On the Waterfront (1954)



    Terry Malloy: Marlon Brando 

    Father Barry: Karl Malden

    Charlie "the Gent" Malloy: Rod Steiger

    Edie Doyle: Eva Marie Saint

    Johnny Friendly: Lee J. Cobb

    Screenplay: Budd Schulberg

    Music: Leonard Bernstein

    Director: Elia Kazan


On the Waterfront on IMDb.com

Mr. Trevenen's

Quick Notes and Items of Interest:

·         Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg attempt to attain realism. Realism is a method in art to represent life as it really is. Okay, this is not a big surprise. Realism is when artists try to make things real. But remember that attaining realism is difficult. Reality is difficult to imitate. Reality is dull and not a lot happens. The plots of our lives develop slowly and not always in a coherent manner. Stories are often neat with beginnings and endings. Our lives don't always follow a logical pattern. How many people would want to read the real story of our lives? If we are sometimes bored with life, how would an audience feel? However, when a story does imitate life, it can make the reader or the viewer feel that the message being conveyed is true and right and real. This is the purpose of art: to communicate ideas and visions. The artist sees the world and wants to try to get you to see the world in a similar way. But remember, art is only an imitation of life. It is not reality.

·         Added realism of the movie is that you can see the breath of the actors. How often do you see characters in a movie who are supposed to be freezing but you can't see the actor's breath? Sometimes movies that are really shot in the winter are set in the summer. directors have gone so far as to make the actors suck on ice to make their mouths cold so their breath does not show on the screen.

·         Watch the movie to see if you can see an actor named Fred Gwynne. He played Herman Munster in the television show The Munsters (and Officer Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You? for you old people) and he also played the judge in My Cousin Vinny ("Did you say 'yoots'?").

·         The role of Father Barry is an important one. He has a key scene where he essentially makes an invocation to God as well as an appeal to the collective conscience of the dock workers. In an ancient Greek play the character would be making an appeal to the gods or the fates. This is a pivotal scene.

·         The workers form a kind of Greek chorus that perform the same function as in an ancient Greek drama. They are the voice of the community, the village elders. They present the conventional wisdom of the community. They function as a dynamic character with a point of view and a motivation all their own. They develop as the screenplay continues on until they have come around to a new point of view.

·         The character of the investigator for the Crime Commission serves as the seeker of truth. It is his job in the story to prod Terry about telling the truth and presenting the real story of the waterfront. His character is purely functional. He has no other reason for being in the movie.

·         A comment from another viewer:

o        Great acting and directing, however, cannot cover up the transparent political/apologetical intent of the movie. Two years earlier, Kazan had sold out his integrity to the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), "naming names" of those who would become the blacklisted Hollywood 10. Kazan, a former communist himself, regretted his involvement with the Party, and evidently decided it was politically advantageous to name his former associates. Likewise, Brando character Malloy finds himself in a mob-run labor union, and in his effort to 'get out,' repeats much of what Kazan did in real life. Worse, Kazan, through the allegorical message of the film, brands his former writers as criminals and murders, and himself as the naive innocent. Being a communist was no crime in the 30s, and he was no innocent.
Mark Crego, Washington D.C. on IMDb (http://us.imdb.com/CommentsShow?0047296), November 12, 2001.)

Motifs and Archetypes:


Listen for the repeated verbal references to birds (pigeons, canaries, birdseed, hawks, stoolies). The implication is that all of the characters are like the birds mentioned. Terry mentions the faithfulness of the pigeons to Edie, a quality he admires and wishes for because he lacks it in his own life (even his brother Charlie has not been faithful to him in the past). Terry again wants the investigator from the Crime Commission to ask him questions “without the birdseed” emphasizing that he and all the others on the dock are like the ubiquitous pigeons of the city. There is even a scene in Johnny Friendly’s bar when he is about to distribute money when the men in the backroom here the word “payday” and surround the money as if it were birdseed. And it is Terry’s mentioning that the pigeons are nervous because a hawk has been in the area which echoes the danger that he himself is in.


Joey’s Jacket

Joe Doyle’s jacket is given by his father to Kayo Dugan after Joey has been murdered for telling the truth. Dugan is inspired by Father Barry to tell the truth to the Crime Commission and is murdered for it. The jacket is given back to Edie who then gives it to Terry. Edie says, "I brought you Joey's jacket. Yours is falling apart." It is not just Terry's jacket that is falling apart, but his whole way of life. When he receives the jacket, Terry does not feel worthy to wear it. Look at the scenes that follow. Terry owns the jacket but he wears the old one. After he testifies, however, Terry realizes that he must go down to the docks to get his rights. He picks up Joey’s jacket and wears it from that point on. The jacket may allude to the robe of Christ which inspired those who wore it after him.



The bum motif is one of the motivating factors that impels Terry to win his internal conflict with himself and the external conflict with those around him. In the first scenes of the movie, Terry fights the label of bum and other indications that he is not what he could have been. The climax of the film is in the taxi with Charlie where Terry admits out loud that he recognizes himself as a "bum" and that he accepts it. From that point on in the story Terry moves towards self-respect and dignity until, in the denouement, he confronts Johnny Friendly and the dock workers and is willing to stand up to them all alone. By the end of the story he has achieved a solitary dignity of the hero who is willing to stand alone for what he believes is right and true. It is this archetypal hero that makes an indelible mark on the viewer.



It is the search and the fight for Truth that is the underlying theme for this movie. While the characters in the film may be compared to birds throughout, it is the willingness of people to pursue the truth, even when it may not be in their best interests, that ennobles them. Who killed Joey Doyle? Who will testify against the mob? Who will stand up and say what needs to be said? These are the tough questions with which the characters wrestle. Despite the fact that they know that they may die if they tell the truth, the characters in the film take that risk again and again–and pay the penalty again and again. The truth has benefits for these characters, however. It is telling Edie the truth about his part in Joey’s murder that binds the two of them closer together. It is Terry’s ability to tell Charlie truth about what Charlie has done to his career that brings the brothers to a new understanding of each other. It is Terry’s acceptance of the label "bum" which he has shunned for the entire movie that gives Terry the chance to start anew in search of his self-respect. It is Charlie's acceptance that he has not done right by his brother that allows him to see that he loves his brother more than the organization allows him the strength to face what will be almost certain death. It is the truth that allows them to live on a higher plane and see the world from a new perspective. Once having moved to that higher plane, they can not go back down.

Back Story     
These characters do not operate in a vacuum. The first scene of the film is a picture of an immense liner that dwarfs all of the central characters in the film. The image says that behind these people is a powerful societal system that allows the behavior of these figures as long as the economy works efficiently. Thus, when Terry testifies, director Elia Kazan pulls back to let us see a rich man with a butler who is obviously distressed and gives the order the “Mr. Friendly’s” calls will no longer be taken. This is the scene that tells us that Johnny Friendly is finished on the docks, not the final scene.


Savior Motif

Terry Malloy is a classic example of the savior motif. Look at the typical characteristics:

·         The character must come to bring enlightenment to people or to save people. (Terry tries to help the dock workers.)

·         The savior helps the weak or the minority. (The dock workers are living under the thumb of the mob.)

·         People may turn against this character because of the attempt to bring enlightenment or to help them. ( The dock workers turn against Terry because he breaks the code of silence.)

·         The character may suffer for it. (Terry is savagely beaten and his brother is killed.)

·         The character may die for attempting to bring enlightenment or helping the people. This death may be metaphorical. (Johnny Friendly's words to Terry after Terry has testified against him are, "You just dug your own grave. Now go fall in it.")

·         The character may be reborn in some way, literally or metaphorically. (Terry has his dignity given back to him when he says to Edie, "I'm not a bum.")