A.Krauza- On the Waterfront

In the awarding winning American classic On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan gave viewers a glimpse into the painstaking life that existed for longshoremen on the docks of the Hoboken waterfront. Each day, they struggled to free themselves from the mobsters that controlled their livelihood. Following the longshoremen through their journey against hardship, corruption and scandal, Kazan demonstrated directorial brilliance in the mise-en-scène he employed.

The opening extreme long shot introduced both the mobster union delegates and the vast waterfront, as Leonard Bernstein’s ominous musical score played in the background. This musical piece became indicative of impending conflict in future scenes. The camera shots throughout the film were basic, consisting mostly of mid-range close-ups of two character conversations and wide shots to include the background and multiple characters. The lighting appeared to be natural, without the addition of artificial sources. The dimly lit cargo “hole”, bar, apartments and alleyways represented the dark dismal places they actually were to the characters.

The movie was filmed in black-and-white in keeping with the time period and tone of the storyline. Color would have been too vibrant, cheerful and distracting. In addition, it was filmed on location, not a set, for authenticity. The characters wore the same costumes throughout the film, making them easily identifiable. The only significant costume change was the passing of Doyle’s jacket to Dugan, and then to Terry in the final scene. Wearing the jacket symbolized Terry’s willingness to finally stand up for his principles.

Dialogue in the film included an excessive use of slang. Slang was used to identify the longshoremen as their own sub-culture, with a particular vocabulary they used amongst their peers. “Potato-eater” was a negative ethnic reference to an Irishman, which many of the dock workers were. “Cheese-eater,” “canary,” and “rat” all signified someone who would become an informant against their own group. “Pigeons,” however, had multiple meanings. Terry found his escape caring for the pigeons on the rooftop. They symbolized the life of a longshoreman: sleep, eat, fly like crazy, stay loyal until death, but remain caged under someone else’s control (the mob). He identified with them. According to Terry, pigeons would always fall victim to the hawks that swoop down from overhead. Pigeon was also a negative reference to a “stool pigeon,” another slang term for an informant. Ironically, Terry used a pigeon to lure Doyle to the roof, and to his death.

Alcohol, especially whiskey and beer, played a significant role throughout the film. The powerful mobsters worked out of the back room of a bar. Whenever they held a meeting, a bottle was visible on the table. Dugan, an Irishman, wished for a shipment of good whiskey to unload, and finally received his wish. He happily stole and stashed a bottle in his jacket. Ultimately, the Irish whiskey killed him, as the boxes “accidentally” crashed down on him. Beer was the drink of the commoners. On at least two occasions, Father Barry drank with the longshoremen. This signified that the priest, although religious, was one of them. In addition, Edie drank for the first time on a “date” with Terry. In this case, drinking symbolized her loss of innocence from her good Catholic upbringing.

The famous car scene between Terry and Charlie Malloy was filmed to cinematic perfection. The two men sat close together in the cramped back seat. For most of the scene, both men were visible, with the over-the-shoulder camera angle shifting to capture facial reactions. Close-up shots of the individual characters were used at points when each character showed their vulnerability and accepted their fate. Charlie played nervously with his glove, leaving his right hand the only part of him uncovered and exposed.  Their conversation was simple and emotional. Both men sat calmly, without making any aggressive physical moves toward the other. The bright lights of the passing car headlights highlighted the emotion and uneasiness on their faces, fading in and out of the darkness. All of these elements combined made this scene perfection.

The mise-en-scène Elia Kazan employed in On the Waterfront was film-making at its best. His choice of set location, camera shots, lighting, editing, acting and score were brilliant. It is no wonder that this film is regarded as one of the great ones of American cinema.