On the Waterfront Analysis
Some would agree that what makes a film great is it’s ability to slyly and effectively relay an important and strong message. It doesn’t need to be said outright, and many times the viewer won’t even see it coming. But when the film ends, it hits you, and you’re taken aback. On the Waterfront is one of those movies, and it has the wonderful use of metaphors, and of course, the general use of mise-en-scene, to thank.
A trend that is quite apparent when watching this movie is the constant mention of birds with a negative connotation. For example, in the beginning of the film when Joey dies, a comment is made about him being a canary. A fellow union worker says, “Maybe he can sing, but he can’t fly.” Although you could take this line as a reference to the fact that he couldn’t fly to save himself from falling off the roof, it also seems plausible that he’s saying that although he could talk and tell of the gang’s criminal behavior, he could not run from them. A canary is therefore someone who tells on, betrays, or exposes others. Cheese-eater is another term used to represent the same thing. Pigeons are also mentioned and starred in the film. The way in which the word is used implies that aside from being a bird, a pigeon can also be a person that is easily tricked, manipulated or convinced. Terry is accused of being a pigeon in the film, which seems suitable considering how much time and care he puts into them. His talk about a fear that hawks will attack his pigeons in their coop seems to represent his fear of going against Friendly and his gang, along with his overall vulnerability. Lastly, the use of a wide shot to film the scene where the men are waiting to get work at the dock, portrays the men resembling birds as they all flock into work while also picking at and fight for the tokens needed to get in for that day.
The film seemed to go back and forth between wide range shots and close-ups. The more intimate scenes, such as when brothers Terry and Charlie have their last conversation on the way to what was supposed to be Terry’s murder, as well as Edie and Terry’s date which consisted of deep conversation, were shot close up. In the end, when beat up Terry struggles to end the reign of Johnny and the corruption that accompanied him by walking over to the entrance to work, the screen shot goes back and forth from a close up of him to one of his fellow workers, which seemed to make it all that much more dramatic. The lighting was also important to the film’s interpretation. It was never very bright in any of the scenes, and there always seemed to be a thick fog whenever the characters were outside. It may in fact be representative of the shadiness going on in the town, as well as all of the corruption and secrets. The sound effects also add to this by giving off a feeling of mystery. The movie is filmed in black and white, which could go along with the view of the gang and it’s leaders who believed you were either their ally or their enemy. This black and white effect also helps the viewers concentrate on the dialogue and facial expressions, as it seems to do in most cases. Something about the set/scene that is worth mentioning is the view of New York City from the docks, which can be taken as an escape from the corrupt town they are living in. The way it is placed in the distance is like saying that this better place is so close yet so far.
Alcohol is also seen repeatedly in the film and seems to have a less apparent contribution to the film. Power is what seems to be associated with alcohol in a majority of the scenes. Johnny and his gang hold meetings in the back of a bar, K.O. get’s a shipment of whiskey dropped on him which shows that the gang is more powerful and can destroy anyone that thinks of going against them, and Edie is drinking her first beer with Terry on their first date which shows her slowly giving in to him. In addition, even the priest orders a beer after successfully convincing Terry to fight Johnny in court. The whiskey in the film is connected to the country of Ireland, which is where many of the workers on the dock are most likely from. The term potato-eater that is used in the film supports this, by referring to those from Ireland who have the reputation of eating a lot of potatoes.
The scene between Charlie and Terry riding in the car together would not have been as famous as it was without details such as the acting, filming, and dialogue. The scene takes place in a close up shot, which helps relay the emotion that exists in this conversation. The sad and slow music also adds to this and let’s the viewers know that this is a scene full of sadness, regret, and letdown. During this scene, there are not many times where Terry and Charlie look at each other in the eyes, which makes the characters’ feeling of disappointment and regret more profound. Terry, saying that he could have been someone instead of the bum that he calls himself, shows that he had the chance to live his dream but instead he let it pass by. He is now left to deal with realization that it’s too late and that a mistake was made. This is something that can be relatable to a majority of people, because unfortunately, people always find a reason to let go of their dreams, forget the importance of them, or let others tear them down. Charlie on the other hand comes to see Terry’s point and begins to realize that he didn’t serve his little brother well. He then agrees that the least he can do is cut his brother some slack and therefore lets him go at his own expense.
With the abundance of metaphors and well thought out mise-en-scene, it is no wonder On the Waterfront has gained recognition as one of the great American films.