Follow TV Tropes


Film / On the Waterfront

Go To

"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

A 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan, written by Budd Schulberg and starring Marlon Brando in his first Academy Award winning-role, On the Waterfront was also the Oscar winner for Best Picture. It won 8 of its 12 Oscar nominations. It is also notable for being the only film scored by Leonard Bernstein that is not a musical. note 

Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter now employed as a dockworker, who gets work courtesy of his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), who's a lawyer for mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) who corruptly runs the local dockworker's union. One day, Malloy inadvertently participates in the murder of his friend, a dockworker that had planned to testify before the Crime Commission and expose Mr. Friendly's illegal activities. As he comforts the dead man's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint,) and meets a firebrand priest intent on putting an end to the mob's graft and violence (Karl Malden), 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?


This film provides examples of:

  • 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 "an 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.
  • Advertisement:
  • 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: Mr. 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 the 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.
  • 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 express accidental role in Joey's death to his sister Edie, and after the goons kill Charley, Father Barry becomes the one who talks out of killing them and reporting them instead.
  • 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.
  • The 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: The very problem that inspires Terry to say "I Coulda Been a Contender!".
  • Good Shepherd: Father Barry.
  • 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.
  • 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 him 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...: The source of this film was a 1949 Pulitzer-winning series of articles about corruption on the waterfront.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Stuffed in the Fridge: Towards the climax of the film, the corpse of Terry's brother Charlie is found strung up on a wall.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: