On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning

On The Waterfront is a fairly straightforward film. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is, a simple feature telling a relatively simple story. And it happens to be all the better for it, as the accessible plot doesn’t get in the way of a genuinely moving story supplemented with some of the most terrific acting ever committed on-screen.

The plot:
Terry Malloy (Brando) is, as he himself would say, a no-good bum. Tending pigeons and running errands on the docks for the corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb), he spends most of his time daydreaming about his glory days as a prize-fighter. When he witnesses the murder of one of his co-workers, he begins to doubt where his allegiance lies. Will Terry end up as corrupt as his brother (Steiger), who is Friendly’s right hand man? Or will the love of the beautiful Edie (Marie Saint) and the guidance of Fr. Barry (Malden) be enough to make him stand up and reveal the truth?

I sometimes find it hard to remember that Marlon Brando wasn’t always an old fat man…admittedly it would be unusual if he was born that way, but he has made such an impact in films such as The Godfather and Apocalypse, Now that it is very difficult to picture him any other way.

As mentioned, the plot of this film is relatively straightforward in order to allow the performances to shine through. And it is rare that a film delivers such incredible performances from all of its cast.

Brando, naturally, is a knockout. His now famous speech, in which he tells his brother that he “could have been a contender”, is but one example of how finely attuned he is to the character of Terry Malloy. Little quirks in his character are subtle, yet effective. At one point, Edie drops a glove to the ground while walking with him. He picks the glove up for her, expressing a kind nature, but then proceeds to absent-mindedly put the glove on while continuing to talk, leading the audience to question exactly how much more there is to his character. He is clearly in no way vicious, but is well used to a life of fighting to survive.

His fascination with his pigeons is another quirk in his character which doesn’t synch up with the tough guy persona he attempts to project upon everyone. His interactions with Edie allow Terry to visibly soften on-screen, to rise from being a bum to a somebody worth watching and emphasizing with. It is a true underdog story, and you will find yourself rooting for Terry from the very second his conscience begins to niggle at him, to the final, adrenaline pumped, fist fight at the film’s conclusion.

Edie herself is also a character of many layers. From the very beginning, she is portrayed as a tough and capable woman, fighting on the docks with the rest of the workers for a pay packet. However, it becomes quickly apparent that she is not so one-dimensional, that she is far more delicate than she would have anyone believe. And as soon as this impression has been made, her soft nature is replaced yet again by a tough exterior.

Fr. Barry gives a number of stirring speeches also, providing the film with some real punch to stir emotion in the audience. His speech in the hold, in which he preaches to the workers on the waterfront to rise up against Johnny Friendly, is particularly moving.

Johnny Friendly himself is also a strong, yet complicated, presence. He is as threatening off-screen as he is on. His influence over everyone is the cause of the dark atmosphere which pervades the film. Yet the man himself, while unashamedly proud and grotesquely arrogant, is nonetheless a weak man, who expresses this weakness in bullying other people.


All of these memorable characters come together in a very rich story, that is genuinely engaging for the audience. A simple, yet compelling narrative dealing with fear, truth, and aspirations, it is easily accessible, and an unforgettable classic.

Awful Rating: 9/10

You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” – Terry Malloy

Shamelessly Awful Facts:

  • Another movie that I was supposed to study, this time for secondary school, but didn’t really get around to it. The teacher said, you have to pick a film to study for the exam this year. Almost before he’d finished the sentence, there were cries of:
    “The Matrix!”
    “X-men 2!”
    “The Big Lebowski!”
    “Lord of the Rings!”
    In the end, he decided to pick a film for us, because we just wouldn’t shut the hell up.
  • I had heard the quote “I coulda been a contender” many times when I was a kid. In my innocence, I thought it was a quote from the TV show Gladiators. I forget why.
Published in: on September 7, 2011 at 11:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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