On The Waterfront is considered by many to be one of the greatest films in American history. It contained superb acting from the likes of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Eva Marie Saint, but something that may be overlooked by viewers is the great job the director, Elia Kazan, did.
Kazan employed different types of camera shots and editing joins in the movie. When Terry went to tell Edie that he’d been the one that turned Joey over to be killed, Kazan first used a dolly shot, following Father Barry as Terry ran down to meet Edie. Then there were multiple cuts between the faces of the three characters, as well as the boat that was in the distance. Kazan used the boat’s horn to drown out the conversation between Terry and Edie, forcing the two to use facial expressions to convey what was going on—a true measure of acting ability, in my opinion. It also forced the audience to use their imagination, something that I find engaging. The music in the movie was also used interestingly. In the scene where Terry and Edie were in the park, we could hear a little bit of low, lighthearted music in the background. However, it was somewhat overshadowed by the sounds from all around the neighborhood, like car horns and the wind blowing. It was like Terry felt at ease with Edie, and yet he couldn’t be totally carefree with her because there were other things hanging over him. Later on, though, it seemed that that dynamic changed. In the scene leading up to the kiss between Terry and Edie, the music was frantic as she was adamantly demanding him to leave her alone, but then when they kissed, all the sound totally disappeared. It showed that when Terry was actually with Edie, everything else ceased to matter. I thought that the music was utilized very effectively, helping show some development in the story.
Since the movie was made in 1954, slang that is no longer common now was used. Some of it had to do with ethnicity, such as “potato-eater”—a term for an Irish person. A lot of it, however, had to do with snitches. “Cheese-eater,” “pigeon,” and “canary,” were all used to imply that someone was a rat—that they’d sell the gangsters out to the police. Pigeons, however, seemed to have a real significance in the movie. A pigeon was someone who was a snitch, and Terry did eventually snitch on the gang, but Terry had a real relationship with pigeons. They seemed to be his biggest getaway—it seemed like the pigeon coop on the rooftops was his home. In such a religious movie, where once can take Terry to be an embodiment of Jesus, it’s arguable that pigeons symbolized Terry’s spirit. They lived up on the rooftops and they had the ability to fly high, but were trained not to. Terry was a talented boxer back in his youth, but was forced to take a dive and basically never reach his full potential, much like these pigeons.
The scene in the car between Terry and Charlie was iconic. The director kept the camera close up on the two, showing their every interaction. The acting was brilliant; both characters showed true emotion. Charlie was trying to coerce Terry into taking a job and leaving. He pulled a gun on him, but it was obvious that he didn’t want to shoot his brother. Terry, meanwhile, pointed out that Charlie cost him his shot at becoming a big-name fighter—that Charlie owed him. The dialogue and acting were done perfectly, showing the conflict both men felt, giving us a truly emotional scene.
Alcohol was one of the focuses of the movie. Whiskey was a favorite of the working class people, namely K.O., while Terry and Father Barry liked to drink beer. However, Father Barry also enjoyed whiskey. This was likely a reference to the stereotype of Irishmen being fond of drinking any type of alcohol. The main difference between the whiskey drinkers and the beer drinkers seemed to be one of class, but it also seemed to highlight a difference in spirituality. Terry carried the burden of the workers—he was the Jesus-figure in this movie. The fact that he shared a beer with Father Barry, then, seems very fitting. Jesus himself drank wine, so beer was probably the substitute for that in this movie.
This movie is a staple in American cinematic history, and rightfully so. The overall story was great, as the movie was filled with deeper meanings and it was punctuated with excellent acting and directorial editing.