Life consists of choices. There are the simple, petty decisions, like what one should eat for dinner, and there are the morally ambiguous decisions that often require sacrificing happiness in order to do the right thing. In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy is faced with the latter inner conflict. Malloy must decide whether to inform on the corrupt leaders of the shipping union, thereby risking his life and is job, or remain silent and ignore his conscience. The mise-en-scene, dialogue and symbolism present in the movie contribute to its overall meaning and brilliance, and to a better understanding of Malloy’s challenging decision.
Though the camera shots, set design and overall mise-en-scene allow for a realistic portrayal of events, they often influence the movie’s meaning and mood. The movie’s setting seems authentically like the docks of a shipping pier; the place is dirty and cramped, and the workers often exhale smoke, an indication to the cold weather and harsh conditions in which they work. The sounds of the ship whistles and metal chains and the authentic costumes also add to the realistic scenery. This genuine setting supplies realism to the struggles and decisions of the characters. The audience is able to witness the true unity among the workers and the real intimidation of the union leaders, and so Terry’s conflict becomes tangible as well. From the cramped wedding scene in the bar, to the crowded work by the harbor, it is apparent that this is a rough world, and so the coining of the ‘D and D’- Deaf and Dumb- motto makes sense; the people band together and there is no tattling. It is them against the world. However, the union leaders take this policy and manipulate it for their purposes. ‘Deaf and Dumb’ ensures that the workers will remain in servitude silently and will not tattle on the immoral leadership of the corporation. Though it would seem obvious to the audience that Malloy should testify against the union, the realistic, crowded scenery allows us to sympathize with his struggle and doubts.
The camera also acts as a window for the audience to get a glimpse inside Terry’s head. When Joey leaves the window to go to the roof, we see Terry look up, and the camera seems to look up with him. We are able to discover the men waiting on the roof when Terry does. Furthermore, when Terry endures the fight with the union and wakes up dizzy, the camera itself is blurry and out of focus, reflecting Terry’s own eyes. Moreover, when Terry admits to Edie that he is responsible for her brother’s death, the audience is only able to witness the scene from afar and can only see their bodily reactions; the audio of the message is blurred by the blow horn of a boat. This represents the intensity of the scene and the pain it causes Terry to admit. Words would have taken away from his deep emotions and struggle.
The movie’s dialogue also enlightens the audience as to the social class of the characters and their role in society. Terry Malloy is described as a ‘bum’ and he is referred to as the uneducated brother. He speaks like the other lower working class members, especially compared to Edie’s polished dialogue. In fact, in the ‘romantic’ scene, which contains the slow and sweet background music, Terry tells Edie that her hair used to look like a “hunk of rope”, and she had wires on her teeth, but she grew up nicely. The specific words used also describe the characters’ standings in society. The priest describes himself as a “potato-eater”, or someone who lives comfortably and does not work as hard for his food as the others. People who betray the union and do not keep to the ‘Deaf and Dumb’ policy are referred to as ‘pigeons’ or ‘canaries’, while the leaders are called ‘hawks’. This represents the predator-prey relationship of the union and its workers. If someone tattles, it is said that they “ratted” and they are called “cheese-eaters”, a reference to the dirty and low vermin. However, the symbol of pigeons is seen elsewhere in the movie. Terry, a macho wrestler, tends to caged pigeons on his roof. Pigeons are the epitome of freedom, yet they are caged here and unable to fly. Like the pigeons, the workers have their freedom taken away and are being ‘caged’ by the union. Terry and Joey both work with the pigeons and seem to sympathize with them, and so they both attempt to break through the constraints of the union and break free. This comparison between Terry and Joey is also evident in the passing around of Joey’s jacket. When Joey was killed for doing the right thing, the jacket is presented to Dugan, the next character who dies for making the correct moral choice. The jacket is eventually passed on to Terry who also obeys his conscience.
Besides for pigeons, alcohol is another symbol apparent in the movie. Beer is a drink of the working class and serves here as a social beverage and activity. Everyone drinks, and works, together, and they all live by the same philosophy of ‘Deaf and Dumb’. When Edie sits with Terry in the bar, she listens to his side of the story- the working class idea that it is every man for himself- and so she drinks their beverage and tastes their philosophy. However, Edie represents goodness and believes that everyone should care for others, and so she does not want to finish the drinks. She does not agree with the working group, and she does not ‘drink’ what binds them together. Similarly, Terry shares a drink with the priest after he decides to tell the truth. They are on the same team and united in an idea, and so they drink to bind themselves together. Terry is on his way to do the right thing.
Terry initially becomes aware of the correct decision in the cab scene with his older brother. Terry blames Charlie for his reputation as a ‘bum’; he has not looked after his younger brother properly and manipulates him for the union’s needs. Charlie seems to have been in denial to this and would not make eye contact with Terry throughout the accusation. He wakes up to the truth when he pulls out a gun in order to make Terry listen; he tries to force Terry to ignore his heart, just like he did those years ago at the boxing match. It is Charlie’s fault that Terry is a bum; without his brother’s influence, Terry would have “been a contender.” When Terry pushes the gun aside, refusing his brother’s control, and says, “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” the pain in his voice is almost tangible, and the audience can feel the stress of the situation. Once Charlie lets Terry go, the younger brother is now free to do what he feels is right. He can change his status as a bum through his own actions. Once he is free, Terry does the right thing. He embraces his conscience. He is finally a contender.