On The Waterfront Film Techniques Essays

On the Waterfront: one man’s fight against corruption

By Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works Notes, 2016)

Set in the 1950s, Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront captures the essence of oppression endured by the stevedores on the Hoboken Docks, New Jersey. Dependent upon Johnny Friendly’s ruthless coterie of “executive-style” mobsters, the longshoremen are not only physically but psychologically oppressed. Whilst many of the longshoremen suffer, Kazan focuses, in particular, on Terry Malloy’s anguish as he decides to act upon his increasingly uneasy feelings of injustice. Kazan’s scrupulous direction allows audiences to gain an understanding of the hardships the longshoremen brave every day. While Terry’s decision culminates in the death of his brother Charley, there are some rewards for the unlikely hero (Marlon Brandon) as he becomes increasingly more committed to Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint).

Some background

In April 1952, Elia Kazan revealed to playwright Arthur Miller that he was prepared to “cooperate with the Committee”. ( The House of Un-American Activities Committee was set up in 1938 to investigate the presumed infiltration of communists into American society. During the 1940s, the investigation developed into a witch-hunt of anyone with “left” or “red” leanings. Many artists and writers were accused, on the basis of hearsay, of “un-American” activities and their careers were ruined. ) The President of Twentieth Century Fox gave Kazan an ultimatum. They would not employ him unless he satisfied the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan confessed to Miller, who writes in his autobiography, Timebends: “He (Kazan) had been subpoenaed and had refused to cooperate but had changed his mind and returned to testify fully in executive session, confirming some dozen names of people he had known in his months in the Party so long ago.” (Timebends) Kazan’s confession was announced on the six o’clock news. As  Miller relates, “the announcer read a bulletin about Elia Kazan’s testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and mentioned the people he had named.” (Timebends) Miller laments, “that all relationships had become relationships of advantage or disadvantage.”

In this regard, there lingers a deep sense of Kazan’s own shame at the fact that he, too, “ratted” on his mates.

The power and authority of the mob

Kazan deliberately depicts Johnny Friendly’s cohort of men as controlling and dangerous. The bleak water-front setting dominates the film’s introduction and clearly depicts the gloomy and depressive mindset of the majority of the longshoremen. During the 1950s, the time of depression, the longshoremen struggle to earn an honest living and the skyscrapers in the distance such as the Empire State building remind the longshoremen of the American dream of wealth and opportunity which has escaped all but the most corrupt chiefs like Johnny Friendly and Mr Upstairs.

Work on the waterfront is inherently dangerous to those who seek to confront the corruption, deceit and lies that protect and entrench the power of Johnny Friendly and his cohort. Indeed, Kazan deliberately opens with the death of Joey amid a wall of secrecy to show the dangers of “ratting”. That the men are psychologically entrapped by the perverted loyalty codes dooms them to a life of servitude and despair. Those like Joey, and Andy before him, and then Dugan become the true heroes in a film that privileges courage and honour. Likewise, Terry, takes up the fight after he realises the degree to which he has compromised his integrity. The earlier boxing match which he lost and the encounter with the beggar become metaphorical representations of Terry’s low self esteem and his loss of dignity and power. However, armed with love and spiritual guidance, he is determined to testify at the commission and brave the risks.

Some film techniques

  • Kazan depicts Johnny Friendly and his gang in pseudo-business attire to draw attention to a certain air of respectability that defies and conceals the extent of their entrenched corruption. As chief director, Johnny Friendly slaps anyone who questions his authority.
  • The dark and seedy interiors, such as the bar, reinforce Johnny Friendly’s power and aggression, while the dingy, shabby and cramped apartments highlight the workers’ desperation. Pa Doyle is one of the most desperate of the workers, caught because of his desire to support Edie’s education. He like many others are psychologically imprisoned by the “deaf and dumb code”. Anyone who breaks the code or is suspected of dubious loyalty is unlikely to receive a work token.
  • The competitive fight for the tokens on the wharf literally shows the “dog eat dog” environment that belittles and dehumanises the men. Kazan uses circus-like music to reinforce their animal-like behaviour as they become play-things of the bosses.
  • The rooftop symbolises Joey’s attraction to the birds; he becomes one of many pigeons outplayed by the hawks. The pigeon cages reflect the longshoremen’s inability to break out of their prison-like oppressive conditions on the wharf and their basic preoccupation with survival and existence. The hawks symbolically represent Johnny Friendly and his gang. The hawks ‘go down on pigeons’, which reflects the bosses’ philosophy of looking after their own interests.

Terry Malloy’s awakening

As Johnny Friendly’s fall guy, Terry follows instructions, lures Joey to his death, and is well-rewarded by a comfortable leisurely stay in the loft. However, he is uneasy and fidgety at the realisation that he betrayed his friend, who was, after all, seeking to uncover corruption.
Techniques: Kazan uses a range of cinematic devices such as shady lighting to emphasise Terry’s moral struggle. Terry seems uneasy about cheating people of their jobs and money and feels dejected about his friend’s death.
Symbols of entrapment abound such as ominous prison bars as Terry feels implicated in the death of his friend, who was about to testify at the Waterfront Crime Commission.

  • Terry’s nervous body language shows his uneasiness. He is constantly anxious, defensive and dismissive of anyone who asks about Joey and the circumstances of his death. He often avoids eye contact. Although a “slugger” and a ”bum” he does not appear comfortable with the mob. He thought they would only “lean on him a little bit”.
  • Terry, in contrast to others in Johnny’s gang, is dressed poorly and strangely, showing a big distinction between Johnny and Terry.
  • The encounter with the beggar: becomes a physical reflection of his psychological state of mind. He bumps into the begger after he has been “ratting” on the workers in the church. The beggar’s comments reveal that Terry knows more than he reveals to Edie. The beggar reflects Terry’s sense of worthlessness and shame.

Terry breaks the “deaf and dumb” code

When Edie asks him “whose side are you on” Terry does not answer. At first, he is loyal to the mob. He starts changing sides after he hears Father Barry’s sermon after Dugan’s death. Terry punches Tullio to stop him from throwing rubbish. The fact that he wishes to hear the end of Father Barry’s sermon signals a move from the mob.


  • Significantly, Terry’s attachment to Swiftly, who represents truth and fidelity, becomes a metaphor of his loyalty to Edie and Joey.
  • In a dramatic and pivotal scene, Terry confesses to Edie and breaks the deaf and dumb code. The director uses setting and positioning of characters to symbolise their moral stature. He positions both Terry and Edie in the distance on a hill, symbolically occupying the moral high ground, to emphasise the importance of Terry’s confession about his involvement in Joey’s death and to capture the change of his allegiances. Viewers cannot hear his dialogue, which is smothered by the blast of the coal ship in the port which suggests that the waterfront constantly dominates his life. This is disorienting for the audience. However, at the same time it forces viewers’ attention on the deep-focus camera shot of Edie’s face and witness her devastation and anguish. For example, there is a lot of white smoke in the background which appears like a halo around Terry, symbolizes his burst of honesty.

At the core of Terry’s moral conflict lie the competing loyalty codes that reflect the main protagonist’s moral awakening and struggle for justice. He struggles with his perverted sense of loyalty towards his brother and Johnny Friendly as well as with the fact that to break the ‘deaf and dumb’ code spells certain death. He is aware of the need for the protection of the “mob” and knows that he and Charley have benefited from its support.  Kazan deliberately opens the movie with the reference to Andy’s death and with Joey’s death from the roof top to depict the dangers of defying the mob’s power and betraying their ‘deaf and dumb’ codes. He laments the fact that Charley also betrayed him during the fight and he has forever been judged as  a “bum”, as literally symbolised by the encounter with the beggar outside the church. His increasing attachment to the pigeon Swiftly symbolises his obsession with loyalty, fidelity and commitment. His observation, “they get married, just like people” reflects his inspirational devotion to Edie.

Charley’s death

Charley tries to talk him out of “ratting” at the commission. He wants to believe that Terry’s stance is just the sign of a “confused kid”. However, Terry wants to make his own decisions and break away from the mob’s control. Terry’s dilemma is that he knows there will be serious consequences if Charley does not convince him to change his decision. The stakes are high. Charley states, “I will tell him (Johnny Friendly) that I couldn’t find you… ten to one he won’t believe me.”

  • Terry’s body language becomes more confident; his physical movement reflects his increasing moral stature.
  •  Terry is also motivated by a desire to prove himself worthy in Edie’s eyes and shrug off the label of the “bum”.
  •  Terry has the strength to tell Charley that he harbours a grudge because he was forced to lose the fight. Since that time, he knows that he has always sold his honour to the mob and blames Charley. Terry believes that Charley set him up for failure in life when he yielded to the demands of the mob. Terry states, “you should have looked after me a little.” Terry expresses his regrets. He states, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am”.

Setting/ technique:

  • The journey in the car that winds through a combination of dark and light settings reflects the dim encounter between Charley and Terry. As Charley desperately encourages Terry to take the ‘comfy job’ that will earn him ‘400 dollars a week’, close ups and shining street lights shine directly on Terry’s tortured face.
  • Sorrowful music adds sympathy to Terry’s exasperation at the lost opportunity to be ‘somebody’ and we are positioned to realize the significance of the dilemmas between the two brothers.

A moral victory

Terry’s decision to reveal the truth at the Commission has many repercussions, but firstly it shows how he gains in stature through adhering to his conscience. It leads to Johnny’s death because he failed to convince his brother to stay loyal. In the cab scene, the halo of shining light predicts Terry’s decision to adhere to his conscience. This then leads to his final confrontation with Friendly, as he wants to settle his “rights”. Terry’s conscience becomes evident throughout the film whenever a character dies for trying to break the “D&D” principle. Rather than escape or disappear at Edie’s behest, Terry seeks to claim his rights. He has done nothing wrong and so believes he must “go down there and get my rights”. He finally overturns the label of the bum. He becomes a contender, not because he necessarily has a chance of winning, or will profit from his stance against the mob, but because he will regain his dignity and enable him to win Edie’s affection. His stance against the mob becomes a personal victory, whereby Terry abides by his conscience.


Charley gradually realises that his duty to the mob caused him to neglect his responsibility to his brother and, remorsefully, he makes the ultimate sacrifice. The butcher’s hook becomes a symbol of the price he has to pay to save Terry. Depicted as a Christ-like figure, Kazan shows that redemption, even for the antagonist, is possible. Despite his anguish, he hands over the gun to Terry sealing the death warrant of Charley, “the Gent” Malloy.

Father Barry

s self worth is important. does he risk his life by speaking out against a larger and stronger force, or live the rest of his life with a guilty secret harboured deep in his heart. The priest constantly empowers the congregation with moral superiority and Father Barry urges Terry and the workers to tell the truth, otherwise, they will live a tortured existence with a cowardly soul.

  • As a priest, Father Barry believes in a glorious afterlife, but only for those who have done their best to cleanse their souls. This conversation foreshadows Terry’s final explosion on the docks in which he reclaims his conscience and forges an individual identity: “I been rattin’ on myself all these years.”
  • Father Barry intercepts Terry at a critical time after Charley’s death. Terry seeks revenge and yet Father Barry encourages him to fight with the truth. The calm and persistent priest meets him at the bar and explains that if he were to confront Friendly by himself, he would be killed and Friendly would “plead for self-defence”. Instead, he invokes Terry to “fight him in the courtroom with the truth”. This idea is instantly drilled into Terry’s mind.

The “Sermon on the Mount”
The sermon delivered by Father Barry after Dugan’s death on the docks plays a pivotal role in both Father Barry’s and Terry’s redemption. Father Barry shows he has the courage to inspire the workers and delivers his sermon as a direct moral challenge to Johnny Friendly’s power. Kazan uses a high to low camera angle which exposes Father Barry’s vulnerability as the longshoremen humiliate him and pelt him with food. Kazan depicts Johnny Friendly and the mobsters looking down the hatch. Despite his vulnerability, Father Barry also appears invincible as he delivers a stirring sermon which revolves around the theme of injustice. Three times he emphasises “it’s a crucifixion” to highlight how Joey’s death, dropping a crate on Dugan and burying good men are wrong. He clearly uses religious overtones and parallels to describe the importance of their sacrifice.

Edie Doyle
Because of her moral simplicity and her single-minded pursuit of the truth and justice for her brother, Joey, Edie helps Terry follow his conscience and prioritise values such as justice and loyalty. ”

  • Edie’s innocent, angelic soul reinforced by her blonde hair, starched-white clothes and gloves, helps Terry to reclaim his conscience, ‘she’s the first nice thing that’s ever happened to me’. She constantly tells Terry that ‘things are so wrong,’ and that everyone ought to show compassion and concern. After all, ‘isn’t everyone part of everybody else?’

Pigeon imagery throughout the film

  • The roof setting and the pigeon cage reflect Terry’s desire for freedom and rejuvenation. The pigeons symbolise the longshoremen who are trapped. Throughout the film the pigeons are a symbol or motif and function as a metaphor of the Union’s power structure.
  •  The pigeons are weak and inferior and yet they have the capacity to be loyal and faithful. This gives them moral superiority. The pigeons are also trapped in cages and let out only at the whim of their owners. This is also a metaphor of how the bosses control and entrap the workers.
  • The hawks are identified with Johnny Friendly and the bosses. The hawks “go right down on pigeons” and mirror the bosses’ philosophy of each one looking after his own interest.
  • Swiftly is one of Terry’s favourites because he does not let the other birds take his place. He explains that he is faithful, like people should be. Swiftly also shows that there is hierarchy among the pigeons as well. This becomes a metaphor of Terry’s fidelity to Edie and Joey.
  • Terry states that the pigeons are “faithful. They get married, just like people.” This shows his desire for a relationship based on love and trust
  • Dugan is referred to as a “crummy pigeon”.
  • Although the birds are eventually killed, Terry takes over their moral superiority when he summons the courage to confront the Union and remain true to Edie and Joey.
  • Tommy destroys the pigeons after Terry testifies at the Commission as a signal of death. He states a “pigeon for a pigeon”.  His comments highlight the danger of breaking the deaf and dumb code of allegiance. It is a sign that betraying the mob ushers in death. It is designed to morally wound Terry.

See Sample Essay plans and models: Edie Doyle is by far the most powerful agent of change in ‘On the Waterfront.’ Do you agree?

The film ‘On the Waterfront’ directed by Eilia Kazan is set in 1950’s Hoboken, New Jersey and depicts the oppressive social environment of the post-depression period in the industrial waterfront suburb. Controlled by the tight grip of organised crime, men were selected daily to work on the dock, and to secure their job and own safety. Blind obedience is the norm until the main characters, Edie, Terry and Father Barry start to influence and encourage those around them to agitate and seek change. Edie Doyle plays a significant role in providing the initial inspiration to the main protagonist Terry as he seeks to withstand the pressure of the mob. In addition, Father Barry becomes an even more significant character because of his role in challenging the longshoremen to value justice and fairness. As a result of their collective power, the waterfront is transformed.


  1. On the Waterfront: a comparison with Macbeth
  2. For excellence in Language Analysis: Arguments and Persuasive Language

By Dr Jennifer Minter, On the Waterfront, VCE Study Notes,  English Works, (www.englishworks.com.au)

Others simply revisit the film to study its significance in film history and the impact of Brando’s method acting. Pauline Kael recognized strong Christian symbolism in the plot and looked at the film from a religious point of view. Among other things a lawsuit filed against Columbia pictures in 1955 revealed that the film was also a true story based on Anthony De Vincenzo who with the aid of waterfront priest John M. Corridan blew the whistle against the corruption imposed by real life mobster Albert Anastasia.

The way I see it, all the above facts tell the story behind the film. It’s a shame that the religious, socio-political or historical agendas that went on behind the curtains eclipse every other essay written about this great story. So I tried to strip everything I read and learned about the film from my mind and study it with fresh eyes. It’s almost impossible to do so, yet I managed to see the film in a new light. The one film essay that occupied my thoughts during my attempt to recapture a first viewing is Roger Ebert’s brilliant “Raging Bull” review. Both films are black and white motion pictures with boxers as protagonists. Another thing they share in common is the fact that in both movies gangsters cast their greedy shadows influencing and manipulating the outcome of boxing matches. Nonetheless, on a cinematic level they couldn’t be more different, or so I thought. The only direct connection they share is the referenced “I could’ve been a contender” quote, but through Roger’s essay I discovered a new angle to “On the Waterfront.”

In my personal favorite film review, Roger points out that “Raging Bull” is not about boxing at all but rather about “a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution”. In other words, the film appears to be about boxing on the surface, but on a deeper level it is about something entirely different. It is no coincidence that I kept thinking about his words during my latest “On the Waterfront” viewing, for it also is a film that hides behinds a genre–only, unlike “Raging Bull,” it’s the other way around. Think about it, “On the Waterfront” doesn’t quite fit in as a gangster picture the same way “Raging Bull” doesn’t feel like a boxing film. Even though there’s not a single scene where sluggers dance around within the confines of a ring, Kazan’s film is in fact a boxing film in disguise.

The film starts off with Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) trying to get Joey Doyle to meet him on the roof after having found one of his lost pigeons. We learn that Joey is wanted by the mob but he goes up the roof nevertheless. We sense he trusts Terry. Unfortunately the whole act turns out to be a set-up. Gangsters throw him off the roof to his demise. We see Terry’s reaction as he stands on the sidewalk next to his brother Charley and two other gangsters. Clearly Terry is upset. “I thought they was gonna talk to him and get him to dummy up. I figured the worst they was gonna do is lean on him a little bit,” he tells his brother. We later learn that this wasn’t the first time Charley used his kid brother for his own benefit.

Gradually we witness Terry struggling to pick a side. No other actor could better express a slow and continuing character change as Brando. When he learns about Doyle, Brando plays with his jacket zipper and we suspect something is troubling his mind. Brando’s use of body language in “On the Waterfront” is as clear as the expressive acting of the silent era. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly he changes as several people contribute to him taking a stand against the mob. Joey’s Doyle’s sister, for one, plays an important role in this transformation for she feeds his guilt.

They first meet on what seems to be like any other day on the waterfront. Two detectives mingle in the crowd asking for Terry Malloy. When they finally spot him, one of them asks Terry about his boxing days to which Terry replies, “Ok. Ok. Without the bird seed, what do you want?”

They start asking about Joey, since Terry was the last one to see him before his death. A longshoreman’s hook rests on Terry’s shoulder while he gives them nothing they could work with; the hook of course symbolizes being hooked in a corrupt system. Afterward Terry looks to one of his friends and says “How do you like them mutts taking me for a pigeon?” A whistle blows and the men gather up around one of the gang members who’s about to pick the workers of the day. The longshoremen are desperate. They start begging and pushing, the man finally gives up and throws the tabs on the floor. Dozens of men scramble fighting for the tabs like pigeons would react to bird seeds on the ground. Oh, the irony.

Anyway, Terry meets Edie there and after he learns that she’s Joey’s sister he gives her his tab. The more time he spends with her the guiltier he feels. Notice how during those scenes Terry is wearing a checkered wool jacket. His entire presence changes throughout the film; the costume design is deliberate with two contrasting colors representing the conflict within him. Eventually Terry wears Joey’s jacket. It’s plain because by then he has already picked a side.

This leads me to another important character in this film, Father Barry. Father Barry (Karl Malden) pushes Terry a step further during one his speeches. He goes on and on trying to convince the longshoremen to act. Meanwhile, we see a change occurring in Terry’s eyes. When one of the mob members attempts to throw something at the priest, Terry knocks him out. The way Father Barry words his speech is almost like he indirectly wants to spark that fire in Terry. He uses words a boxer could identify with. “What they did to Joey, what they did to Nolan, they’re doing to you. And you. And YOU. And only you, with God’s help, have the power to knock ’em off for good!” Terry needs the priest like a boxer needs a trainer.

As much as Edie and Father Barry influence Terry’s actions to finally take a stand, I believe it’s his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) who finally pushes him over. In one of the most iconic acting scenes in cinema, Terry meets his brother in a cab. Charley pulls a gun on his brother and for the third time he tries to force his own brother into doing something he’d rather not. Terry pushes the gun away in disappointment. “Charley, Charley, Charley,” he says in a heartbreaking tone. His brother, realizing what he has done, rests his head in shame. I think this is the precise moment when Terry decides to face the mob. He fiddles with a piece of dust on his leg. “Oh, Charley.”

Throughout the film you can sense an awkward uncomfortable chemistry between the brothers and it all comes down to this scene. Both Brando and Steiger bare their souls here. Great acting scenes rarely live up to their hype but every single time I watch this scene, the pain that pours out of both of them never fails to move me. As mentioned before this is where we learn how Charley first selfishly used his brother in the past.

“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night!’ My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.” Terry finally opens up and tells his brother how that made him feel and ends his powerful speech with “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.”

Charley can’t even look him in the eye during all this. Both shameful and heartbroken he accepts Terry’s decision. Terry isn’t the only one who comes out of the cab incident a changed man. I always saw Charley as an overlooked character for this is his redeeming moment. Charley hands his brother a gun before dropping him off. He’s looking out for his kid brother and as we later learn, it’s more than just a “little bit”, for Charley sacrifices his own life for Terry.

When Terry tries to avenge his brother’s death it’s the priest who saves him and directs him like a trainer would in a ring corner. “Don’t fight him like a hoodlum down here in the jungle. That’s just what he wants. He’ll hit you in the head and plead self-defense. Fight him tomorrow in the courtroom” Terry testifies against the mob but loses everyone. Yet, he still finds the courage to go to the waterfront the next day. He lifts the longshoreman hook on his shoulder and throws it at the closed door of Johnny Friendly’s office symbolizing his liberation. One thing leads to another and before you know it they’re fighting one another. After the other hoodlums aid their boss, it’s too much for Terry and he gets knocked down. This is the championship match he longed for. Thousands of longshoremen are watching like boxing fans gathered around a ring. It’s Terry’s only chance to prove he’s not a bum.

The priest comes as a trainer would at such a critical moment, “You hear that, Terry? Terry, did you hear that? You lost the battle but you have a chance to win the war. All you gotta do is walk… Johnny Friendly is layin’ odds that you won’t get up.” This is the last round in a boxing match. Everyone is tense waiting to see if he has it in him to stand back on his feet.

Terry struggles to get back on his feet but eventually he manages to do it. When someone tries to help him walk, the priest yells “Leave him alone. Take your hands off him. Leave him alone.” Terry has to survive this walk on his own. Eventually Terry proves himself no bum bringing an end to the reign of corruption on the waterfront. Terry Malloy’s a contender, he’s somebody and he most certainly has class.

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