On the Waterfront
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Elia Kazan
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Written by Budd Schulberg
Lee J. Cobb
Eva Marie Saint
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Cinematography Boris Kaufman
Editing by Gene Milford
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
July 28, 1954
Running time 108 minutes
Country United States
Box office $9,600,000
On the Waterfront is a 1954 American crime drama film about union violence and corruption amongst longshoremen. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. It stars Marlon Brando and features Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and, in her film debut, Eva Marie Saint. The soundtrack score was composed by Leonard Bernstein. It is based on Crime on the Waterfront, a series of articles published in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson that won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The stories detailed widespread corruption, extortion, and racketeering on the waterfronts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
On the Waterfront was a critical and commercial success and received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan. In 1997 it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth-greatest American movie of all time. It is Bernstein’s only original film score not adapted from a stage production with songs.
Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) gloats about his iron-fisted control of the waterfront. The police and the Waterfront Crime Commission know that Friendly is behind a number of murders, but witnesses play “D and D” (“deaf and dumb”), accepting their subservient position rather than risking the danger and shame of informing.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker whose brother Charley “The Gent” (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man. Some years earlier, Terry had been a promising boxer, until Friendly had Charley instruct him to deliberately lose a fight that he could have won, so that Friendly could win money betting against him.
Terry meets and is smitten by Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner). She has shamed “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Terry is used to coax Joey, a popular dockworker, into an ambush, preventing him from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry assumed that Friendly’s enforcers were only going to “lean” on Joey in an effort to pressure him to avoid talking, and is surprised when Joey is killed. Although Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey’s death, and despite Father Barry’s impassioned “sermon on the docks” reminding the longshoremen that Christ walks among them and that every murder is a Calvary, Terry is nevertheless willing to remain “D and D”.
Soon both Edie and Father Barry urge Terry to testify. Another dockworker, Timothy J. “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify after Father Barry’s promise of unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.
As Terry, tormented by his awakening conscience, increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry with a good job and finally threatens Terry by holding a gun against him, but recognizes that he has failed to sway Terry, who places the blame for his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. In what has become an iconic scene, Terry reminds Charley that had it not been for the fixed fight, Terry’s career would have bloomed. “I coulda’ been a contender”, laments Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it, Charley.” Charley gives Terry the gun and advises him to run. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered, his body hanged in an alley as bait to get at Terry. Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry obstructs that course of action and finally convinces Terry to fight Friendly by testifying.
After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Edie tries persuading him to leave the waterfront with her, but he nonetheless shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry openly confronts Friendly, calling him out and proclaiming that he is proud of what he did.
Finally the confrontation develops into a vicious brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly’s thugs gang up on Terry and beat him nearly to death. The dockworkers, who witnessed the confrontation, declare their support for Terry and refuse to work unless Terry is working too. Finally, the badly wounded Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other longshoremen despite Friendly’s threats.