zimbalist, but between Malden and Natalie Wood. Sgt. Brennan's new grown-up daughter reminds you of Judy, the character that Natalie Wood played in Rebel without a Cause two years earlier.
In both movies Wood played a suddenly sexual young woman who has to form a new relationship with her father in a society that invented the concept of “daddy's little girl.”
Daughter betrays father
In Rebel without a Cause and in Bombers B-52, father and daughter are uncomfortably aware of each other sexually. But Karl Malden doesn't give off the creepy vibes William Hopper (who played private eye Paul Drake on Perry Mason) did as Judy's father in Rebel without a Cause. Judy's father is more angry than the master sergeant because he feels guilty. He wants to keep his little girl in a way that's not innocent, and he knows it.
William Hopper and Natalie Wood in Rebel without a Cause: Daddy's little girl
When I think of the characters Karl Malden played, I think of working men who built a powerful but sometimes violent America after the war, and who raised my generation to inherit it.
A voice used to giving orders