Study Guide

On the Waterfront Introduction

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On the Waterfront Introduction

Release Year: 1954

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance

Director: Elia Kazan

Writer: Budd Schulberg

Stars: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb

Hollywood is full of movies about normal men doing great things. An oil driller saves the world from an asteroid in Armageddon. A cable guy saves the world from aliens in Independence Day. A farmer saves humanity from crop failure in Interstellar.

And in On the Waterfront, a washed-up boxer…walks to work.

Okay, we're not been completely fair. Before clocking in, ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Brando) has to endure a rough childhood, a mob-affiliated brother, witnessing a couple of murders, getting his own life threatened a handful of times, turning police informant, and getting the living snot beaten out of him.

But if you're still a little underwhelmed that all Terry does is go do his job on a weekday—well, that's kind of Elia Kazan's point. This ain't the apocalypse. This is 100% pure, unadulterated social realism.

Terry Malloy has to tackle the issue of corruption in dockworkers unions on the East Coast—specifically, in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the time (the movie came out in 1954) this was a big problem in real life: the longshoremen's union had stopped serving the workers, becoming a mob-run outfit that shook down its members for cash and profited only a select few at the top. It even killed people.

In the movie, the gangsters who run the dockworkers union push a guy named Joey Doyle off a roof to prevent him from telling the cops about their illegal activities. Understandably, Tery's not so eager to turn snitch at first, but he realizes that it's the right thing to do.

Plus, Terry wants to get with Joey's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint)…and ratting out the murderers of her brother is a good way of showing her that he really cares.

Heroes…Or Rats?

The screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, and director, Elia Kazan, decided to wrestle with the issue of "snitches get stiches" because it was important and extremely relevant…and because they had both done a little snitching of their own.


Kazan and Schulberg had named names of film industry Communists to Congress during the HUAC hearings in 1952. You can see On the Waterfront as a sharp rebuttal to these critics: the filmmakers wanted to explain their state of mind, comparing their situation to Terry's.

But you don't have to be personally invested in what was going on in 1950's longshoremen's unions or in the blacklisting of Hollywood Communist to appreciate why the movie has been so awarded and so honored.

Given its social relevance and amazing performances, the movie racked up the Oscars in a big way: On the Waterfront won Best Picture, Kazan got Best Director, Brando snagged a Best Actor win, Schulberg won Best Screenplay, and Eva Marie Saint won Best Supporting Actress.

That's a lot of "bests," showing that this movie has endured the test of time for a reason. Some critics consider Brando's turn as Terry to be one of the very finest performances by the greatest actor of all time.

On the Waterfront is a film for anyone who's ever been an underdog, anyone who's ever had to stand up to the majority, and anyone who "coulda been a contender"—as the movie's most famous line would put it.

What is On the Waterfront About and Why Should I Care?

Bob Marley once sang the words, "Get up, stand up—stand up for your rights." And in On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy does exactly that: he stands up for not only his, but all of his fellow dockworkers' rights.

And guess what he gets a reward? A thank-you card? A nice bottle of bubble bath? A teddy bear with a heart embroidered on his tummy?

Yeah; no. He gets a bloody nose, a split lip, a black eye, and a near-death experience. Which is still better than what his brother (and a cage full of unfortunate pigeons) gets, which is a death-death experience.

"But what about the very end of the movie?" you ask. "Surely all those happy dockworkers buy Terry a drink/a cheeseburger/ a Groupon for a discounted mani-pedi?"

Still no. Terry's ultimate reward is the foreman yelling, "Let's go to work!"

This ain't a movie for those of you who hear Bob Marley's lyrics and think "Oh yeah. I'll stand up for my rights and then I'll get to bask in glory." This is a movie for the idealistic realist in you, that sober, sensible-shoes wearing inner voice that knows that one good turn is often followed by…a punch in the face.

And then another punch in the face.

And then maybe—just maybe—a sense of having done some good and having your conscience feel as a clear as a newly-Roomba'ed carpet.

On the Waterfront says you need to follow your principles, even if everyone turns against you. Mahatma Gandhi called this satyagraha or "firmness in the truth"—and if Gandhi adheres to it, it's a safe bet it's a pretty sound idea. (Source)

There are other, artistic reasons you should care about On the Waterfront. It features Marlon Brando—considered by many to be the greatest film actor who ever lived—at the top of his game. Watching him play Terry is a triple-shot of realness. He almost mumbles lines sometimes, but it feels so totally real. (Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden deliver some top-form realness as well.)

So, whether you watch because you love intense moral dilemmas or because you want to see top-shelf premium acting, On the Waterfront will make you feel as free as one of Joey Doyle's pet pigeons.

Well, as free as the ones who don't get killed, anyway.


If Kazan had hired this guy to play Terry, he probably would've received a gift basket of bottles of Newman's Own Dressing. In order to convince the producers that Marlon Brando would be right for the role—and to convince Brando himself—Elia Kazan held another audition with an actor from the same school of acting ("The Method," as practiced at The Actors Studio): Paul Newman. This provoked Brando to hop onboard, and the producers to accept him. (Source)

Start spreading the news…Frank's leaving today. Originally, Sam Spiegel told Frank Sinatra he could play the role of Terry. Eventually, Kazan convinced him Sinatra wouldn't be right for the role, so they gave it to Brando. Sinatra was really ticked. (Source)

Did Sam Spiegel drive Budd Schulberg to the point of almost committing murder most foul? After agreeing to make Schulberg's screenplay, Spiegel harassed him over and over again to make changes to his script. At one point, Schulberg's wife woke up and found him shaving at 3:30 in the morning. He told her he was heading to New York to kill Sam Spiegel (probably not a serious comment). Fortunately, he didn't. (Source)

Originally, Arthur Miller—the famous playwright—wrote a script about waterfront corruption entitled "The Hook." His friend Kazan was scheduled to direct, but they couldn't get anyone to make it, and Kazan and Miller had a falling out over. (Source)

Marlon Brando had a memory lapse—a brain fart, in other words. He claimed he improvised the famous "I coulda been a contender" line—but this was totally untrue. Budd Schulberg came up with the line, and it is in the original script. But Brando did consult with Kazan, and they decided to have Brando sadly push away Charley's gun after delivering that part of the speech. So maybe he somehow confused that with coming up with one of the most famous lines in movie history... (Source)

There was a real crime-fighting super-priest behind the Father Barry character. He was actually based on Father John Corridan, who fought against waterfront corruption, while Johnny Friendly was based on a combination of mafia members involved in union corruption. (Source)

On the Waterfront Resources


On the Waterfront IMDB Page
If you like tables and lists and stuff—not necessarily the superb in-depth analysis provided by your trusty and scholarly guides at Shmoop—you maybe should kind of be slightly interested in checking out IMDB. It is the "internet movie database" after all, and it's got some serious data on On the Waterfront.

On the Waterfront Filmsite Page
Look at the name of the site—"Filmsite." Clearly, it's a site about films. Clearly, it's going to have info about On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Rotten Tomatoes Page
No one would throw rotten tomatoes at On the Waterfront. They would serve it delicious hipster heirloom tomatoes because it's just so good. And that's what most of the critics on here did, through their positive reviews.

On the Waterfront from the Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection's criterion for including it in its collection is that the movie be awesome. On the Waterfront is awesome, so it's in the collection. There's also lots of cool interviews and clips on here.

On the Waterfront TCM Page
Decode the acronym: TCM means "Turner Classic Movies." And On the Waterfront is a classic—so the good folks over at TCM have something to say about it. Probably something like, "It is a classic."

On the Waterfront AFI Page
This has a cast list and other info, courtesy of the AFI. 'Nuff said.

On the Waterfront Metacritic Page
Like Rotten Tomatoes, this page offers a collection of reviews from critics. Like on the Rotten Tomatoes page, they usually like On the Waterfront.


Waterfront by Budd Schulberg
After writing the script for On the Waterfront, Schulberg wrote this novel—which isn't exactly a "novelization" of the movie. It changes the plot, and goes more deeply into the social and cultural realities of life on the docks.


The New York Times' Original Review of On the Waterfront
The New York Times liked On the Waterfront. How couldn't you? But they also said it "oversimplified" the nature of life on the docks. A little nit-picky, perhaps?

Roger Ebert Reviews On the Waterfront
Ebert re-reviewed the movie in 1999 and found that it was still fresh. No surprise there. He also talks a little about how it was Kazan's justification of his own testimony to Congress.

Film Notes on On the Waterfront from The New York State Writers Institute
These film notes focus on the controversy of Kazan's stand—or snitching, depending on your perspective.

The AVClub Reviews On the Waterfront
This re-appraisal—like Ebert's—also concludes that the movie is still awesome. And like some of the other movies on here, it discusses the snitching controversy that followed Kazan around.

American Legends Interviews Screenwriter Budd Schulberg
Schulberg dishes on how Frank Sinatra was promised Terry's role and then denied it. He also discusses the actual priest who inspired Father Barry's character and what life on the Hoboken docks was really like.

Variety Reviews On the Waterfront
Like everyone else, the Variety reviewer also thought On the Waterfront was the bee's knees. (Bee's have very attractive knees, if you didn't know).

Interview with Elia Kazan from The New York Times
Kazan talks about making On the Waterfront and also goes into how he was ostracized for testifying against his former Communist associates. He strongly holds to the idea that his testimony was based on principle.

Truman Capote Interviews Marlon Brando in 1957
Capote—famous author of In Cold Blood—and fan of Studio 54's disco scene, chats with Brando about acting, movies, and so on.

The Santa Barbara Independent Talks with Eva Marie Saint about On the Waterfront
Eva Marie Saint, well into her 80's, looks back at the experience of making On the Waterfront and what it was like to play Edie.

The AVClub Interviews Eva Marie Saint
Eva Marie Saint talks about what it was like to work with Kazan and Hitchcock, and why she still keeps up on the lives of longshoremen.

Spiegel's Mighty Shadow
Spiegel was both a blessing in the making of On the Waterfront—he produced it, after all—and a manipulator, who tried to play Schulberg and Kazan off each other, without much success. This is an interesting look into the man behind the men.


On the Waterfront's Original Trailer
The opening part of the trailer basically says, "This is an amazing movie, Marlon Brando's a great actor, and you must love this." It's not wrong.

"I Coulda Been a Contender" – Clip
This has been parodied so many times, you forget how moving and real-feeling the actual scene is.

Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones Discuss On the Waterfront
Scorsese (director of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street) absolutely loves Elia Kazan and his movies. He's not blaming him for testifying against his former Communist comrades.

Terry and Edie Get to Know Each Other – Clip
A nice little walk in the park between two soon-to-be lovers—but little does Edie know that Terry (inadvertently) helped kill her brother.

Terry Confronts Johnny – Clip
Terry gets a licking, but—in true form—keeps on ticking.

Father Barry's Speech about Christ – Clip
This is one of the movie's most famous speeches. Father Barry gives an impassioned speech on how any injustice against innocent people is the same as the crucifixion.

Father Barry Yells at Terry – Clip
Barry has to bellow some sense into poor Terry. It's the only way to reach his conscience.

"Death in a Dark Alley" – Clip (Note the Bernstein Score)
This creepy scene shows Terry and Edie finding Charley's dead body. It's almost like something the killer from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would've cooked up—Charley's hanging on a meat hook, or appears to be.


Elia Kazan and Eva Marie Saint Discuss On the Waterfront
Kazan and Saint Marie discuss their movie on a radio broadcast from 1954. Kazan also mentions working on East of Eden with a famous (though doomed) young actor by the name of James Dean.

Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Bernstein's suite covers a wide range of emotions, from dramatic violence to tender feelings. It's got a lot going on.


On the Waterfront Film Poster
This is a cool poster, but it makes it look like Terry and Edie are being menaced by some sort of glowing radioactive monster.

Another On the Waterfront Film Poster
This poster has a scared-looking Terry, who also looks like a vampire. Nice.

Brando as Terry, Down at the Docks
Marlon Brando, playing Terry, pops his collar way up down at the docks. It's cold.

Charley Pulls a Gun on Terry… His Own Brother
Man, that's low—pulling a gun on your own brother. We're shaking our heads at the Shmoop offices. Just a shame. (Rod Steiger is the actor playing Charley).

Terry's Bloody Face
Terry looks pretty rough. He's got blood pouring out of his nose, and a cut above his eyebrow. Of course, it's probably just ketchup.

Eva Marie Saint as Edie
Here's Eva Marie Saint as Edie, giving a half-smile and wearing a coat.

Karl Malden as Father Barry
Barry's smoking a droopy cigarette in this picture. A smoking priest…shaking our heads.

Lee J. Cobb as Johnny
Lee J. Cobb is gesturing in a very threatening fashion, pointing an angry finger.

Director Elia Kazan
This is Kazan—the great director, the controversial foe of Communism, the man with the awesome "Method" actors.

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg
Those are some cool tinted glasses. Schulberg's looking pretty slick in this picture—indeed, dapper.

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