Stephanie Solanki, On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront is a brilliant film by Elia Kazan about the mob-like union leaders and their hold on dockworkers in the 1950s. He used many different artistic mediums to portray the message of his film. The mise-en-scene, dialogue, and symbols all contributed to the unique and profound quality of the movie. Each artistic device told a specific part of the story or quality of a character. This is why this film by Elia Kazan is an iconic masterpiece of modern American film.

In order to truly capture the spirit of the story’s setting and to add authenticity, Elia Kazan decided to film the entire movie in Hoboken, New Jersey, with New York City in the background. Many long shots at the docks showed cargo ships passing in the river and people bustling in the streets. This allowed the audience to fully understand the lives of the characters and the world they lived in. Another example is the use of a dolly shot when Edie and Terry were walking in the park. This camera angle followed the characters as they were trying to get to know each other. It showed movement in their relationship as they journeyed to the same destination together.

Another aspect of mise-en-scene that Kazan used brilliantly is lighting. When Terry called out to Joey in the beginning of the film, the streetlights casted shadows across his face because this act was to be kept hidden, or “in the dark.” Secondly, Edie always appeared to be very bright, glowing, and angelic. This showed that she had high standards of morality, and that her character was someone who was completely good in the film. The lighting was used to show good and evil in this film.

The score of the film was used to heighten suspense and display the characters’ emotions. An example is when Terry went to see Edie in her apartment after his taxi ride with Charlie. The boisterous, clashing instruments paralleled the characters’ clashing emotions. It then cut out abruptly when Terry kissed Edie. This kiss was a surprise to Edie, just like the abrupt stop of music was a surprise to the audience. This emotion was displayed through the music in a way that words could not. Nevertheless, words did play a very different but important role in this film.

The 1950s style dialogue added to the realism and authenticity of the movie. The language allowed the audience to understand the social classes of the characters. Many of the slang words in the movie were also codes that the mob-like union leaders used to conceal their agendas. For example, when K. O. Dugan was going to report the mob’s agenda to the police, they decided to kill him for not being D&D. This coded for “deaf and dumb.” The dockworkers refused to tell the police about the union leaders’ corruption for fear of never finding work again. The union leaders forced the workers to live by the D&D code just to survive.

Another slang word that was often used by the mob was “cheese-eater,” a word that coded for a rat or a snitch. Anyone who revealed the mob’s plans was considered a cheese-eater and was to be killed. Once the person had revealed the mob’s plans, his life had lost its value and he was considered a pest. The mob leaders needed to exterminate him before he confessed more secrets. To the leaders, the dockworkers were mere animals.

The mob also used the word “pigeon” to describe those who told the police about their corruption. When Terry was going to tell the police about Johnny Friendly’s corruption, the mob murdered Terry’s pigeons. Tommy, the little boy said “a pigeon for a pigeon,” as he held out a lifeless pigeon to Terry. Terry’s life was worth nothing anymore; he was only a threat to the union leaders. Just as they brutally murdered the pigeons, they planned to murder Terry.

The pigeons paralleled Terry in other ways as well. He found peace in his pigeons. He would go to the rooftop where he kept his pigeon coop to escape from the harsh world down below. He said the following to Edie: “Pigeons are a lot like people. They’re faithful and loyal.” He related with pigeons, which are helpless and defenseless birds. Terry had been bound to the mob from a very young age, and he was powerless with and without them. “This city is full of hawks,” he said. “They hang around on top of the big hotels, and when they spot a pigeon, they come in and take ‘em out.” Terry felt dependent on the mob for survival. He wanted to get out of this corrupt lifestyle, but he was tied so tightly that he couldn’t escape. They locked him up in a cage just like the pigeons were caged in the coop.

Terry told Charlie how he felt about his ties with the mob in the taxi ride. For the first time in the film, he was not defending or mitigating their corrupt tactics. He confessed that he felt victimized by them. The bright lighting on his face was used to show that he was completely honest about his frustration with the mob leaders and the binds they had on his life. He was not holding any secrets back from his brother. By saying that he “coulda had class,” he admitted that he believed that they ruined his chances of his having a wholesome and successful life. The camera zoomed in into Terry’s face to show his emotions. He was regretful, hurt, and disappointed in his brother. He felt betrayed by the one person whom he thought would always be “in his corner.”

The taxicab was shaking and rattling throughout the scene. The camera followed the bumps on the road to show that the brothers had a shaky relationship. They no longer trusted each other. Charlie felt betrayed by Terry because was going to confess to the police. Also, Terry told Charlie that he should have “looked out for [him] a little bit” when he was a wrestler. Terry felt betrayed by Charlie because he felt that Charlie was prioritizing the union leaders’ interests over his own brother’s. Terry had then realized his brother’s feelings towards him.

A symbol of realization and maturity in the film was alcohol. The alcohol in the film was beer and whiskey, which reflected the social standings of the characters. Terry, who drank beer often, bought Edie a beer on their first date. Edie once lived a sheltered life, but learned about the cruel nature of life when she got involved with Terry. The beer symbolized her transition from innocence to maturity. Terry also matured when he witnessed the death of K. O. Dugan. The mob killed him by dropping cases of whiskey on him. Terry finally realized how corrupt the union was. Lastly, the Father gave Terry a beer when he agreed to confess about Johnny Friendly. Killing him would have been revengeful, but to truly hurt Johnny Friendly Terry had to be mature and confess. Terry had matured in his dealings with the mob-like union leaders

On the Waterfront is filled with artistic details that deepen the significance and message of the work. The dialogue made the story unique, while the lighting, music, and camera angles displayed the aspects of the story in a way that words could not. Symbols were used to show the message of them film in a subtle, but profound, way. Elia Kazan brilliantly used many artistic mediums to tell the meaning of his the film.