On the Waterfront is a classic, controversial andaward-winning film, receiving eight academy-awards including best actor,best-picture and director (1954). Eliza Kazan (director), in collaboration withBudd Schulberg wrote the film’s screenplay, basing it on actual events of adock worker who tried to overthrow a corrupt union. Elia Kazan wasbehind this project and having worked with Brando at the Actors Studio, Kazanwas aware of Brando’s talents and knew the benefits of improvisation in acting.Kazan considered communism to be anevil threat to the American way of life, therefore trying to portray hisdecision to testify as an superhuman act. Kazan wanted to stress the point thatthose who testify are brave and not cowards.
Thefilm starts off with Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) getting Joey Doyle on theroof after having found one of his pigeons. From here we learn, Joey is wantedby the mob however he still goes up the roof. The idea of trust for Terry isfelt. Unfortunately, the whole act was a set-up. Joey is seen being thrown offthe roof.
Terry’s reaction as he stands on the sidewalk alongside his brotherCharley and two other gangsters. Terry is clearly upset. “I thought they wasgonna talk to him and get him to dummy up. I figured the worst they was gonnado is lean on him a little bit,”. We later learn that this wasn’t the firsttime Charley used his kid brother for his own benefit. MarlonBrando projects the idea of Terry Malloy as an angst and confused person tryingto find his voice in familiar but newly threatening surroundings.
An individualwho abides by his principles with his actions reflecting his struggle. This canbe seen by the way he chews gum expressively, shrugs, halts behind, has hiscollar up, and stuffs his hands in his pockets. These actions are verballyinexpressive. Brando conveys Malloy’s inner life through these gestures bothverbally and emotionally, since the script gives Malloy so little expressverbally.
Slowly,through the film we learn Terry is struggling to pick a side. No other actorcould better express a slow and continuing character change as Brando. When Terryrealises Edie Doyle’s antics, Brando’s character plays with his jacket zipper consequentlyinciting something is troubling his mind. Brando’s use of body language is asclear as the expressive acting of the silent era. Edie:”Which side are you with?” Terry:”Me? I’m with me—Terry.”Whenambushed at the secret meeting, Terry helps Edie to escape. As they walkthrough the park after escaping, a hesitant Edie tries to figure out who Terryis.
Terry’s casual answer here reveals a streak of naïveté, assuming he isindependent, he clearly is being used by Johnny Friendly and Charlie “theGent”. This can be seen when attending the meeting at the church which hewouldn’t have attended if he were truly on his own. As Terry progresses throughthe events he begins to act on his concise, making the statement aboveincreasingly true. Nevertheless, this reveals his awareness that he wantsnothing of the life either side can offer him. The film traces Terry’sdiscovery of who that “me” really is. Brando’sscenes with Doyle show an unseeingly unconscious fiddling especially the whiteglove scene which gives off the entire rhythm of the scene and adds to theunexpected nature of each step. It creates a second dynamic.
The first dynamicis their private, delicate conversation, and the second gives meaning to theirphysical interaction. Dropping the glove makes Edie unsure of whatshe wants to do with her body. Should she reach out to grab the glove, orpolitely await its return? She cycles unconsciously and hesitantly throughvarious options, even as she keeps up an intimate conversation. Each parry andthrust of her initial step and Malloy’s teasing sends an electric chargethrough the scene. Improvisation is a method of departing from the writtenscript and exploring an avenue or an intuition because it feels right or is “incharacter.” The famous “white glove” scene began as improvisation.
Father Barry (KarlMalden) drives Terry during one of their speeches, convincing him to actagainst the mob. Meanwhile, a change can be seen occurring in Terry when one ofthe mobs attempt to attack the priest, Terry knocks them out. Father Barry’suse of words indirectly sparks a fire in Terry. Words a boxer could identifywith.
“What they did to Joey, what they did to Nolan, they’re doing to you. Andyou. And YOU. And only you, with God’s help, have the power to knock ’em offfor good!” Terry views the priest as a boxing coach. Strongacting is notable in the taxicab scene. Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando arenavigating through charged emotional territory.
The actors’ unconventionalreactions throw the audience off guard. Steiger’s portrayal of Charlie not being able to stop fiddling with hisgloves and Terry doesn’t flee the pistol but rather calmly turns it aside. Asense of uncomfortable chemistry between the brothers occurs and it is allcomes out in this scene.
Both Brando and Steiger bare their souls in this sceneand great acting rarely live up to their hype. The script has given them veryfew words, and the words, too, are rather conventional. The actors’ choice ofspecific facial expressions makes those few words powerful along with thepauses and ellipses between and around the spoken words, creating volumes ofmeaning and emotion. “It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Rememberthat night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid,this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.
‘ You remember that?’This ain’t your night!’ My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So whathappens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? Aone-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shouldalooked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bitso I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.” Terry ultimatelyopens up and expresses to his brother how he really feels ending his speechwith “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. Icoulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. Itwas you, Charley.
” Charleyis not able to look him at his brother during this scene. Shameful andheartbroken, Charles accepts Terry’s decision. We can learn that Terry is nowconfident to express what he wants and isn’t afraid of the consequences. Thetaxi scene was shot three times. There was a two-shot, with both Brando andSteiger visible. Once the camera closed in on Brando so that Steiger wasn’tseen, even though he was there with Brando as someone for Brando to interactwith. However, when it came time for Steiger’s close-ups, the notoriouslycomplex Brando had to leave for a psychotherapy appointment—so Steiger did allhis close-ups with an extra on the set playing Terry Malloy off-screen.
Thatthe scene is such a success is a testament to the power of the acting. Terry’sattempt to avenge his brother’s death is stopped by the priest who directs Terrylike a trainer in a ring corner. “Don’t fight him like a hoodlum down here inthe jungle. That’s just what he wants. He’ll hit you in the head and pleadself-defense. Fight him tomorrow in the courtroom” Terry testifies howeverloses everyone. Yet, still finds goes to the waterfront the next day.
A sign ofliberation can be seen when Terry throws the hook from his shoulder, at theclosed door of Johnny Friendly’s office, symbolizing his liberation. This scenewe see the longshoremen watching the fight between Terry and Friendly, asthough they are boxing fans gathered around a ring. This can be seen as Terry’schampionship match he longed for and to prove he is not a bum.Thepriest aids Terry as a trainer would, “You hear that, Terry? Terry, did youhear that? You lost the battle but you have a chance to win the war. All yougotta do is walk… Johnny Friendly is layin’ odds that you won’t get up.” Thiscan be interpreted as the final round in a boxing match. Everyone is waiting tosee if he will stand back on his feet.
Terrystruggles to get back on his feet but eventually he manages to do it. Terry hasto survive this walk on his own. Eventually Terry proves to himself that heisn’t a ‘bum’ bringing an end to the reign of corruption on the waterfront.Terry Malloy lives up to his speech in being ‘a contender’, he’s a somebody andhas proved he has class.