On the Waterfront
Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is driven by the strength of its iconic performances and its crisp, clear, direct imagery. It's a story of black-and-white morality, told with all the punchy aesthetics and acting fireworks it demands. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker in a city where the dock union is as corrupt as they come, presided over by mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his right-hand man, Terry's own brother Charley (Rod Steiger). Terry knows that they're corrupt, and that they've even killed a few workers who threatened to talk to the cops about the operation, but Terry, despite his reservations about what he's seen, knows enough to keep quiet. He lives his life by a simple code, that he comes first and he just has to look out for his own interests. This code is only challenged by Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a man who Terry helped lure to his death for squealing, and the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is inspired to aid in the fight against the mob-run union by Edie's principled words.
There's a reason this film is so iconic: it's packed with grand speeches, with opportunities for the actors to showboat, to emote to the rafters, not just Terry's justifiably famous "I coulda been a contenda" speech but several of Father Barry's impassioned oratories on standing up for what's right, and Edie's similarly intense pleas with Terry to live up to the goodness she sees in him. Even Johnny Friendly gets a chance to speak his mind, in an early scene where he defends his crooked business dealings by referring to his own tough childhood, and his lifetime of work, clawing his way up from the bottom of the heap as a dockworker to be the boss of his own gang. This is a real actor's movie, and Kazan is a real actor's director, building the film around these powerful monologues and wisely allowing the words to do much of the work. The cinematography is often striking, of course, as in the bird's eye views of the docks at night, shrouded in shadows, the streets lonely and empty except for the various thugs doing their shady work. More often, Kazan simply stands back and lets the actors deliver their potent words, and that's mostly enough.
One of the most striking scenes, though, is one in which the words are obscured. When Terry finally admits to Edie that he was the one who convinced her brother to go to the roof where he was pushed to his death by Johnny's thugs, the scene is staged on the rocks by the waterfront, and most of the words exchanged are blotted out by the loud whistling of a ship nearby. Kazan cuts back and forth between Edie, in tears, her hands over her mouth, and Terry, desperately trying to justify himself, his face scrunched up in psychological pain as he tries to explain to this woman he cares about why he got her brother killed. All the while, the ship's whistle makes it impossible to make out more than a few words of Terry's speech, though his words are familiar, just recycling the same justifications he's been using throughout the movie: he didn't know they'd kill him, he can't speak out about it, he needs to look out for himself. By obscuring the words, Kazan does two important things: he keeps the focus on the faces of the actors, wordlessly communicating their anguish and heartbreak, and he emphasizes how hollow Terry's words actually are, how meaningless they are in the face of Edie's wordless but eloquent grief. For a director of words and speeches to realize this is no small thing, and it's why, for all the film's eminently quotable dialogue, this scene where the words mostly aren't heard is the film's most powerful, its most cinematically beautiful and perfect moment.
There's a subtext to this story, of course, one that's hard to ignore. Kazan infamously testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming names of some of his former associates who were or had been members of the Communist Party. Kazan made On the Waterfront just two years later, with a screenplay by his fellow "friendly witness" Budd Schulberg, and it's obvious that it's a work intended to defend Kazan's decision. The film's passionate defense of those who turn "stool pigeon" when they know something is wrong was Kazan's way of justifying his own actions. Terry Malloy, the man torn apart by his conscience, split between a desire to stick by the dockworkers' code and stand by his friends and the desire to do what's right, is an obvious stand-in for Kazan himself. It's not a perfect analogy, of course; it's not even really a good analogy, even if Kazan himself doesn't seem to realize it. Malloy's conscience demands that he testify against the mob, standing up to those who have killed people and bullied the rest of the dockworkers into silence. Kazan's situation, needless to say, was much different, since he wasn't testifying against killers or thugs but against ordinary people who had simply attended meetings of the Communist Party. In some ways, the situation in the film is even the reverse of Kazan's. The temptation not to testify, for Malloy, is rooted in the desire to keep his job, to maintain his cushy position as the brother of well-positioned mob man. If he testifies, he risks losing all that. It was exactly the opposite for Kazan, who testified largely so he could keep his job, so he could keep working. Kazan, convinced he was Terry Malloy, seemed somewhat blind to the ironies of this reversal.
The political subtext isn't the only hard-to-swallow aspect of the film. There's also the disturbing scene where Terry forces himself on Edie, grabbing her and kissing her, the two of them falling off camera behind a door, at which point her struggles stop and her body goes limp in his arms, and Kazan switches to a glossy closeup of the lovers kissing. The romance is arguably the most contrived aspect of the film, even more than the occasionally heavy-handed dialogue that feels ripped right out of Kazan's autobiography. Even without the unfortunate rape-like implications of that forced kiss, this love affair never really feels believable: the tension and anger between the pair hits a lot harder than the sappy clenches and declarations of love. Saint is much better in her righteous anger, her desire to earn justice for her brother, to fight the abuses and violence that ended his life. Brando, for his part, delivers a remarkably consistent performance, his brow always knotted, his eyes constantly threatening to disappear within his scrunched-up expression of worry and confusion. Playing a former boxer, he really seems as punch-drunk as everyone says he is, his head scrambled, not by too many blows but by the sudden development of ideas he'd never had before. The dockworkers live by a code of remaining "deaf and dumb" to the crime and violence around them, but Brando's Terry is a different kind of dumb, and in his earnestly dopey performance he conveys the struggle to come to grips with a morality that had previously been foreign to him.
The complications of its political subtext aside, On the Waterfront well deserves its classic status. Brando is in peak form, manically chewing gum and scowling, copping the tough guy attitude that defined his youthful screen presence. Kazan surrounds this performance with similarly showy, dramatic supporting roles, and even when the film threatens to become an over-the-top acting showcase, it's never less than enthralling in its wordy directness. Its political entanglements even arguably make it a more interesting film, as the numerous contradictions in Kazan's perspective on this material rub up against one another uncomfortably within the film. The film's perspective on the working class certainly flirts with condescension, especially to the extent that Terry — uneducated and slow, visibly struggling when he's forced to think something through, his confusion perpetually written on his face — represents the working class. It's a film about morality and conscience, from a director who had obviously dealt with these issues in a dramatic fashion in his own life, and translated these experiences into a potent screen drama.
On The Waterfront
- Length: 1099 words (3.1 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Setting – The story starts out in the nineteen fifties in a typical small town exploited by the mob. The title On the Waterfront befits it well, for the town’s only way of employment is working on the docks for the mob. The mob controls everything in this town; they are the union and the law. If anything accurs you don’t know anything about it. Even if you were right there you were blind or D&D (Deaf and Dumb).
Situation – The situation in the town is that a very prominent man in the town was thrown off of the roof of his apartment building. Most of the people in the town were mystified by this because he as a good man that would not have many enemies. Most people would say he was a saint. His name was Joey. When the police arrive at the scene of the crime no one is cooperating with them because of the fear of the mob. Although some witnesses were almost family with the victim they will not be a canary or pigeon to squeal. This problem has been around for a while and some town members are starting to feel the guilt of their silence (with help from the priest) and decide to meet and talk about the problem.
On the docks work was on a first come first serve basis. Friends of the mob was given good easy jobs while the other work tokens were thrown on the ground and the men would fight for them.
Characters – The main character is Terry an ex semi-professional boxer who became friendly with the mob during his career. He is a common unintelligent man (typical of his town) that unlike his brother quit school. He was the man that helped the mob kill a good man in the opening scene by distracting him to come onto the roof and check out his pigeons (Symbolic). His brother keeps the mobs papers.
The Antagonist is the mob boss named Johnny who blames poverty for causing him to transform into a crook and murderer. It is either make no money or make money. They live like animals in a Social Darwinism.
The other main actor is the sister of the murder victim named Iddie. She comes from a totally sheltered life, growing up in a catholic school raised by nuns. She refuses to return to school because she wants to face a real problem, not just read about them.
How to Cite this Page
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Small Town Main Character Social Darwinism Fight Antagonist Boss Apartment Witnesses Actor Good Man
She also wants to find out who killed her brother.
The priest plays the role of the godly guiding force that directs the characters to tell the truth and to stand up to the evil forces of the mob. "They won’t be beat by saying silent" he rallies them to stand up. He also directs Terry do confess to Iddie about her brother.
Final Outcome – After truly listening to the priests speeches and looking around his town a realizing that staying quiet is not going to get anyone any better conditions. He truly came to grip that he was a nothing because of the mob and everyone else was also being held down because of this. He could have been a champion boxer but he fell because of the mobs bet. After thinking about the outcome he decided to confess to the case of Iddie’s brother and to come forward and be a witness to all the injustices that were done to the innocent people of Waterfront. Now that he became the pigeon and sang everyone in town no longer knew him or talked to him he was an untouchable. The next day at the docks the mob mentioned that today everyone would be given a chance to work and no more fighting over tokens. All workers were given jobs but him. He went to meet Johnny and to let him know what he felt.
In front of all the others town workers he told Johnny and his gang that he was happy about his confession and he is proud that he is talking their fists off of innocent peoples back. Then a fight started and the workers wanted to join in yet their fear was still set in. While the gang was beating Terry they stayed by him and refused to work unless he walked into the factory first. During this the ship owners saw the lack of strength in the mob now that the workers felt strong. Now the unions would return and the mob has almost become powerless.
Symbolism – Because of Terry’s guilt, he decides to take care of the victim’s birds. This conveys how Terry does have nurturing feelings with ambitions to change, unlike the mob. After he sings to the police about all the injustices done by the mob to the workers and the people of waterfront, a small child throws one of Joey’s pigeons, now dead, and says, "A pigeon for the pigeon." This translates that people have the image in their mind that talking about situations caused by the mob will only bring trouble. Iddie and Terry both came from extremely different societies, however, they both were able to understand that the silence that was taken also causes trouble. It was time for the mob to be challenged. The philosophy that Terry grew up with is to hurt someone before they can hurt you. This is an exactly opposite example to how Iddie was taught to think: a pure example ofopposite’s attract. In the beginning of the movie, Terry mentions how birds "have it easy- eating, sleeping, and flying around." In the End of the movie, the birds were killed and Terry was alive. This is a great example of irony. The birds were in a cage locked up when killed by the boy, symbolizing the fact that if Terry were to stay caged in the life of the mob, he would have ended up dead as well. He left the cage and sang, yet he lived. In any point in history, and in any society, there is a universal reaction to a person who speaks up with portraying all his or her feelings. When Terry finally decided to say what everybody else was thinking, they all finally realized that they need to be doing the same thing. However, the same idea goes along on the opposite side. When one person in the mob said something, everyone would follow; however, this was drawn by fear. In the end, when the followers can rise above their fear, they find a person, like Terry to follow and eventually bring them onto the right path.