Study Guide

On the Waterfront Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb)

Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb)

That name. That name.

Imagine if Darth Vader had been named Darth GoodPapa, or if Cruella deVil had been named LovesPuppies deVil, or if Voldemort had been named CuteWizard. Yeah. That's about the level of name-level irony we're working with here.

Johnny's not exactly the nicest dude. He has his henchmen push would-be snitches off roofs and smash them with whiskey crates. This is probably fun for him and his cronies, but not exactly…friendly.

But why is Johnny so brutal? Is he just a guy who likes to cause chaos for kicks, like The Joker from Batman? Nah. His reasons are more mundane.

Johnny controls the longshoremen's union on the waterfront in Hoboken. Does this make him a labor leader with concern for people's welfare? Not even slightly. He uses the union for his and his cronies' own power and enrichment. He's not helping the workers: he's exploiting them.

We first get to spend a little time with Johnny after Terry starts moping about Joey's death. After kicking another guy out of the gang for not paying the money he owed, Johnny serves up a hot dish of self-justification to Terry:

JOHNNY: Listen kid, I'm a soft tough too. Ask any rummy on the dock if I'm not good for a fin any time they put the arm on me. But my old lady raised us ten kids on a stinkin' watchman's pension. When I was sixteen I had to beg for work in the hold. I didn't work my way up out of there for nuthin'.

TERRY: I know, Johnny, I know…

JOHNNY: Takin' over this local, you know it took a little doin'. Some pretty tough fellas were in the way. They left me this (shows Terry a scar on his neck) to remember them by.

So, Johnny views himself as a scrappy underdog with heart, who fought his way to the top. His justifications are a little self-pitying too. But, in reality, he's a ruthless guy who bosses everyone else and will kill to stay in power. He thinks he's mini-Mother Teresa, but he's actually a mini-Hitler.

Almost a Psycho Killer

And Johnny doesn't stop with ordering Joey's death. He later orders Dugan's death after Dugan plans on testifying against Johnny—and he forces Terry to spy on Barry, even though Terry's already in the dumps after Joey's death.

He plans on killing Terry, and forces Charley (Johnny's right-hand man and Terry's brother) to talk sense into him. But Charley lets Terry escape. So, demonstrating his own ruthlessness, Johnny has Charley killed and leaves his body hanging on a meat hook for Terry to discover.

That's messed up.

That's like something Jason from Friday the 13th would do. It just goes to show: Johnny's whole way of interacting with the world is based on force and stab-happiness. It's the opposite of Barry and Edie's way of interacting with people: you know, based on love and the pursuit of justice.

But Johnny isn't defeated through force. If Terry shot Johnny or beat him to a bloody pulp, they'd be stooping to his level. Instead of beating him at his own game, they beat him at a different game.

First, he gets beat in court—Terry testifies against him for murdering Joey—and then Terry picks himself up after Johnny's gang beats him up, and walks into work. All the other workers follow Terry, leaving Johnny looking clueless and whiny. He complains uselessly:

JOHNNY: Where you guys going? Wait a minute! I'll remember this! I'll remember every one of you! I'll be back! Don't you forget that! I'll be back!

So, that's Johnny—a bad guy coming to a bad end. He wielded power over other people and kept them in fear. Now, they're all abandoning him and leaving him alone, without his former empire. Plus, he's probably going to get convicted of murder.

See you in court, Johnny.