“On the Waterfront” - Elia Kazan (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954) stands as one of the most famous and honored films of its period and for a number of reasons [1].  It was nominated for twelve Oscars (Academy Awards) and won eight of them, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.  And in 2007 it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the nineteenth-greatest American movie of all time [2].  It is also probably actor Marlon Brando’s most famous performance [3].  In addition, there were socio-political aspects of the film that were associated with controversial political activities of the time.  The film's story was inspired by a series of articles, Crime on the Waterfront, by Malcolm Johnson that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949.

Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan was already famous as both a stage director and film director, and in particular, he was noted for directing dramas that had social ramifications.  And such was the case here, too, in On the Waterfront, which concerned corruption among longshoremen’s dock workers unions in the U.S.  The film is a drama about a longshoreman who is asked to testify against union corruption under threatening circumstances.  But that was precisely a situation that Kazan, himself, had faced in real life when he was called in 1952 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC to testify about his past membership in the American Communist Party and to provide names of professional colleagues who had also been members.  Facing the threat of being black-listed, Kazan did supply some names, and for that he was later accused in the film profession of being a traitor to the cause of free expression.  Anyway, some critics have since felt that On the Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to this criticism.  Although this matter may be an interesting topic of discussion for some, to me it is a distraction from looking at the film’s own merits, and I will not discuss it further here.  For those interested, you can find more information about this HUAC issue here [4,5].

Certainly On the Waterfront had its own merits on which to stand [6,7,8].  The film featured outstanding production values, and it won Oscars in this area for Best Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Best Cinematography (Boris Kaufman, who years earlier was the cinematographer for Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934)), and Best Film Editing (Gene Milford).  The acting was superb, as well.  Oscar-winning Brando, of course, was famous for his Stanislavski-inspired Method acting, and he showed if off to good effect in this film.  But there were four other acting performers who also received Oscar nominations – Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint (in her first feature film appearance – she would later memorably appear in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)).  One Oscar nominee whose contributions were, to me, of lesser value was musical composer Leonard Bernstein.  Although I delighted in Bernstein’s music for West Side Story (1961), his music here in On the Waterfront is often intrusive and distracting to the narrative flow.

The story of On the Waterfront is dominated by five people (all Oscar nominated roles, by the way) who represent contrasting perspectives on life:
  • Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) is a longshoreman who had once had a promising career as a prize-fighter.  His perspective now is to just look out for himself.  At one point he says that his philosophy is “do it to him before he does it to you”.  But he does have a conscience, and it is that side of him that some others appeal to.
  • Father Barry (Karl Malden) is a local priest.  He preaches that Christ is always beside you, but more importantly, he believes in reliance on the rule-of-law in order for justice to be maintained for all.
  • Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is the ruthless and corrupt longshoremen’s union boss who will stop at nothing in order to maintain his supremacy.
  • Charley "the Gent" Malloy (Rod Steiger) is Terry Malloy’s older brother and the #2 man in the union hierarchy.  He has conflicted loyalties – he is an opportunist who profits from working under Johnny Friendly, but he also doesn’t want to see harm come to his brother.
  • Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), a convent student studying to become a nun, falls in love with Terry.  She believes in personal virtue, but she wants to run away with Terry in order to escape the widespread evil that she sees infecting the dockside.
All of these characters are very theatrically played, and yet the raw reality of the dockside settings in Hoboken, New Jersey, near New York City, lend a quasi-neo-realistic feeling to the proceedings.  But the five perspectives listed here form the basis of an ethical/moral debate that is at the heart of the story.  The On the Waterfront narrative goes through about eight sequences that constitute the story.  Each one of these segments features moral discussions about what is the right thing to do.

1.  An Injustice
Early on Terry Malloy is shown unwittingly luring his popular workmate Joey Doyle into getting murdered by longshoremen’s union thugs.  Terry, who had thought that the union was just going to rough up Joey a little bit, goes to Mob-affiliated union boss Johnny Friendly to ask why Joey was murdered.  He is sternly lectured by Johnny that Joey had agreed to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission about union-Mob malfeasance and that therefore Joey had to be bumped off for disloyalty.  This is the morality of the urban jungle, and it is the first of the moral exchanges that take place in the story.

Meanwhile Joey’s sister, Edie, is distraught over her brother’s death, and she harshly scolds local priest Father Barry for his remote passivity about concerns on the ground.  The outcome of this second moral exchange of the story is that it inspires Father Barry to go the dockside and become a “waterfront priest”.

At the dockside we see just h ow precarious is the work situation for the dock workers.  The hopeful workers gather on the pier each day hoping to be chosen by the union foreman for a day’s work.  Many are not selected (somewhat like today’s gig-economy, but worse).  When Father Barry sees how unhappy the workers are, he invites them to come for a meeting at the church, where they can talk freely.

2.  The Church Meeting
Having heard about the upcoming church meeting, union officer Charley Malloy gets his younger brother Terry to attend the meeting and to record what happens.  At the meeting, which is attended by some of the workers and Edie, the third moral exchange takes place.  Worker “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning) explains to Father Barry that all the workers are afraid to speak out about mob-union wrongdoings, and so they follow a policy of “D and D” – deaf and dumb.  Father Barry counters by urging them to believe in the rightfulness of the rule-of-law and that he will stand with them if they speak out against injustice.

However, the meeting is then broken up by baseball-bat-wielding Mob hooligans who beat and injure the workers as they flee the church.  In the turmoil, Terry manages to usher Edie out to safety.

3.  Terry and Edie
As Terry walks Edie home, they gradually get to know each other.  Thanks in part to the fact that Edie still doesn’t know about the part that Terry played in her brother’s death, a mutual amorous attraction tentatively develops.  This is one of the most sensitive and beautiful parts of the film, and it is during these sequences that the fourth moral exchange takes place.  Edie is attracted to Terry, but she is politely appalled by the outright selfishness that Terry professes.  At one point their contrasting views are highlighted when Edie proclaims “shouldn't everybody care about everybody else?” and further that “everybody is part of everybody else”; while Terry counters by saying that his own philosophy is “do it to him before he does it to you”. 

4.  The Death of Kayo
It is then revealed that Kayo Dugan, inspired by Father Barry’s words at the church meeting, had gone to the Waterfront Crime Commission to testify against the union.  The next day Johnny Friendly arranges to have Kayo killed in a staged “accident” that Terry witnesses in horror.  Father Barry arrives at the dockside scene and proclaims that Kayo’s death is nothing less than a crucifixion.  His ensuing impromptu sermon about Christ – “Christ is always with you” – visibly moves Terry, whose conscience is finally starting to be stirred.

There are further moral exchanges that Terry has with both Father Barry and Edie that lead to his confession to them concerning his role in Joey Doyle’s death.  As we might expect, Edie is horrified by this revelation and shuns further engagement with Terry.

5.  Terry and Charley
With Terry having been served a subpoena by the Waterfront Crime Commission, Johnny Friendly is worried about the loyalty of Terry, and he orders Charley to turn his brother around or he will have him killed.  So Charley goes to pickup Terry, and they have a famous conversation in the backseat of the cab.  Charley offers Terry, in turn, entreaties, bribes, and threats, but to no avail.  Terry is depressed at the kind of person he has become, and he wants to do something that will help him turn his life around.  Recalling a time when he had, at Charley’s behest, ruined his promising career by throwing a crucial boxing match so that Johnny Friendly could win a big wager, he laments to Charley:
“I could have had class.  I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody . . . instead of a bum.”
They agree to part, and Terry gets out of the cab, while Charley, unknowingly, lets the cabbie take him to his own execution at the hands of the Mob.

6.  Terry and Edie Again
Terry now goes to Edie’s apartment and forces his way in.  Then he forces his affections on her, and despite the misgivings she had felt towards him, she succumbs to his embrace.  But immediately they here a voice from outside on the street calling on Terry to come down and help his brother Charlie.  When Terry goes down, he sees his brother’s corpse hung up on a meat-hook. 

Edie pleads with Terry for them to run away together, but Terry wants revenge.  He goes, armed with the gun his brother had given him, to Friendly’s bar, looking to knock off his nemesis.  Johnny Friendly isn’t there at that moment, but Father Barry shows up and struggles to dissuade Terry from violent revenge.  He tells Terry he can get his revenge in the courtroom tomorrow, by using the truth.

7. The Courtroom
In the courtroom Terry and all the union officers are there.  With Johnny Friendly casting menacing glares at him, Terry testifies anyway, and he heroically tells the truth about what he knows of Joey Doyle’s murder.  This testimony will probably lead to Johnny Friendly’s indictment.  Now the film could have ended here on a triumphant note.  But the story continues, and what now transpires is somewhat problematic.

After his courtroom testimony, Terry is shunned by neighbors as a “stool pigeon”.  And when he goes up to his apartment rooftop and looks at Joey Doyle’s coop of pigeons that he had been guiltily looking after since Joey’s death, he sees that all the pigeons have now been killed.  Edie shows up and again pleads that they should run away together from this dockside world of D-and-D.  But Terry is still obsessed with revenge.  

8.  The Finale at the Dockside

The next day Terry goes to the dockside hiring session, but the union foreman, unsurprisingly, refuses to hire him.  So, with the gathered workers just timidly watching, Terry walks over to the dockside union shack, where, dismissing Father Barry’s past pleas to him to restrain himself, he calls for Johnny Friendly to come out for a confrontation.  When Johnny Friendly emerges, Terry defiantly boasts how proud he is to have exposed the corrupt boss.  The ensuing heated argument soon degenerates into a scuffle, and then a gang of Friendly’s henchmen beat up Terry to within an inch of life.

With Terry still lying knocked-out on the edge of the pier, Friendly orders the workers into the warehouse to start working.  But they say they won’t work without Terry.  Father Barry and Edie now arrive, and they revive the battered Terry and help him to his feet.  Father Barry insists to the bloodied and barely conscious Terry that to “win the war”, he must walk unaided up the pier walkway and into the warehouse.  With great effort, Terry manages to do this, and the other workers follow after him, symbolizing their abandonment of Johnny Friendly’s corrupt union.

So the essence of On the Waterfront, what is at its very heart, is a series of exchanges in each of the eight segments that concern morality and conscience.   The corrupt, unconscionable dog-eat-dog world is symbolized to various degrees by Charlie Malloy (passive) and Johnny Friendly (aggressive).  And the virtuous path is symbolized by Edie Doyle (passive) and Father Barry (aggressive).  Thus Edie is mostly concerned with personal virtue and just wants to run away with Terry to somewhere where they can be alone.  On the other hand, Father Barry is concerned with social justice.  He wants to fight for the benefit of all the dock workers.  Interestingly, however, even though both Father Barry and Edie are more or less people “of the cloth”, they do not spend much time talking about praying to God.  Their values seem just as much humanistic as spiritual.  Father Barry’s main instrument for social justice, for example, is adherence to the rule-of-law, rather than divine intervention or divine retribution in the afterlife.

Terry, and in particular his conscience, is the target of all the moral assertions of the above four people.  He starts out in total innocence, but he is forced to face up to the various claims and demands of the key people in his life.  To some extent he is something of a moral guinea pig; but in the end Father Barry’s passionate recommendations to have faith in the rule-of-law seem to win him over.

Whether or not you buy the ending to On the Waterfront, though, will probably depend on your personal taste.  It is not very clear what exactly has been accomplished by Terry’s act of personal bravery and sacrifice.  Certainly it was good that he did not, in the end, resort to vengeful violence with his gun.  But will the worker solidarity that seems to have been momentarily evoked by Terry’s heroic actions endure and have lasting consequences?  That we don’t know.  Johnny Friendly is still out there, and Terry’s plans or way forward are not at all clear.  Nevertheless, we can still feel exhilaration over the uplifting change that has taken place inside Terry.

And in any case, we can also appreciate On the Waterfront’s uniquely moving cinematic presentation that combines (a) theatrically dramatic acting on the part of the five main characters with (b) the film’s emotive mix of expressionistic and neorealistic cinematography.

  1. “Awards and honors”, “On the Waterfront”, Wikipedia, (20 May 2020).     
  2. “AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)”, American Film Institute,  (20 June 2007).   
  3. A. H. Weiler, “Brando Stars in Film Directed by Kazan”, The New York Times, (29 July 1954).   
  4. “On The Waterfront”, Buffalo Film Seminars, (29 March 2000).   
  5. Peter Biskind, ‘The Politics of Power in “On the Waterfront’”, Film Quarterly (1975) 29 (1): 25–38.   
  6. Michael Almereyda, “On the Waterfront: Everybody Part of Everybody Else”, The Criterion Collection, (19 February 2013).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “On the Waterfront”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (21 March 1999).   
  8. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “On The Waterfront”, Jonathan Rosenbaum, (1 January 1990).  

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