On the Waterfront is a classic film about the struggles of Terry Malloy, as he tries to balance a life of organized crime, love, and a disturbed conscience. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film consists of excellent cinematography, music, dialogue, and storytelling. It is a successful portrayal of the corruption and malice of organized crime in an urban setting. Many elements of the film symbolize the hardship and growth of Terry as he makes the toughest decisions of his life.
The costumes used in the film were all purchased second hand, and this helped portray the working class lifestyle that many of the characters lived. The appearance of the dockworkers, and of Terry, consistently represent struggle. Terry wears a checkered jacket throughout most of the film, which symbolizes his confused character. It is difficult to define the color of the jacket, or his personality. He continually changes his roles as a boxer, mobster, bum, and lover. The film is filled with fantastic pieces of music that guide the audience on an emotional journey throughout each scene. During the scene where Terry goes to Edie’s apartment to claim his love, the driving music fills the audience with excitement, nervousness, and romance. The music is playing so fast when suddenly, Terry grabs Edie and kisses her. The bewildering tune abruptly ends, and their love is manifested. Some great camera shots take place when Terry returns to face Johnny Friendly at the docks. The director has Terry stand on a bridge, which acts as pedestal and symbolizes his newfound moral values. Meanwhile, Johnny stands below him with his deceitful, grimy business tactics, and lack of morals. There is also a clip of Johnny leaning on and standing behind a pole while they talk, showing how much of a coward he truly is, by relying on things and people around him.
The dialogue used in the film often draws the line between the educated and uneducated. Those who work on the docks are very uneducated, and this is apparent by their constant use of slang and poor grammar. Father Barry, who is an Irish immigrant, or “potato-eater,” is an educated man as one may see from his inspiring speech after K.O.’s death. However, he uses many slang phrases to relate to the men. He says the bosses “fixed K.O. for good,” because he was going to “spill his guts” in court the next day. There are many animal references in the dialogue as well. The terms “cheese-eater,” “rat,” “canary,” and “pigeon” are all used to describe an informant. The term pigeon is also used to describe cowards and low-lives, since pigeons are dirty, eat whatever they can, and flee from people. Tommy, the boy on the roof, yells, “A pigeon for a pigeon!” at Terry, after he “ratted” in court. Pigeons also represent the men on the docks, who are plenty in number, and have no real direction in life. As opposed to the mobsters, who are referred to as hawks, powerful animals that are scarce in number compared to pigeons.
In the famous taxicab scene, Charlie is faced with the difficult task of either killing Terry, or securing his loyalty to the mob. He maintains a determined look while Terry, who is distraught in his situation, looks upset and confused. Charlie has never guided Terry in the right direction; he has only looked after himself. He has become a rich man while Terry has nothing. This is symbolized by their clothing, particularly Charlie’s checkered scarf and Terry’s checkered jacket. The scarf represents power and intelligence, while the jacket appears low-class. However, they are the same design, symbolizing their distant brotherhood. After Charlie pulls his gun on Terry, he puts it down and a distressing, frightening piece of music cues in. The music lets the audience know that their relationship as brothers has been destroyed. As the camera closes in on Charlie, we see he now realizes that he is wrong. As Terry blames him for his failed boxing career, it is seen how every word pierces Charlie’s black heart by his increasingly remorseful expression. The action has shifted to Charlie having the distressed look, and Terry looking determined. This symbolizes Terry’s maturation and Charlie’s realization of his cruelty and selfishness. Terry explains that if not for Charlie, he “could have been a contender”. Charlie realizes at the end of the scene, that perhaps the only thing he can do to reconcile their broken relationship, is to let Terry testify.
Alcohol plays a significant role throughout the film. Irish whiskey represents hope, happiness, and a comforting sense of home for the Irish immigrants. The men working on the docks long for the days they get to import whiskey, so they can enjoy a taste of home, and escape their dreary reality on the waterfront. It is irony at its finest when K.O., an Irishman who said he couldn’t wait till a shipment of whiskey came in, is killed when a ton of it crashed down upon him. Perhaps this is to show that alcohol is dangerous, and should not be used to mask one’s troubles. Whiskey is also seen when Terry and Edie go to the bar and have a shot. This drink symbolizes the start of their romance and even a loss of innocence for Edie, who is a prudish character. The 1950’s was a proper era, in which religion played a heavy role. Having Father Barry drink consistently throughout the movie was a bold decision made by the director, but one that accurately portrayed the brave character the Reverend was. The beer he shared with Terry symbolized Terry’s maturation; he wouldn’t fight Johnny using the same dirty tactics as Johnny himself. The beer unified the two as a force against the mob.
The mise-en-scène used in On the Waterfront combines to form a fantastic piece of art that tells a superb story. Different elements such as camera angles and shots change the way we perceive a film. Terry Malloy is often filmed as the only person in the focal points of the camera, reminding the audience that he is fighting the battle alone. The musical score of the film is a powerful, emotionally guiding soundtrack that matches the scenes perfectly. The actions and words of the characters often symbolize a deeper meaning in this film, and the theme of treating all people with equality is apparent.