One of Elia Kazan’s movie greats is On the Waterfront, which accounts for each individual character as much as it does the scenery. The movie takes place on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey and the concept of it being a poverty stricken neighborhood was projected from the beginning; breaths of the characters are visible which shows that its winter and this enhances the severity of their economic burden by having the characters work in almost unbearable weather conditions. Kazan intends to make the story as believable as possible so he uses certain camera techniques to get the audience more involved. There are scenes in which the camera is moving with the characters. That way, the audience feels like they are part of an intimate conversation and it allows the audience to pay more attention to the detail of the conversation. The intimate car scene at the end of the film is literally the most significant part of the entire movie. Kazan was very specific as to not make the camera so jumpy because that would distract the audience. Instead, he tunes out the neighborhood; nothing is more important than what Terry and his brother have to say. The only way to pull the audience into realizing that the scene is still in a car is by mentioning the destination and getting the taxi driver involved.
The clothing was also significant because of its “average Joe” look. Kazan had the costume designer buy all the material from a thrift store to make the apparel look as fitting and believable as possible because his main concern was a proper delivery of Terry’s fragile financial and mental state. One of the most strategic uses of camera angles is at the end when the camera amplifies the haziness Terry was feeling after being heavily beaten. It gives an incentive for the audience to support Terry because having his perspective makes the audience feel like they are struggling to get back on to their feet as well. The music also adds to the struggle and determination he feels. This proves very successful in the audience’s full support of Terry because previously none of his coworkers supported him. Kazan also used long shots to bring Hoboken into perspective; this is all for the audience since he wants us to create our own opinion of the neighborhood and feel sympathy towards the main character who is a foil to the selfish mobsters.
The dialogue is just as significant because sticking to the colloquial slang of that time makes the story more believable because it shows the true power of the mob that killed Joey. A great example of this would be use of “canary” which is often used to refer to someone who can’t keep their mouth shut. This metaphor shows that the mob had enough of Joey’s loud mouth and figured that the best way out of the situation is to kill him; this once again shows that the mob gets whatever they want and they find something as heavy as murder, easy and most beneficial. They also use the term canary to mock how pathetic they truly find Joey; he’s able to open his mouth but can’t defend himself when he needs to which is what was meant by “he couldn’t fly.” The cheese-eater comment helps the audience get a grasp on who Terry really is. While he physically seems like a tough guy, he’s a guy who is vulnerable and has his own morals; cheese-eater refers to someone who isn’t a snitch. This definitely highlights that Terry is sensible and is not one to step on anyone’s toes, which gives the audience another reason to pity him and want the best for him. The dialogue is very colloquial which sets the mood of the poverty stricken neighborhood. These terms would certainly not be used in a wealthy neighborhood, which again allows the audience to feel sorrow for Terry and support his character development.
The presence and mention of pigeons, play a significant role because in the chaos of Terry’s life, the pigeons are the only entity that have never ceased to give him pleasure. Him sharing the pigeons with Edie shows his soft side because she must mean a lot to him if he’s willing to show her Joey’s prized possession. The line “A pigeon for a pigeon” is interesting because it starts to show the downfall in Terry’s life. The pigeons are a symbol of Terry’s vitality and once they are dead, so was his rising faith in finally feeling loved by Edie and making it in Hoboken. A pigeon for a pigeon could be used to show that one downfall lead to another and Terry is placed in a situation where he is the only one capable of picking himself up again.
The taxi scene shows Terry’s disappointment in his life. After getting in a deep discussion with Charley, he says “I coulda been a contender” had it not been for the fixed fight. This is when Charley realizes he cost his brother a prosperous life and he finally becomes the brother he failed to be by giving Terry his gun; as a brother he is finally letting his brother defend himself. The close ups were used on purpose because the audience gets a a good visual on how the characters are feeling. The expression on Charley’s face softens when he realizes the toll the fight has taken on Terry. This is not only a revelation for Charley but one for Terry who realizes that Charley just sacrificed his own life for his good after he saw how brutally Friendly had killed Charley. As a way to repay his brother, Terry got up after being heavily beaten and goes back to work, which is the first of him heading in the right direction and taking the power away from Friendly, who is also walked over by the other workers. That discussion in the car highlights Terry’s dismay in himself and shows that underneath the tough exterior is insecurity. This epiphany, leads him into an emotional healing process even if he is physically abused. He teaches the other workers but more importantly to himself that he can have control over his own life even if the mob had physical taken control over his own.
Under the distress of losing his brother in the hands of Friendly, Terry goes to murder him with the gun Charley gave to him. But Father Barry intervenes and stops Terry. This is when Father Barry gets him a drink. Alcohol does normally help relax people but in this case, its used to bring Terry to his senses. He knows that killing Friendly is not the most effective way to get back at him because it brings him down to Friendly’s level. After gaining a new perspective, he uses words and fists to fight back at Friendly. This eventually leads to the great finale of it all, which is when Terry uses his inner strength to fight Friendly. The alcohol represents the change in Terry’s though process for his own good against Friendly.
Kazan effectively shows character development throughout this film by incorporating the audience into the life of Terry. His neighborhood doesn’t benefit him in anyway and that’s made clear by the financial struggle that everybody is going through. But regardless of his physical state of being, Terry was able to break through and become emotionally strong which is what he really needed to do to break away from Friendly who once thought of him as a pathetic individual who couldn’t even read. By allowing the audience into the mind of Terry, we can also feel the growth that Terry’s gone through.