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Film / On the Waterfront

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"You don't understand. I coulda had class. I Coulda Been a Contender! I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley."
Terry Malloy

On the Waterfront is a 1954 crime drama film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger.

Terry Malloy (Brando) is a former prizefighter now employed as a dockworker in New Jersey, who gets work courtesy of his brother Charley (Steiger). Charley is a lawyer for mob boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb), who corruptly runs the local dockworkers' union. One day, Terry inadvertently participates in the murder of his friend Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), a dockworker who had planned to testify before the Waterfront Crime Commission and expose Friendly's illegal activities. As he comforts Joey's sister Edie (Saint), and meets Father Pete Barry (Malden), a firebrand priest intent on putting an end to the mob's graft and violence, Terry is urged to help expose Friendly's crimes before someone else dies. How long can Terry go on before he finally has to act against the corrupt men who own the docks?

Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, the film won eight of them including Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Saint), and Best Screenplay (Schulberg).note  It is also notable for being the only film scored by Leonard Bernstein that is not a musical. Fred Gwynne plays one of Friendly's goons and Pat Hingle and Martin Balsam turn up in uncredited bit parts.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: As something of an inside joke, Fred Gwynne plays a character named Mladen Sekulovich, which happens to the be real name of co-star Karl Malden.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Charley. This veneer is probably caused by Charley's subconscious guilt over ruining Terry's boxing career, and it's shattered when Johnny tells him to kill Terry.
  • And Starring: Eva Marie Saint gets an "and introducing" credit.
  • Animal Motifs: The entire move is a battle of John Friendly's Hawks vs the dock workers - pigeons. The beginning scene where Joey gets push off the roof. The Thugs (hawks) are on the roof top waiting for their prey - Joey the pigeon. Terry runs with the Hawks but is a pigeon from the onset. He raises pigeons, is seen several times in their cage or through the cage. On the dock the boss throws the tokens. All of the dock workers run after them bobbing up and down exactly the way pigeons go after seed when its thrown. Terry even gives a speech about the town having Hawks and going after pigeons. There several more examples throughout the movie.
  • Arc Words: The word "bum", usually spoken in regards to Terry.
  • Arch-Enemy: Johnny Friendly to Terry Malloy.
  • Badass Preacher: Father Barry. This guy punches Marlon Brando halfway across a room and at the outset of the film is the only character willing to stand up to Friendly.
  • Big Bad: Johnny Friendly.
  • Big Good: Father Barry, the town priest who ultimately becomes a mentor-like figure for Terry and encourages Terry to stop the union in a non-violent way, or he'd be no better than them.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Terry survives the beating of Friendly's goons and while Friendly still has power, he's lost the fear everyone had of him. It's also quite likely that Friendly will eventually be indicted due to the testimony against him.
  • Central Theme: "Conscience, that stuff can drive you nuts".
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Father Barry, the town priest who starts off with a pretty minor role, later comes to Terry's aid and advises him to confess his accidental role in Joey's death to Joey’s sister Edie. Then after Johnny’s goons kill Charley, Father Barry becomes the one who talks Terry out of killing them.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Terry's boxing skills from his past career come in handy when he's fighting Friendly in the dock and also helps him survive the beat down he got from Johnny and his guards.
  • Crucial Cross: Throughout the movie, every set of TV antennae is framed to look like a cross, putting into visual language that the Crucifixion did not just happen at Cavalry, but happens at every unjust and tyrannical murder. This informs the climatic sermon that Father Barry makes against organized crime and sets up a lot more symbolism.
  • Determinator: Terry, barely alive after a brutal beating by Friendly's goons, wills himself to the front of the worker's line to demand he work that day in spite of Friendly's death threats.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Towards the climax of the film, the corpse of Terry's brother Charlie is found strung up on a wall.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Kayo Dugan often makes sarcastic remarks about the basic rottenness of the way Johnny Friendly runs the union.
  • Disappointing Older Sibling: During the I Coulda Been a Contender! scene, Terry Malloy calls out his big brother Charley for not protecting him and undermining his boxing career.
  • Dirty Coward: The only reason Terry lost the fight with Friendly was because Friendly called his guards to help him pry Terry off. The dockworkers, witnessing this, lose all respect and fear of Friendly.
  • Doves Mean Peace: Joey likes to keep pigeons, which is used as Rule of Symbolism to highlight his saintly nature. However, Joey is shoved off a roof later in the film and his pigeons are killed by Jimmy (in a bid to get back at Terry for snitching), showing that while pigeons represent goodness and innocence, these traits are vulnerable to more violent characters.
  • Dramatic Timpani: The soundtrack by Leonard Bernstein has the quiet title music followed by a pounding fugato for three drummers (though the third is actually on tuned drums rather than timpani).
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Charley The Gent is a murderous gangster and Friendly's right-hand man, but he does genuinely love his kid brother Terry, a love that gets him killed.
  • The Faceless: Mr. Upstairs is only seen briefly with his back to the camera.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: The very problem that inspires Terry to say "I Coulda Been a Contender!".
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Johnny Friendly, despite his non-threatening name, is a cruel mobster.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Barry.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The wealthy “Mr. Upstairs”, who Johnny Friendly is apparently employed by.
  • Guilt-Ridden Accomplice: Terry is duped into luring Joey Doyle to his death; he spends the rest of the film trying to make amends.
  • Heel Realization: What Terry goes through as he realizes what working for Friendly costs him. His turn also affects his brother Charley who tries to first talk and then threaten Terry not to testify. It takes Terry's "I coulda been a contender" speech to make Charley realize how he ruined his own brother's life, and he relents. Friendly kills Charley for it.
  • Hidden Depths: Terry.
    • Charley as well. Although he's lived the life of a ruthless gangster, he still cares for his brother.
  • Honor Before Reason: The dock workers are afraid of informing on Johnny Friendly but their children grow up believing ratting someone out is bad period. This leads some of them to kill Terry's pigeons for deciding to testify even though he really is doing the right thing.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Trope Namer.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him! : Terry is talked out of killing Friendly by Father Barry, who urges him to testify against Friendly instead.
  • Impairment Shot: Terry suffers from blurred vision during his staggering walk to the dock at the climax, after he's beaten by Johnny's goons.
  • Inspired by…: "Crime on the Waterfront", a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of muckraking articles about, well, crime on the waterfront, written by Malcolm Johnson and published by The New York Sun in 24 installments throughout 1948.
  • Ironic Nickname: Johnny Friendly's one of the good guys, right? Wrong.
  • Kick the Dog: Terry's beloved pigeons are killed by the kids.
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Inverted with the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly.
  • Oh, Crap!: Kayo Dugan, right before he is crushed by a falling load of cargo.
  • One-Book Author: Thomas Handley, who played Terry Molloy's teenage friend Tommy, was hired by the production to feed the pigeons on set. His father, a longshoreman, had been blackballed for anti-union activities, and disappeared when Hanley was 4 months old. Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg had him audition for the role, and coaxed an angry response out of him by calling his father a rat. He was paid $500 for his role, but never really acted again. He went on to become a longshoreman, and in 2002 was elected recording secretary of his union after yet another corrupt leadership was ousted.
  • Pan and Scan: Inverted; Director of Photography Boris Kaufman shot the movie in the 4:3 Academy ratio, leaving enough space for projectionists to matte it to 1.85:1 widescreen. TV prints and video releases mostly present the movie with its full height, until The Criterion Collection also included two matted versions on their DVD and Blu-ray sets. Criterion's discs default to 1.66:1 widescreen — retaining more of the height than the 1.85:1 prints do — and include a "visual essay" comparing it to the other two aspect ratios.
  • Pet the Dog: Terry's love of pigeons should be one of your first hints that he's a good guy. Also helps he talks to a few kids and is kind to them as well. This makes it worse when those same kids kill his birds simply because he testified against Friendly.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The story begins with the murder of Joey Doyle.
  • Punched Across the Room: Marlon Brando, of all people. Father Barry punches Terry across the room when Terry tells him to go to hell.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After Terry testified against Johnny Friendly, he finds himself alienated from his fellow dockworkers and unable to get work on the dock. He decides to confront Johnny himself on how much of a rotten crook he's been in front of the all the longshoremen.
    Terry: You want to know something? Take the heater away and you're nothin'.
    Terry: Take the good goods away, and the kickback and the shakedown cabbage away and the pistoleros away and you're a great big hunk of nothing! Your guts is all in your wallet and your trigger finger you know that!
    Johnny Friendly: (enraged) You ratted on us, Terry!
    Terry: From where you stand, maybe. But I'm standing over here now. I was rattin' on myself all them years and didn't even know it.
    Johnny Friendly: Come on!
    Terry: You give it to Joey, you give it to Doogan, you give it to Charley, who was one of your own! You think you're God Almighty but you know what you are? You're a cheap, LOUSY, DIRTY, STINKIN', MUG!
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some people (including the people who do the commentary track for the DVD version) are fond of claiming that the film's one weak link is Father Barry. According to the critics, his didactic sermons and high moral tone sometimes stand in contrast with the naturalistic dialogue in the rest of the movie, and Karl Malden occasionally overplays the part by being sanctimonious and one-dimensional. What they seem not to realize is that, according to writer Bud Schulberg, about 80% of Barry's "unrealistic" "Sermon on the Docks" was taken from the speeches of the real-life waterfront priest Fr. John Corridan, S.J. Not only that, but Karl Malden lived with Fr. Corridan for several days before shooting (he purchased Corridan's hat and coat and wore them onscreen), and was specifically asked by Corridan not to play the character as "holier-than-thou", and therefore made deliberate efforts to tone it down.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Terry and Father Barry respectively.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Terry's able to make his older brother Charley regret costing him his boxing career, and grow a conscience after Terry tried to shoot him for not keeping quiet about the murders. Unfortunately, Friendly and his goons found out about this, and... guess what happens next.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Pigeons in the same family as doves — as in the symbol of peace and the symbol of urban infestation and white splotches on a car are basically cousins. They're certainly treated that way in this film. Joey Doyle, himself a saintly symbol of goodness and innocence, likes to keep pigeons as pets on the roof of the apartment building where he lives. This seems like a pleasant hobby...and it also shows us that Joey is a nurturing sort of guy. But the downside to being a pigeon — or Joey and that their easy prey. Johnny's gangsters shove Joey off a roof and, later, a kid named Jimmy kills all the pigeons in order to get back at Terry for snitching (Terry takes care of the pigeons after Joey dies). So, pigeons symbolize goodness and innocence, but also the vulnerability of being good and innocent. During one point in the film, Terry appropriately makes a hawk analogy to Edie (Joey's sister). Hawks are often prey for pigeons, and here the hawks are people like Johnny Friendly and Charley — predators — while the pigeons are defenseless good guys like Joey and Kayo Dugan. The pigeons just don't have big enough talons to defend themselves. Additionally, the phrase "stool pigeon" is synonymous with "police informer" which is what Joey, Kayo and Terry are.
    • Crucifixion is also an important symbol in the film. Crucifixion is tied up with the death of Jesus, and the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. And, in this film, Father Barry applies this symbol to Joey and Dugan, who've both been killed by Johnny's mob after word got out that they were planning on turning police informant. He references this in one of his peptalks to the remaining rebelers. Also, it's not just the villains committing them. It's the cowardice and indifference of bystanders. If the other longshoremen followed Joey's lead and turned against Johnny — who hadn't been helping them at all, anyway — Johnny wouldn't have stood a chance. Terry's act of courage at the movie's end finally shakes everyone out of their cowardice and makes them abandon Johnny together, once and for all.
    • Terry goes from accidentally helping a murder at the beginning of the movie to being a symbol of redemption at the end. A pretty impressive character arc for a washed-up ex-boxer. After doing the right thing and testifying against Johnny, all he gets in return is a near-lethal beatdown. He doesn't even get medical treatment, not even from Edie and Father Barry, but they do give him encouragement to get back up and keep walking. By doing so, he's showing the world — and Johnny Friendly — that he's not beaten down. Additionally, if Terry walks into work, the other workers say they'll follow him, telling Johnny off once and for all. So, Terry makes it into the warehouse, and everyone follows him, leaving Johnny behind to rage and yell, stripped of his power. This scene is not only symbolic of the "hard road" of redemption, but of the movie as a whole. Kazan is basically distilling the entirety of the film down into a several-minute long scene. Because the whole movie was about a dude who has been beaten by life doing the hardest thing: getting up, dusting himself off, and doing the job that needs to be done. And that, in its most literal form, is what's happening in the last scene of the movie.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Kayo Dugan's death, made to look like an "accident" at the docks, shows us what happens to anyone who stands up to Johnny Friendly and his goons. We saw this earlier with Joey's death, but unlike Joey who was killed off at the beginning, the audience gets to know Dugan.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Edie, she was said to have had very thick braids, glasses, and braces as a kid and is told "you grew up very nice".
  • Take That!: Elia Kazan, infamous for the rest of his life for naming names on the HUAC committee, made this film to show his critics an informer in a positive-light... Which didn't have much of an effect, given that people were still protesting his choice when he won the Honorary Academy Award in 1999.
    • What's ironic is that mob control of unions was actually aided and abetted by the very authorities Kazan testified to during the Cold War in order to break the back of Marxism in organized labor.
  • Throwing the Fight: "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson."
  • Troubled, but Cute: Terry.
  • Uncommon Time: The score includes a very fast, drum-heavy theme whose bars alternate between alla breve and 3/4.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Terry Malloy's fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DeVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission about activities on the Hoboken Docks and suffered a degree of ostracism for his deed. DeVincenzo sued and settled, many years after, with Columbia Pictures over the appropriation of what he considered his story. DeVincenzo claimed to have recounted his story to screenwriter Budd Schulberg during a month-long session of waterfront barroom meetings. Schulberg attended DeVincenzo's waterfront commission testimony every day during the hearing.
  • Victorious Loser: Johnny Friendly technically "wins" his fight against Terry, but he had to get a bunch of his goons to help him out. Terry managing to pull himself together and the dockworkers ignoring Johnny's impotent threats proves who really won in the end.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Johnny Friendly at the end.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: We don't get to know much about Joey Doyle before he dies towards the beginning of the movie.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Barry gives one to Terry for nearly giving into his anger and trying to off Friendly after he kills Charley.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Terry always regretted taking that dive.