December 5, 2012
On the Waterfront
The film “On the Waterfront” is considered to be one of the classic American films of the twentieth century. Elia Kazan used various artistic choices, such as camera angle, music, lighting and blocking to create the mise en scène of the film. All of his directorial decisions gave the camera a point of view on the characters, and created an underlying symbolism, which promotes the plot.
The camera angle in the film played a large role in demonstrating the characters’ growth. When the movie first starts we see Terry on the street yelling up at Joey to come up to the roof. In this scene we see a low angle shot looking up at Joey in the window, and a high angle shot looking down on Terry. This symbolically establishes Joey’s high moral character in comparison to Terry. This idea of the camera looking up to characters that are not afraid to stand up to Johnny, and looking down on those who are scared into submission is continued throughout the film. There are low angle shots looking up at Edie and the priest and high angle shots looking down on the men when they are on the docks waiting for work. This point of view of the camera also reinforces Terry’s growth as a character. For most of the film he is seen in high angle shots, or straight on, but when he finally decides to stand up to the mob, after finding Charlie’s body, we see the first low angle shot looking up at him. He has decided to take a stand, and the camera angle changes to show this new perspective. The low angle shot on Terry, as he walks down the alley with a gun in this hand demonstrates that he is not going to sit deaf and dumb like he has thus far.
In addition to the camera angle, the blocking also played a large role in demonstrating the emotional and moral state of the characters. Whenever we see Terry with the mob, he is positioned so that his face is obstructed. There are multiple times when we can only see his back as the other characters move around him. This character position represents Terry’s shame in being involved in the mob. In addition to representing Terry’s feelings, blocking plays a role in demonstrating the relationship between Edie and Terry. When Edie and Terry start to have feelings for each other, there is a barrier between them because Edie is unaware that Terry played a role in Joey’s murder. This is demonstrated with the physical barrier of the gate on the pigeon coop. Edie stands on one side of the fence while Terry stands on the other side. After Terry tells her the truth and has stood up to Johnny the barrier is removed. Edie goes to Terry on the roof after the trial and runs around the gate. The obstacle is removed when he helps her avenge Joey’s death.
Along with the symbolic positions of the characters, Kazan used animals and liquor as predominant symbols in this film. The idea of a stool pigeon, someone who rats on someone else is at the foreground of this film. Joey was going to testify in court against the mob, and Terry uses the homing pigeon to lure him up to the roof. After Joey dies and Terry realizes what he has done, one of the mob members says, “He (Joey) could sing, but he couldn’t fly.” Later in the film, after Terry testifies in court, he returns to find all of the birds in Joey’s coup killed. Tommy, who has looked up to him the entire film throws one of the dead birds at Terry, screaming, “A pigeon for a pigeon.” Liquor, particularly Irish whiskey is another symbol in this film. The priest is “just a sack of potatoes,” and he is the one who convinces Kayo Dugan to go up against Johnny and the mob. Dugan is then killed when the mob drops a case of Irish whisky on him, which symbolically represents that it was Father Barry, the Irish potato, who got him killed by making him stand up to the mob.
Music is another method, which Kazan used to promote the story. This is particularly evident in the classic scene where Terry and Charlie are talking in the car. Both Charlie and Terry are experiencing an internal conflict at this point in the film. During this scene music starts to play while the two brothers reminisce about old times and what could have been. It is the first honest moment between them in the film and this same music returns when Terry finds Charlie in the alley. Kazan used the music in these two scenes to create an emotional connection between his characters and his audience. Even though this music created a powerful emotional reaction when explaining the relationship between these two brothers, the absence of music in the scene leading up to Dugan’s death added to the suspense of the scene.
In addition to the music in the car scene between Charlie and Terry, the dialogue and acting impacts the audience’s point of view. Charlie calls Terry, “slugger” and leans in to talk to him. Terry avoids making eye contact with Charlie and is soft spoken in comparison to other scenes where he is very confident. When Terry yells, “I don’t know,” and Charlie begs Terry to take the job, you can see that they are both confused and scared. Throughout the entire film these men have been very rough, but we can see that they really are just little boys who long for the days when things were simpler.
Along with the deep symbolism throughout this film, Kazan made sure to stay true to the setting of his story. All of the costumes were very plain and you could tell that these people were suffering. This highlighted the cruelty of the mob in taking advantage of these hard workingmen. When we see Edie in the apartment with her father, it is cramped. The window curtains framing the scene demonstrate the smallness of the apartment. By looking through one small window it is possible to see the entire apartment. The dialogue of the scene, particularly towards the end is indicative of the time and place. When Terry goes down to the dock and yells at Johnny, he says that all of Johnny’s guts are in his “wallet and trigger finger” and that he realizes that he has been “rattin’ on himself for years” by being involved in shady business. His words aren’t polished and staged, but they have the ability to resonate with the men on the docks because he is one of them. Unlike the priest, with his sermons, Terry is an average guy, which is what makes him the hero of this tale.
Elia Kazan used multiple tactics to tell the story of “On the Waterfront.” His choice of camera angle, soundtrack, blocking, dialogue, setting and symbolism work together to show the growth of Terry Malloy as he becomes a true contender, on the side of good. Kazan’s unique artistic vision and style make this film a true American classic.