After he is used to unwittingly set up Edie Doyle’s brother to be murdered, Terry Malloy begins to see those who run the longshoremen’s trade union for the thugs they have always been. He falls in love with Edie, and through her and Father Barry has his eyes opened to the injustices of life in the docklands. He stands up to the union leader, and despite receiving a physical beating his actions give the local working men the strength to unite and stand up for themselves.
This film has always been mired in controversy because of its intimate connections to the post-war Communist witch-hunt in the United States. Three of the key creative personnel, who had been in the Communist Party (Kazan, Schulberg and Cobb), went before the House Un-American Activities Committee that was investigating communism in Hollywood and named others they knew to be party members. (Cobb testified before the Committee just the year before On the Waterfront was made.) Not only were they then able to continue working in the film industry while others were blacklisted as a result of their testimony but they then made a film about giving evidence to a crime commission in order to break a mob’s grip on a community. Former Communist Party members who refused to ‘name names’ were, in the terms of this film, acting as if ‘D and D’ (deaf and dumb) in support of a corrupt organisation. Brando for one was not keen to work with Kazan because he had testified and was even less enthusiastic about the project when he realised he also had to work with Schulberg and Cobb.
The film itself provides the audience with a classic Hollywood-style narrative in which a downtrodden community gains the self-confidence to fight back as a result of the actions of one heroic character. In effect it is a Western played out in the New York docklands, or as Kazan called it an ‘eastern’. Criticism of the upper echelons of society is paired down to the absolute minimum, effectively amounting to one cutaway shot to the home of a rich businessman within the courtroom scene as the central character, Terry Malloy (Brando), gives evidence against the union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb). The anonymous businessman’s comments make his involvement in the corruption clear, and since he is essentially faceless it is implied that he represents a whole group or class. However, the focus of the film is not on the privileged capitalist elite but on the union as a brutal organisation that rules through terror. There is no real analysis of how extreme poverty and hardship has become a feature of the lives of those living in the docklands, although there is genuine sympathy for the community being portrayed expressed through the documentary realism employed.
For many the most striking thing about On the Waterfront is the performance of Brando1 as the docker who journeys towards an understanding of the corruption with which he is surrounded and an awareness of the need to stand against it not only because it is morally right to do so but also in order to achieve some restored sense of self-worth. Kazan spoke of ‘the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behaviour’ and of ‘the depth of guilt as well as tenderness’ he felt Brando managed to achieve in his performance (Bruccoli 1991: xxxi–xxxii). As far as Kazan was concerned, ‘If there’s a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is’. The New York Times review from 1954 described Brando’s presentation of Terry as ‘a shatteringly poignant portrayal of an amoral, confused, illiterate citizen of the lower depths’ (Rapf 2003: 153). A full investigation of Brando’s performance would need to consider the body language (the walk and the gestures used, for example), the facial expressions (the movements of the eyes and direction of the gaze, for instance) and the delivery of lines (including crucially, pauses, mumblings and silences). When Edie confronts him with the simple notion of certain actions being right and others wrong because they either amount to treating others with decency or a lack of decency Terry’s verbal response is simply: ‘You’re such a fruitcake’. However, Brando’s facial and bodily response totally contradict the dismissive nature of these words, revealing the intense awkwardness he feels when in effect being confronted by his conscience. He shifts uneasily and looks down, anywhere but at Edie. He knows the harsh reality of the world of the docks doesn’t naturally provide a space for Edie’s humanity but equally he has a side to his character, exemplified by the gentleness with which he cares for his pigeons, that recognises what Edie says. Brando may not have got on with either of them but the performances of Lee Cobb (Johnny Friendly) and Rod Steiger (Charley) match his own. Cobb’s speech, ‘My mother brought us up on a stinking watchman’s pension … ’ jolts the viewer into a realisation of the depth of these characters; it is not just the character of Terry that has been formed by his experience of life. Steiger’s facial expression of the turmoil of emotions he is experiencing as he finally decides to sacrifice himself for his brother is at least as good as anything Brando does and seems to have been given in defiance of Brando who had left him to complete the scene on his own. Maybe it was the tensions between the actors and between Brando and the director that brought out these performances, the determination to show the others what you could do.
According to Schulberg (!), Kazan described this as one of the best three scripts he had ever received; the other two being Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. What is clear is that Schulberg had real empathy for the community he was attemptingto portray. He describestime spent researchingthe material inthewaterfront districts of New York, drinking in local bars listening to the stories that were told and sitting in the kitchen of the man who was showing him around writing down ‘lines I could never make up’ (Broccoli 1991: xi). As a result there is a documentary dimension that attaches to the writing; the script, to some extent at least, grows out of the everyday experiences and language use of longshoremen, their families and others living in the docklands community during the particular historical moment of the late 1940s and early 1950s.2 Schulberg also points out that while they were in Hollywood attempting to get a studio to back the project Kazan was heavily involved in rewriting parts of the script. But a further contribution to the script also apparently came from the producer, Sam Spiegel, who forced rewrite after rewrite. ‘He thought it was over length and sometimes discursive. Lots of times he was right.’ says Schulberg (Bruccoli 1991: xvii).3 The re-writes meant Kazan and the cast had an already tight script with which to work, the only remaining perhaps overly didactic section being Father Barry’s speech in the ship’s hold after the death of ‘Kayo’ Dougan. In an article from 1954, Schulberg said after initially becoming involved in trying to write a script based on dockland corruption, it was ‘four years and at least eight full scripts later’ before the film reached the screen (Rapf 2003: 151).
Further reinforcing the social realist style embodied in the documentary aspects of Schulberg’s approach to the script was Kazan’s decision to shoot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey during harsh, winter conditions of 1953–54. Although the famous ‘I coulda been a contender’ scene between Brando and Steiger playing Terry’s brother Charley (the mob’s lawyer) was a studio rig-up little else seems to have been. Schulberg says the film was made ‘without a single set being built’ (Rapf 2003: xvi) by using the piers, bars, rooftops and coldwater flats of the Hoboken district. The dialogue, derived from close observation of the community, and the location filming, work together to create a social realism somewhat at odds with Hollywood norms. If we consider any single location, however – outside of the church where the railings seem to pen Terry in and where the swing helps to connote the childlike aspect to his character, for example – it is clear that the selection of place has been a carefully considered aspect of film construction. Similarly with sound – if we move slightly beyond the environs of the church we see Terry and Edie in a scene played out on wasteland at the edge of the water where a siren is realistically but also symbolically able to tear through their conversation. The symbolism is on occasion too obvious – the pigeons that are clearly indicative of a softer side to Terry’s nature are contrasted with the hawks who prey upon them, and the coat is passed as the mantle of truth from Edie’s brother to ‘Kayo’ Dougan and eventually to Terry – but it also has an integral role to play in the construction of meaning.
At one level the film is as an investigation of human potential thwarted by social environment. Terry is consistently referred to as ‘slow’, but Edie recognises his potential. Asked by Terry how she would have got a better response from him at school Edie says through showing him kindness. And, of course, although the Golden Warriors gang strand of the narrative doesn’t ring true in some places, the boys relate to Terry because he gives them time and attention. What Terry has (and we are constantly reminded of this) is a conscience. After Charley is killed, Terry to some extent becomes the traditional male hero, especially in leading the men back to work in the final scene; but unconventionally he defeats Johnny Friendly through the courts and is actually physically beaten at the end (although morally triumphant). As we see Terry rejecting his old way of life Edie’s keynote lines become increasingly significant: ‘Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else: isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?’
Kazan had been a Communist for two years (1934–36) but testified before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. He continues to put forward socialist views in this film (although couched in strongly Christian terms) while attacking corruption amongst trade unions. Many scenes fleshing out the extent of that corruption were apparently cut as the script was honed to a tight essentially Hollywood structure.
“In truth, I had started with a broader canvas, wanting to tell not only Terry Malloy’s personal story, but the waterfront priest’s, and to set it all in social perspective. I wanted to define the pecking order, right up to the Mayor and the ‘Mr Big’ who owned him.” (Schulberg in Rapf 2003: xvi)
When Father Barry is speaking in the hold of the ship after the murder of Dougan, if we take away the dog collar we have a straight didactic speech on socialism. Even those who are corrupt are shown to have their corruption founded upon the hardship of their upbringing (Johnny Friendly: My mother brought up ten of us on a stinking watchman’s pension.). Terry needs the active agency of Edie (and to some extent Father Barry) to be ‘saved’ from his harsh experiences as a child and young man, but the film also shows honest, hard-working people like Edie’s father defying all the odds to maintain their integrity.
1. Frank Sinatra was initially lined up for the part of Terry but was passed over when it became clear Brando could be brought on board (Schickel 1991: 88).
2. Schulberg based the idea for the screenplay on articles written by Malcolm Johnson for the New York Sun, in which he exposed the bribery, ‘payoffs’ and extortion that went on in the docks.
3. ‘He did have an instinctive story sense; he knew it had to be unrelenting as it unfolded, and it should never let up tension and always aim for the end,’ says Kazan (Bruccoli 1991: xxi).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Columbia Pictures and Horison Pictures. Director: Elia Kazan. Producer: Sam Spiegel. Screenwriter: Budd Schulberg. Cinematographer: Boris Kaufman. Music: Leonard Bernstein. Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Pat Henning (‘Kayo’ Dougan).]
William Baer, Elia Kazan: Interviews, Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Leo Braudy, On the Waterfront, London, BFI, 2005.
Matthew J. Bruccoli (ed.), On the Waterfront: Budd Schulberg, London, Faber and Faber, 1991.
Elia Kazan, Kazan on Kazan, London, Faber and Faber, 2000.
Darwin Porter, Brando Unzipped, New York, Blood Moon Publications, 2005.
Joanna E. Rapf, On the Waterfront, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Richard Schickel, Brando: A Life in Our Times, London, Pavilion Books, 1991.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.