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On the Waterfront is one of the most powerful films of the 20th century. Elia Kazan, the director of the movie, perfects every aspect that can be put into the mise-en-scene to make this movie as moving as it is. The actors and actresses put their heart and soul into every single line to make us feel every struggle and pain the characters feel. All of this comes together to create one of the greatest films of all time.
The mise-en-scene in On the Waterfront comes together flawlessly to make the movie very realistic and emotive. The setting of the movie is extremely important to the overall effect of the movie; rather than use a set and create a fake shipyard, for example, Kazan makes use of a genuine shipyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, and uses normal clothes as costumes. Dark, dimly lit scenes, such as the scene where Terry and Edie are running down the alleyway while being chased by a truck, are made especially powerful by their lighting. By making the scene have a low key light, Kazan creates a high contrast with lots of shadows that heightens the ominous mood. The focus is placed on the headlights from the car chasing them, creating a lot of suspense for the audience, until the car passes and the focus is immediately shifted onto Terry’s brother Charlie, hanging on the wall. All of these emotions are enhanced throughout the film by the dramatic musical score by Leonard Bernstein, which establishes feelings of suspense, to feelings of achievement at the end of the film. Kazan creates the perfect atmosphere to literally “set the stage” for the film.
The dialogue in this film also adds to the true emotions and realism of the film. The phrases chosen in the script are period accurate; the characters use normal slang and language rather than specialized fancy dialogue. Soon after Joey is introduced to the audience by Terry saying that he had one of his birds, Joey gets thrown off the roof. He gets called a canary, which means that he testified and “sang like a canary” against the corrupt bosses. He told on them, but “…he couldn’t fly.” In the next scene, Mr. Friendly (who has a very ironic name, but there’s no room to go into that right now,) calls the late Joey a “cheese-eater,” implying that he was a rat. This kind of intimidation and exploitation of anyone who followed their conscience and did the right thing was the reason why so many workers kept “D&D,” and acted like there was nothing wrong with what was going on.
Pigeons were especially important and symbolic in the movie. They were used to symbolize the workers who informed the juries on the corrupt actions of the bosses. These workers were called stool pigeons, who stooled on their “friends.” Before the church meeting, Charlie explains, “Stooling is when you rat on your friends. Johnny wants a favor, don’t think about it, just do it.” The workers were trained to keep deaf and dumb when it came to the bosses’ actions; since it didn’t directly affect them, they were trained not to say a word so nothing would happen to them. The pigeons also have another symbolic value. They are waiting to fly and know that they are meant to fly away, but they are kept up in a cage and trained not to do what they are meant to do, just as the workers know what is right, but are trained not to rat on anyone.
The scene in the car with Terry and Charlie is one of the most famous movie scenes of the 20th century. The close up camera angles capture Terry and Charlie’s expressions, while the sad music adds to the heart wrenching emotion of the scene. Charlie insists for Terry to take the job and keep quiet to make decent money. Meanwhile, Terry knows it is the right thing to do to tell the jury about the corrupt actions of Friendly. Charlie urges his brother to just take the job and ignore what is right to keep a steady life for himself, but when the camera uses a close up shot to just place Terry’s face into it, we see Terry’s emotions as the light strings play a minor arrangement and we hear his story about how he could’ve been something if his brother had encouraged him to fight for himself, literally and symbolically.
Whiskey and beer have important significance in the film. When workers died for doing what they believed was right, they were acting as martyrs. Jesus died so that we could be saved from our sins, and shed his blood to give us freedom and eternal life. The drinks symbolize freedom and communion. When Charlie is found dead, Terry and the priest share a beer, symbolizing drinking the blood of Jesus, and symbolizing the freedom that Charlie died for. K.O. says that all he wants is some whiskey in the beginning of the film, and is later crushed by cases of it, ironically, as if he is being crushed by the freedom he craved and went after.
The music, cinematography, dialogue, and emotion that come into play in the film all join together to create a masterpiece that became one of the most iconic films of the 20th century.
On the Waterfront Analysis
Some would agree that what makes a film great is it’s ability to slyly and effectively relay an important and strong message. It doesn’t need to be said outright, and many times the viewer won’t even see it coming. But when the film ends, it hits you, and you’re taken aback. On the Waterfront is one of those movies, and it has the wonderful use of metaphors, and of course, the general use of mise-en-scene, to thank.
A trend that is quite apparent when watching this movie is the constant mention of birds with a negative connotation. For example, in the beginning of the film when Joey dies, a comment is made about him being a canary. A fellow union worker says, “Maybe he can sing, but he can’t fly.” Although you could take this line as a reference to the fact that he couldn’t fly to save himself from falling off the roof, it also seems plausible that he’s saying that although he could talk and tell of the gang’s criminal behavior, he could not run from them. A canary is therefore someone who tells on, betrays, or exposes others. Cheese-eater is another term used to represent the same thing. Pigeons are also mentioned and starred in the film. The way in which the word is used implies that aside from being a bird, a pigeon can also be a person that is easily tricked, manipulated or convinced. Terry is accused of being a pigeon in the film, which seems suitable considering how much time and care he puts into them. His talk about a fear that hawks will attack his pigeons in their coop seems to represent his fear of going against Friendly and his gang, along with his overall vulnerability. Lastly, the use of a wide shot to film the scene where the men are waiting to get work at the dock, portrays the men resembling birds as they all flock into work while also picking at and fight for the tokens needed to get in for that day.
The film seemed to go back and forth between wide range shots and close-ups. The more intimate scenes, such as when brothers Terry and Charlie have their last conversation on the way to what was supposed to be Terry’s murder, as well as Edie and Terry’s date which consisted of deep conversation, were shot close up. In the end, when beat up Terry struggles to end the reign of Johnny and the corruption that accompanied him by walking over to the entrance to work, the screen shot goes back and forth from a close up of him to one of his fellow workers, which seemed to make it all that much more dramatic. The lighting was also important to the film’s interpretation. It was never very bright in any of the scenes, and there always seemed to be a thick fog whenever the characters were outside. It may in fact be representative of the shadiness going on in the town, as well as all of the corruption and secrets. The sound effects also add to this by giving off a feeling of mystery. The movie is filmed in black and white, which could go along with the view of the gang and it’s leaders who believed you were either their ally or their enemy. This black and white effect also helps the viewers concentrate on the dialogue and facial expressions, as it seems to do in most cases. Something about the set/scene that is worth mentioning is the view of New York City from the docks, which can be taken as an escape from the corrupt town they are living in. The way it is placed in the distance is like saying that this better place is so close yet so far.
Alcohol is also seen repeatedly in the film and seems to have a less apparent contribution to the film. Power is what seems to be associated with alcohol in a majority of the scenes. Johnny and his gang hold meetings in the back of a bar, K.O. get’s a shipment of whiskey dropped on him which shows that the gang is more powerful and can destroy anyone that thinks of going against them, and Edie is drinking her first beer with Terry on their first date which shows her slowly giving in to him. In addition, even the priest orders a beer after successfully convincing Terry to fight Johnny in court. The whiskey in the film is connected to the country of Ireland, which is where many of the workers on the dock are most likely from. The term potato-eater that is used in the film supports this, by referring to those from Ireland who have the reputation of eating a lot of potatoes.
The scene between Charlie and Terry riding in the car together would not have been as famous as it was without details such as the acting, filming, and dialogue. The scene takes place in a close up shot, which helps relay the emotion that exists in this conversation. The sad and slow music also adds to this and let’s the viewers know that this is a scene full of sadness, regret, and letdown. During this scene, there are not many times where Terry and Charlie look at each other in the eyes, which makes the characters’ feeling of disappointment and regret more profound. Terry, saying that he could have been someone instead of the bum that he calls himself, shows that he had the chance to live his dream but instead he let it pass by. He is now left to deal with realization that it’s too late and that a mistake was made. This is something that can be relatable to a majority of people, because unfortunately, people always find a reason to let go of their dreams, forget the importance of them, or let others tear them down. Charlie on the other hand comes to see Terry’s point and begins to realize that he didn’t serve his little brother well. He then agrees that the least he can do is cut his brother some slack and therefore lets him go at his own expense.
With the abundance of metaphors and well thought out mise-en-scene, it is no wonder On the Waterfront has gained recognition as one of the great American films.
Jaclyn Trotta HON 121 Seminar: Arts in New York December 5, 2012
On The Waterfront
On The Waterfront is a drama film directed by Elia Kazan in 1954. It is considered one of America’s most valued films. The mise-en-scène, the language, the symbolism, and the directing of scenes were all incorporated together to make the movie a great form of entertainment.
Mise-en-scène is the arrangement of scenery and properties to represent the place where a movie is enacted. It was used in this movie to give a certain appeal or emotion to the audience. It also helps to foreshadow certain scenes and give information to the audience as well. On The Waterfront was filmed in black in white as opposed to color, which can help the audience determine the time frame in which the movie was set. The lighting in this film is also very important. There is a lot of dark lighting used in this film, which produces many shadows to represent the eeriness and the corruption occurring in the plot of the movie. However, Edie is always shown in lighter lighting to represent the goodness and morality in the movie. This difference in lighting is a way for the directors to represent the difference between good and evil in the film. The costumes, just like the color of the film, also help determine the time period in which the movie was set. Since it took place in the 1950s, many women wore cotton dresses and had their hair in waves while the men wore trench coats and fedoras.
Since the movie was set in the 1950s, the use of language is very different from what would be used in a movie today in 2012. When they used the word cheese-eater it often referred to someone who rats out what other people are doing. Johnny friendly used this term to describe Joey Doyle who got Friendly in trouble with the crimes commission. The word potato-eater is used to describe someone who is of Irish descent. For example, Father Barry referred to himself as a potato-eater. The word canary is used to describe a person who is against and talks about the corrupt ways of the union. This word was used to describe Joey Doyle who was going against the corruption of Jonny Friendly. The word pigeon was brought up many times in this film. In this movie it described someone who is faithful. Terry is often described as a pigeon due to his faithfulness to Johnny Friendly throughout the movie. Pigeons are a loyal bird and just like pigeons, Terry and the other union workers were loyal to Johnny Friendly. There was also the use of the word “stool pigeon” which has a negative meaning. Unlike a pigeon that is loyal, a stool pigeon is described as a tattletale or someone who goes against someone else. At the end of the film, Terry is described as a stool pigeon because he finally went up against Johnny Friendly.
The most famous scene is when Terry and his brother Charley are in the taxi towards the end the movie. This scene is probably one of the most well known scenes in all American movies due to the great combination of dialogue, acting, and the use of the camera. The dialogue in this scene is somewhat tense. Terry disagrees with Charley’s involvement in the corruption of the union while Charley is trying to get his brother to think otherwise. They both want the best for each other, however, through different means. The acting in this scene involves a lot of body language, high-toned voices, and facial expressions filled with disgust. Since the scene was depicting a rivalry between two brothers, their tones were filled with resentment. They often got very close to each other ‘s faces and bodies while they were speaking to emphasize their anger with each other, especially when Charley held a gun to Terry. The camera was used in this scene to focus the attention on the interaction between Terry and Charley. When body language was important in the scene, the director would place the camera where the whole body was shown. If the facial expression was important, then the director would zoom onto one or both of their faces. The camera would also not only show the actor when he was speaking, but would also show the reaction of the other actor while he was being spoken to.
Throughout the film, there is a lot of consumption of alcohol. The significance of the alcohol in this film is to symbolize the immorality and corruption that is occurring. One way in which this is shown is in the scene where Terry takes Edie out. When he buys her a shot of whiskey, it symbolizes the bad corrupting the good. Another example of how alcohol represents corruption and immorality is when Father Barry goes against his chastity obligations and drinks alcohol. This also shows the corruption of religion and the church during that time as well. In the film, they also describe the whiskey as Irish whiskey. Therefore, this can also represent the value of alcohol in Irish culture.
On The Waterfront is one of America’s greatest movies of all time. The film won many awards during its time all thanks to the intricate use of mise-se-scène and the ideas of Elia Kazan. The mix of incredible acting and well thought directing created a masterpiece that will be viewed for many years to come.
On the Waterfront
No color? No problem. At least not for the cinematic experience of watching the film, “On the Water Front”, anyway. This black and white film was one of the most intriguing and interesting films ever. I’ve always been a sucker for gangster movies, and this one did not fail.
Unlike “Manhattan”, the Woody Allen film, I feel this movie would have been better if filmed in color, but it was created at a much earlier time, so color was probably much more rare in films. Maybe there was a bigger reason that went over my head, but I feel the color would have expanded the feeling of the film. The camera zooming, however, stayed true to the times. In older films, the camera seems to focus on both people in a conversation, and staying until neither is speaker, while in newer films, it will flash back and forth between the two. This occurs especially in the famous scene with Charlie and Terry Malloy in the backseat of the car. The camera stays focused not too close, but enough to have them both be the center of attention, for the duration of their conversation. The background music, by famous American Composer Leonard Bernstein, was vital, especially in the opening scene.
The speech in this film, although it took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, was almost indescribably similar to that of Brooklyn. All of the heavy, old school Italian accents really brought it out. Maybe to me, but that’s just my opinion. The vocabulary that these “ayyye fuhhgeddabout” accents used though was nothing like modern vocabulary. The characters, which were predominantly adults, barely cursed or swore. Although there were a few choice words thrown in here and there (which I am told was already extremely edgy), the words were mostly censored. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely not elegant, but it wasn’t like a modern film, where people would be saying much more explicit things.
There was an interesting use of slang, with words such as “Cheese-eater”. This would probably be equivalent to a modern day, “bum”, or “scum” (no rhyme scheme intended!). It was also quite common to be compared to an animal, especially birds. One of the most common was to be called a canary, which meant you were a “squeal”, or you couldn’t keep your mouth shut. I imagine it is because canaries are famous for their singing, and the singing was a metaphorical equivalent to “blabbing”, or squealing.
Not to skip around, but if we take a little return to the scene between Terry and Charlie, for a little more in-depth analysis, we can truly go in to why it was one of the most famous and memorable moments from this movie. Lets start off with the line “I coulda been a contenda’”, said by Terry. It clearly is a reference to his fighting days, when he was forced to lose so his brother and Johnny Friendly’s crew could win a bet. It killed him inside, and this line was said in this scene, for Charlie was telling him that Johnny Friendly and his crew were forcing him to do something against his will again. This time, they wanted him to lie in court. You could see the discomfort in Terry Malloy’s face, and the urgency in Charlie’s. The acting was so realistic, especially when Charlie pulled his gun on Terry. It was so obvious that Charlie did not want to be doing so, and the way Terry gently shoved it away was just so realistic. They portrayed the scene as a very intimate moment between two brothers.
On to the topic of being drunk. Only kidding, but I am going to discuss the concept of alcohol in this film. Whiskey and beer primarily. I felt they represented a surrender of suspicions and tensions, as in the scene between Terry and Edie, when he first takes her out. As she drinks, she becomes less and less suspicious and wary of Terry, and more open and affectionate towards him. Then, they start discussing her philosophy, in comparison to Terry’s. Her mindset consisted of “Everybody cares for one another”, in comparison to his “Do it to him before he can do it to you.” It really shows the extremes of these characters, brought about by the alcohol
There really is no way to end a paper on this film that does it justice. With all the little details, intricate character development, interesting symbolism, and just fantastic plot, it truly was one of my favorite movies I have ever seen. This black and white romantic mobster movie intertwined the two aspects of the tough guy with a rough past, and the beautiful lass with a heart of gold, with immaculate precision.