On the Waterfront: 12/9/12

On the Waterfront is a 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan, famous for its underlying message and its costume, cinematography, music, and mise-en-scène. These cinematic techniques help to show that the film was not only for enjoyment, but was Kazan’s portrayal of the political and social climate of the 1950’s.

There are several cinematic techniques that stand out in the film. The costume design accurately depicts the low economic class of the 1950’s. One costume that was particularly prominent was Terry’s checkered coat. It seems his checkered coat is a symbol for his confused and conflicted personality, always considering right vs. wrong and good vs. evil. When considering framing of images, Terry was frequently left alone in the shot. For example, at the beginning, after Joey has been killed, Terry is standing with Charlie and two of Johnny Friendly’s henchmen. After they finish talking, Charlie and the other two men leave the frame and we see only Terry. In addition, as Terry walks away after the bar scene where Johnny Friendly gives him money, he is enclosed by a fog, suggesting the uncertainty of his character. Both instances occur at various points in the movie; this suggests that Terry tries to be an individual because he is always yearning to do the right thing, unlike the others.

The movie attempts to truly mimic 1950’s American society. Kazan included dialogue with heavy slang and the constant portrayal of alcohol, particularly whiskey. The slang includes various ethnic slurs and animal references, often combined to create one phrase. For example, the men often use “cheese-eater” and “potato-eater,” which respectively mean a “rat” or “tattletale” and “an Irish immigrant.” It is ironic that they make fun of the Irish immigrants, seeing as they make their livelihood boxing and sending Irish whiskey. A “cheese-eater” is often used interchangeably with “pigeon” or “canary,” when the workers are referring to one of their own who has gone and ratted them out to the police. There is significance to the bird references; birds exist in flocks, in groups, like the dockworkers. However, if one flies away from the group, or turns its (his) back, it likely will not survive on its (his) own. Finally, the priest uses slang terms such as “gravy train rider” and “turnaround collar” in reference to himself. What he means by these terms is that they all think he’ll preach about change, but he will not get involved, because he lives a luxurious lifestyle. In reality, he tries to tell them he will stand alongside them and is willing to help them however he can. In addition to the use of slang, one of the other defining characteristics of the group is the use of alcohol, especially whiskey. Alcohol is the source of their livelihood and income; and, most of the men are Irish Catholics, known for their drinking habits. Whiskey also serves as a way to help people calm down. In the bar, after Joey’s death, Johnny hands Terry money and says, “Here kid, here’s half a bill, go get your load on.” Then, we see Terry and the priest, a religious figure, drinking whiskey in the bar after Charlie has been killed. It isn’t just “drinking away the sorrows”; it is a way for the group to protect their identity and to help them come to terms with their actions.

The most famous scene of the movie occurs in the backseat of the taxi, during a conversation between Charlie and Terry. The scene is intense, as Charlie tries to decide whether to follow through on his order to kill Terry. The music seems to take on a life of its own, narrating the dialogue even without the use of the actors’ words; it is a mournful piece, as if to signify the death of the relationship the two brothers once had. Terry finally confronts and voices his feelings that he is not entirely pleased with what Charlie did to him or for him. Charlie turned Terry from a “somebody” to a “nobody.” The dialogue is full of regret and honesty; it shows Terry finally coming to terms with his own thoughts and who he is. The camera employs the use of close up in this scene, enabling the viewer to see the pain and hurt on both Charlie and Terry’s faces. Kazan also depicts both Charlie and Terry sitting slouched over, as if to signify defeat, but a different defeat for each man; Terry for resigning to live an unhappy life and Charlie for not doing right by his brother. Terry says, “I coulda been a contender,” meaning that he had opportunities ahead of him. This quote has been used by writers for characters in other films with similar situations. The dialogue helps Charlie to finally understand Terry’s point of view and character; it is this confession that leads Charlie to understand why Terry is finally telling the truth about the union bosses.

The main character represents the archetypal hero – an ordinary man with the ability to inspire change. He is a leader, who set forth to overcome the difficulties of his situation and succeeded, changing the fate of his life and the lives of his friends.

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About Elisa Csorba

My name is Elisa and I am a freshman at Macaulay Honors College at the College of Staten Island. I feel very privileged to be a student in this prestigious college and I look forward to my next four years here. I attended Fontbonne Hall Academy in Brooklyn. I love to read - some of my favorite books include the [Fallen series], [Harry Potter], [Jane Eyre], and several others. Sometimes, I think there are too many to list. I'm a friendly person and can start a conversation with anyone about anything, and I look forward to meeting everybody!