A Girl Like Her: Celebrating Eva Marie Saint’s Centenary

It’s a sad fact of time’s inexorable march forward that the further we get from Hollywood’s golden age, the fewer living legends we have. 2024 alone has already seen the passing of such luminaries as Chita Rivera, Anouk Aimée, and, most recently, Donald Sutherland. But this July 4th marks the rare happy occasion when one of the shining stars of the era is still with us to mark a milestone, as Eva Marie Saint celebrates her 100th birthday. Over the course of her seventy-five years onscreen, Saint only appeared in twenty-one films. It’s a judicious career in comparison to many of her contemporaries but it was enough to include at least two stone-cold classics: 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1959’s North by Northwest. To consider her work in them now is to discover a new appreciation for the full spectrum of Saint’s talents, which often went under-recognized in her time. 

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1924, Saint got her start on television and radio before transitioning to the stage. She originated the role of Thelma in The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway in 1953, and it was likely this Drama Critics Award-winning performance that drew Waterfront director Elia Kazan’s notice. She made her big screen debut in the film at age thirty, and it may be this later start – too seasoned to be an ingenue, but not a known quantity to most viewers – that gives her work as Edie Doyle its spark. Her unusual chemistry with co-star Marlon Brando might have something to do with it as well. Saint has stated in multiple interviews that the first time they met he “put me off balance. And I remained off balance for the whole shoot.”

On the Waterfront is not Edie’s story but the film wouldn’t work without her. Brando’s ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy might be the soul, but Edie is the heart. Set on the docks and in the working class neighborhoods of Hoboken, the big city across the river never more than a fogged-out skyline, it’s a distinctly masculine world of mob rule and retaliation. Those who don’t fall in line with Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), as Terry has, are vulnerable to harsh payback. Such is the case with Edie’s brother Joey, who is thrown off the roof for ratting the gang out to the crime commission in the opening scene. “I thought they were just gonna talk to him,” a complicit Terry says. He’s a bit soft in the head after years of having it batted around, but Edie will soon set him straight. 

Edie has a thing for wounded animals. She’s also just returned to the neighborhood after years away with “the sisters” at a school in Tarrytown. As written, she can vacillate wildly between bold action – like when she shows up at the docks after Joey’s murder and throws herself into the fray – and damsel in distress as the script calls for. But Saint imbues her with a watchful inquisitiveness, her eyes darting about like a trapped bird, that grounds her as On the Waterfront’s moral center, particularly in her scenes with Terry. There’s the glove bit that Brando famously improvised, but every gesture he makes seems to break down her defenses almost casually, giving their halting romance a remarkable authenticity. One gets the sense that Saint was trying to puzzle out her co-star as much as Edie is trying to puzzle out Terry. 

Ultimately On the Waterfront doesn’t offer much more for Edie to do than be the angel on Terry’s shoulder, but Saint’s performance was impressive enough to nab her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of eight trophies the film won. While its making is inextricable from Kazan’s HUAC testimony, which has understandably tainted its reputation somewhat for modern viewers, it remains a towering achievement of screen acting and a foundational text of the Method movement. It was also a launching point for several film careers, including Saint’s – who went from receiving a $7,500 payday for it to a $100,000 one in just three years. 

By 1959, perhaps looking to break out of the “pretty and blond artisan” box she’d been put in, Saint took on the femme fatale role in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The casting was something of a surprise, including to Saint, but she put herself in the director’s hands. According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Hitchcock, she worked with him to make her speaking voice huskier and wore costumes that he personally selected for her. Saint later recalled in an interview that Hitchcock told her, “I don’t want you to do a sink-to-sink movie again, ever… It’s drab in that tenement house.” Shot in blazing Technicolor, North by Northwest is so far from the grim shores of On the Waterfront that it might as well be on another planet. 

Saint plays the glamorous and mysterious Eve Kendall, a character that doesn’t actually appear until nearly forty-five minutes into the film. Before she crosses paths with Roger Thornhill, he’s already been put through the wringer of a classic mistaken identity plot: kidnapped, drugged, and framed for murder under the belief that he’s a spy named George Kaplan, forcing him to go on the run. Though Eve would seem to share little with Edie, she has a similar gift of observation that has allowed her to survive in a man’s world, though she is shrewd where Edie is sincere. She’s also much more acquainted with the uses of her body, and the speed with which she acquiesces to Thornhill’s charms would be more immediately suspicious if he wasn’t played by Cary Grant.

The role of Eve is thus trickier than Edie, given all the twists and turns the story takes, and Saint has the difficult task of making her likable even when she’s putting our hero in mortal danger to save her own skin. Like many of Hitchcock’s blondes before, she runs both hot and cold. But this time there’s a sturdy moral compass directing both extremes. Eve, it’s eventually revealed, is an agent working with the U.S. government to inform on her lover Vandamm (a deliciously haughty James Mason), who has been selling secrets to the Soviets. “War is hell, even when it’s a cold one,” her handler points out, instilling a certain nobility in a ruse that would otherwise seem awfully sordid. 

Perhaps it’s also forgivable because Saint pings so well off of Grant despite the twenty year age difference. Whereas with Brando she seemed off balance because she was unsure of him, here it’s because she seems unsure of herself. As a woman who has spent the past several years sublimating her emotions for the greater good, Saint plays her scenes with Grant as if she’s discovering her ability to be swept up by love in real time. In the most seductive scene, shot within the confines of a train car, Saint keeps her face largely to the camera. It’s an invitation to the audience as much as it is to him, a plea to come closer, to see more. We’re already forgiving what she’s about to do. 

In the years following North by Northwest’s release, Saint could have chosen major stardom. Instead she opted for family life, appearing on screen sparingly in the 60’s and 70’s including a fourteen year gap between 1972 and 1986. Most of her work in the ensuing decades was on stage or television. Nothing she’s made since had quite the impact of Waterfront or Northwest, and while that feels like an undeniable loss for movie fans, one also gets the sense that she’s lived the life she’s wanted, which can be a rare gift in Hollywood. What unites her two most famous roles, and her work as a whole, is that same steely resolve, so lightly carried it seems effortless. “How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?” Grant quips in Northwest. “Lucky, I guess,” Saint replies. She was, and so are we.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection 'Better Times,' which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Back to top