Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront provides cinematic evidence for a gritty story full of corruption and its battle with integrity. Kazan does so through mise-en-scene, accompanied with language and symbols that speak for much more than their face value.
One of the best ways Kazan presents the tenacity of both the story and the main character, Terry Malloy, is through the use of a black and white film. In a way, the shades of grey produced by the black and white could represent the fact that nothing about this union is truly black and white; rather, it is a monopoly that has no concrete rules. Even the promise of a job for the day is nonexistent. The camera shots seem to obey the 180-degree rule and eye line match. The characters that are speaking are also centered in the frame. At some instances, however, like when K.O. Dugan is killed, Father Barry and Pop Doyle are raised above the other dockworkers, signifying their importance and amplifying the words spoken by Father Barry stating that Jesus is, in fact, everywhere. In some scenes the camera is placed behind a fence (like with Terry in the pigeon pen) perhaps to exemplify how they are all in the union’s cage. The costumes are typical examples of the two extremes, rich and poor, with the characters in expensive suits and hand-me-downs, respectively. The set design meshes well with the storyline of a small, hardworking town with a rugged feel. Leonard Bernstein’s score is also played throughout the film, mostly in moments of realization for Terry, like when his brother Charlie places the gun on him in the car.
This moment between Terry and Charlie in the car, and the lightning fast revelations that take place, surely make it a scene to remember. It unearths all of the feelings Terry has been trying to hide, and finally places the blame on his lack of opportunity. It becomes evident that Terry lost his hope for a future (and his conscience) after losing a match for his brother’s bet. At this point in the film Terry is in a large predicament, he must choose between doing the right thing and exposing the corrupt Friendly, or standing by his brother once again. In the cab the brothers are placed next to each other with equivalent body masses showing stating no dominance of importance; the two extremes of clothing are, however, evident. Once Charlie brings the gun out (though Terry knows he will not shoot) it becomes clear that Terry is on his own (evident through the close-ups on his face), and he finally releases his pain by telling Charlie that it is his fault Terry is the screw-up of the two brothers. The melancholy music adds to the despair. This scene is a way for Terry to realize that history cannot repeat itself and that he must do what is right.
This 1950’s film dialogue speaks for the time period; the slang words present and use of foul language (which was not a norm of the time) definitely place it in another decade. For example, words like “mug” and “bum” also aid in dating the film. The use of “potato eater” serves to expose the ethnicity of a character and goes along with the slang of the time. Another type of “eater” mentioned is with “cheese-eater” which stands for a major symbol of the film, being a rat. When someone is said to be a “cheese-eater” it means that they are a betrayer, a rat, providing for the connection to the cuisine associated for a rat. A rat or betrayer is also symbolized with a pigeon. The word “pigeon” in this film has duality in its meaning. The first is that many dub pigeons as flying rats, or vermin of the sky. They are notorious for being dirty and almost everywhere in the city, like rats. Pigeons also provide a metaphor for Terry. At the beginning, the “lost” pigeon is how Terry gets Joey to the roof and consequently, his demise. Terry then relates humans to the birds with their rituals of marriage. He is even envious of them as they have no worries in their lives, and later he becomes the “rat” and is distraught to find them all killed (by Tommy) after his confession. The other foul mentioned throughout the film is a “canary” which unlike the pigeon is representative of a caged bird, a pet, and inferior to someone higher– like the union.
The presence of alcohol adds to the gritty nature of the film, and meshes well with the job of these dockworkers, which is to load and unload products like Irish whiskey. In this film whiskey and beer have particular meanings. Whiskey, for instance, can be related to the Whiskey Rebellion where, after being unrightfully taxed for this profitable product, the residents rebelled against the tax. This rebellion can be related to the character’s quandary, of deciding to overthrow an immoral superior. Whiskey, in Celtic, translates to “water of life.” This provides perfect irony since K.O., who yearns for a shipment of Irish whiskey, ultimately meets his demise to this water of life. The fact that Irish whiskey, in particular, is mentioned lends itself to the many “potato-eaters’ that inhabit this town. The presence of beer can be seen as the poor mans wine. With hardly any access to food, let alone wine, beer is what Terry and his fellow dockworkers can afford. The predominance of Father Barry and the religion of Christianity can also be linked to the fact that some Christians drink wine to signify God’s blood.
Ultimately, On the Waterfront manages to expose Elia Kazan’s personal struggles with morality and loyalty, through the use of symbolism and a plot that leaves no room for glamour.