On the Waterfront – Brendon Ursomanno

Earlier this week, our class and I were grateful enough to watch a well-renowned film titled, On the Waterfront. Luckily, Professor Kahan and other avid supporters of this movie had nothing but great things to say about it. Because Professor Diaz had educated us prior to seeing this movie, I was able to implement my new “film knowledge” during my experience watching On the Waterfront. In these next couple of paragraphs, I will explain the mise-en-scène, the dialogue, and the symbolism that was used to make this movie, I believe, one of the staples of American motion picture.

By definition, mise-en-scène is all of the elements that are placed in front of a camera to be photographed. A more literal definition would be that it’s the way the scenery and any other elements are used to denote where the movie is actually taking place. Compared to today’s technology with filmmaking, black and white film was used, which sets a different tone, representing one of hardships, betrayal, and constant uneasiness. Another set of aspects of mise-en-scène is the utilization of costumes and lighting. Both of these are vital contributors to the overall feeling and persona that is given off by the two main characters, Terry Malloy, an aspiring fighter and Johnny Friendly, the boss of the Dockers union. For the most part, the clothing is plain, as it relates to the time period of the mid 1900s. Suits, trench coats, lace or cotton dresses, and wool hats are all part of the costumes and there is a distinct relationship to the emotions evoked by wearing such clothing. For example, Johnny Friendly’s role is the “mob boss” that resides over the whole union; therefore, he dresses in a tailored suit with a trench coat over it, to represent a sense of prestige and loyalty all of his workers must have for him. However, Terry Malloy wears overalls, which symbolizes his hard work and willingness to achieve respect. Lighting also plays a major part in the demeanor of these two men, in relation to their overall characterization. The shadows and contrast between dark and light lighting flows coherently, with the separation of good and bad. There are many instances when the camera focuses in on Mr. Friendly; a shadow is formed and dark unpromising lighting is used. Therefore, the lighting and clothing used in this film contribute to the development of each of the characters and the roles that they play.

The dialogue that was used was another unique aspect in the movie. When I first heard the words such as: potato-eater, cheese-eater, and pigeon I was perplexed and not until I dug deeper, was I able to come up with a logical reason for using such phrases. For example, “potato-eater,” is referred to a person who comes from a heavy Irish background because money was scarce and potatoes were cheap, making it a staple of their diet. For example, Father Barry specifically calls himself a “potato-eater.” The other peculiar phrase was “cheese-eater,” which I’m assuming relates to the idea of being a rat; and it was used to describe Joey Doyle in Chapter four, for ratting out on Mr. Friendly. Finally, the word “pigeon” was used frequently in the movie in relation to someone who is loyal, just as the bird is faithful to its family and most importantly, to itself. Up until the ending of the movie, all of the workers including Terry were in fact, loyal to Johnny. However, the tides quickly turned, when Terry has had enough of Johnny’s antics and turns away from his authority, being bestowed the name of “stool pigeon.” However, these are only some of the terms used, but by delving deeper into them, I was able to find a distinct correlation between them and the main characters in the movie.

There is a very powerful and well-known scene in the movie between Terry and Charlie Molly, which took place in the taxi, when Terry says, “I coulda been a contender.” One of the most important things that I noticed is the use of the camera. Due to the small space, the camera adds to the intensity of the dialogue as it relates to the scene. In essence, the camera use capitalized on the facial and body expressions evoked by Terry and Charlie. The dialogue consists of Terry reprimanding Charlie because he made him lose a fight purposely, which unknowingly ended Charlie’s fighting career. The acting and emotions that were used during this scene were so intense and passionate that it ultimately shows that the character Terry has matured in a man, and is finally aware of what he has done. This then enables Terry to stand up to Johnny and his crew, after Charlie had been killed. Again, the quote mentioned above conveys the idea of fighting the bad for the good of everyone else.

Finally, alcohol is used prevalently throughout the film. I think the reason for using it is to epitomize the overwhelming amount of betrayal and moral decay. For example, Father Barry is, according to his obligations as a priest, not allowed to consume alcohol, but does so anyway. In the Irish heritage, alcohol has a deeper meaning and in this movie, corruptions works hand and hand with it. It also relates to the character Terry Malloy. When he consumed this drink, it seems to me that he was worried and trying to keep his mind off it before he acted on his inner thoughts. In reality, beer is way cheaper than liquor, so the typical Irish hard worker, Terry drank beer, whereas, the boss, Johnny preferred the more expensive drink, whiskey. Again, by the use of mise-en- scène, dialogues, symbolism, and alcohol an overall theme had been established making the underdog Terry have the last laugh.