What’s Up at the Waterfront?

The director, Elia Kazan, has been praised by numerous publications for his Oscar winning film, On the Waterfront[1].  The eight Oscars this film earned merit Kazan’s vast attention to detail and creativity. It would not do the film justice to simply watch it without analyzing all that Kazan had to offer.  From the cinematography to the motifs, the film has much to admire and examine.

First and foremost, the director should be commended for the film’s authentic use of mise-en-scène and effects.  The gritty docks, shadowed alleys and the unwelcoming industrial factories of Hoboken, New Jersey fit the bleak underworld of urban corruption.    Furthermore, the filter used for this film is very suitable for this picture. Although more and more films started to be filmed in color during the fifties[2], this film is more fitting in black and white.  It provides the movie a Noir-like aesthetic, especially considering all the urban corruption, street crime, and the classic trench-coated law enforcement that are in the story.

Speaking of Noir, the film definitely associates itself with its mid-twentieth century era.  Out of date terminology is abundantly used throughout the film.  Terms such as cheese-eater and Stoolie both contribute to the 1950s ambiance.  “Cheese-eater” is probably the more obvious of the two, clearly a term used to mock and label those who gave away secrets, or ratted on somebody.  A perfect example would be in a conversation between Friendly and Terry, “I got that one lousy little cheese-eater, that Doyle, goes and squeals to the crime commission.” The other term, Stoolie, is highly significant; it’s a word that is associated with pigeons, as in “stool pigeon.” In fact, there are multiple references to pigeons in this film.  The protagonist himself is called “Stoolie” by one of the Union heads, “Where are them cops of yours, Stoolie?”  Clearly, there is a metaphorical connection between Terry and pigeons.  A pigeon is known to be a wild animal, but a stool pigeon is designed to deliver confidential messages, so they are cooped up animals.  This relates to Terry, a person who has vast ambition but feels as if he is trapped, or cooped up, in his self-proclaimed “bum” life.

Terry’s low sense of self-significance is strongly depicted in the cab scene, during the conversation between him and Charley.  The scene takes place in the back of a small cab.  The camera frequently closes up on their faces, focusing on the constant emotional ups and downs of the two. Essentially, the camerawork and small setting lets the viewer focus on the interactions between the brothers. The confident and assertive, Charley, contradicts his own character. Throughout the scene, he fidgets with his gloves and cannot bring himself to make eye contact with Terry. He also does not argue when Terry outright blames him for his “bum” life.  Charley’s downhearted facial expressions show acceptance of the fact that he is the reason for his brother’s sorrow.  As for Terry, he always seemed like a character pent up with sadness. In this scene, he finally pours out his pent up grief to Charley, and as said before, blames his brother for the lackluster life he leads. Meanwhile, the non-diegetic soundtrack was highly complementary. The music was melancholic and heart pumping at the same, letting the viewer both sympathize with Terry and feel his vigorous outpour of grief.  Perhaps the most significant part of the scene is that even though Terry lets it all out, he knows his life is not fixed.  Terry does in no way seem content after his talk with Charley.  The scene is an ode to the idea that an individual cannot blame their problems on someone else, they have to resolve their conflicts with action rather than look for a scapegoat.

With the help of Father Barry, Terry was able to find a resolution to his problems.  After the death of Charley, Father Barry guides Terry towards the downward spiral of Friendly’s gang.  It’s ironic actually, one thing that shows that Father Barry helped Terry is something a man of religion would look down upon, alcohol. Whiskey and beer are motifs that symbolize good relationships between characters.  The scene subsequent to Charley’s death has Terry drinking his life away at a bar.  After he stirs up a ruckus, Father Barry comes in to turn Terry’s life around.  Once Terry is calmed down and convinced to bring down Friendly in court, the father orders two beers, one for him and Terry.  This shows that the two characters are in agreement with each other.  In contrast, this motif can symbolize disagreement.  Earlier in the movie, Terry develops a strong liking towards Edie and wants that affection back, so he invites her to go drinking.  The film uses beer again to represent the relationship between characters. Edie does not finish the beer and leaves, showing that since the drink is not wanted, the characters are not in complete agreement with each other.  Motifs are a different way to understand the relationships between characters.

The film is certainly not a simple work of cinema.  Kazan constructed a movie that required effort from the viewer.  From beginning to end, the components of this film are in-depth as well as cleverly constructed.