On the Waterfront is a critically acclaimed movie directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. Both Kazan and Schulberg wanted to go for a realistic, rough, gritty feel. Kazan uses the mise-en-scène of the movie to shape it in the way he wants to audience to see it. Schulberg uses dialogue composed of metaphors and images that represent different things to get his point across.
The use of slang in this movie is used to make it more realistic. Pigeons are a reoccurring theme in the movie. Terry maintains a pigeon coop with a couple of younger boys. He idolizes pigeons, saying that they have it easy. Terry’s connection with the pigeons represents his desire to break free from the cage, in his case the cage is being involved with Johnny Friendly. Referring to a person as a pigeon means that they’re easy to manipulate and fool. The “hawks” in the movie, the gangsters, often refer to the longshoremen as pigeons. Terry mentions that the town is “full of hawks”, full of people who can at any time take the life of another. Canary and cheese-eater are colloquially terms that refer to people who rat on others; canaries “sing” to the police and rats eat cheese. Unlike today, people in the 1950s still harbored racism. “Potato-eater” is a derogatory term for a person of Irish decent. Father Barry called himself a potato-eater to show the longshoremen that he is real, genuine, and has nothing to hide.
Kazan put care into the location of the movie. This movie was shot on location in Hoboken to further add a gritty realism to the movie. Even a well-made set design can’t compare to a real dock, bar, or apartment . The costumes were bought from thrift stores, old discarded clothes that weren’t made to fit the actors in order to show that the characters didn’t have much money. When Terry goes back to his apartment after testifying, there is a rip under the arm of his jacket. Most directors would want the rip fixed but Kazan choose not to, a decision that solidifies how much realism meant to Kazan. In the bar scenes and alley scenes, a lot of low key lighting was used to create shadows in order to add to the threatening air of the scene. Often, gates and fences were included in certain scenes, such as when Terry tells Joey he’s sending up one of his pigeons and when Terry and Edie are on the roof by the pigeon coop. The purpose of these gates and fences is to show Terry’s struggle to connect with the characters because of his own internal problems.
“I could’ve been a contender”, according to many movie critics, is one of the most famous lines in movie history. The scene starts off Terry mentioning to Charlie that he wishes to talk about something with him, which is revealed to Charlie about halfway through the scene. Charlie brings up that the other men, Johnny Friendly mostly, is worried about Terry testifying. Charlie tells Terry to get some ambition in which Terry responds that he figured he’d live a little longer without it. There’s a slight pause here so that Terry’s previous line can sink in. Following this pause, Charlie tries offering and then ultimately begging Terry to take a job on the docks where he won’t “do anything… say anything”. After Terry refuses, Charlie puts a gun to Terry’s chest and tells him to take the job. Some time passes before Charlie begins to talk about Terry’s failed boxing career that he blames on the boxing manager. Terry corrects him, blaming Charlie for his failed boxing career in which he utters the infamous lines, “I could’ve been a contender”. These lines don’t just apply to Terry’s ruined boxing career due to one fixed fight in which he could’ve won but to Terry’s life in general. Terry is upset that his brother Charlie didn’t protect him and ruined his life because he didn’t just lose that fight, he lost his self-respect and pride. Terry tells Charlie that it was Charlie’s fault for not protecting him that made him a “bum”.
Amongst many symbols in On the Waterfront, alcohol is probably one of the most overlooked. In the movie, whiskey represents power and wealth. A lot of Johnny Friendly’s business is conducted in a bar, where drinks are surrounding the men. The men at the docks are responsible for unloaded cases of liquor often in their careers yet; they’re unable to have it. They are the ones who make people like Johnny Friendly possible but they don’t even get the slightest share in the profits. Dugan was killed by a case of whiskey; power can crush those who are too weak. Beer represents the working class. Even Father Barry drank beer, showing his connection with the longshoremen.
On the Waterfront is a movie that uses the careful decisions made by Kazan to represent so much more than a corrupt longshoremen union. The movie was used to respond to people who disowned Kazan for revealing fellow Communist writers. When caught between a rock and a hard place that both have harsh consequences, doing what is morally right to you is the best option.