Bad Boy With A Heart Of Gold
Everyone remembers On The Waterfront for one thing: Marlon Brando screaming "I could'a been a contender!"
It's not just that that's an awesome line. It's not just that Brando does his Brando-thing and makes that line sound like the most melancholy-yet-virile thing ever said. (Brando's steez is all about melancholy virility. Even seen A Streetcar Named Desire?)
It's that the line is crazy-characterizing. Terry Malloy is, to put it gently, a total screw-up. He threw a fight that cost him his career. He's stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end town. He's a self-professed "bum."
And, oh yeah: he helped a dude get whacked by the mob. Oof. You don't just go rescue a cat from a tree and wipe that one off your conscience.
Because that's the thing: Terry has a conscience. He's sick to death about the way he's led his life.
It's The Hard-Knock Life For Terry
Sure, he's also been jerked around by fate. After a tough childhood growing up as an orphan, he and Charley found their way into the world of the waterfront gangs. Then, Terry had a chance for some serious glory days as a boxer—which was halted when his brother Charley put money on Terry's opponent and Terry had to take a fall (in exchange for a cut of the money).
Terry learned a couple of massive lessons from this—#1: cheaters never prosper, and #2: Charley and the union gangsters don't care about the individual human beings…just about getting paid.
Well, make that one and a half lessons. Because when we meet Terry, he's still coming to terms with the fact that his bro doesn't have his back, and the fact that Johnny Friendly has the most ironic name this side of Waiting For Godot's (super-unlucky) Lucky.
But Johnny Friendly and Charley's justifications for what they do start to ring hollow, especially after they orchestrate Joey Doyle's murder using Terry as their unwitting pawn. (They have Terry lure Joey onto a roof, telling him they're going to try to talk sense into him. Then, Johnny's thugs push Joey off the roof, killing him. This kind of maneuver is not found in The Friendly Man's Handbook.)
Terry has a conscience, but he can't find the courage to follow it he makes some human connections: in the form of Barry the priest and the prettier form of Edie, the sister of Joey.
Edie wins Terry's pity—and his heart. He feels bad about what happened to her brother—and his role in it—so he's trying to make it up to her. Bonus: he also thinks she's totally foxy.
Conscience Creepin' Up on You
If his love for Edie tenderly works on Terry's heartstrings, the local priest, Father Barry, badgers him into submission. Barry lays down the old-fashioned guilt-trip. This probably wouldn't work on a bad guy like Johnny Friendly—he's too full of his own self-righteousness to feel shame.
But Terry's so good-heartedly human that he can't help but feel guilt and shame. And not only does Barry force him to turn against his brother and the gang members—he makes him confess his role in Joey's death to Edie. Not an easy thing for a relationship to bounce back from.
Terry expresses his guilty conscience early on. After Joey's death, he's openly guilt-stricken in front of Johnny, and he doesn't want to go spy on Father Barry when Johnny orders him to. (Father Barry is organizing the dockworkers, to try to get them to testify against Johnny for killing Joey, finally breaking the gangster's hold on the docks).
Terry finally agrees to go to the meeting, but he uses it as an opportunity to cover for Barry (later, he denies that Barry was conspiring against Johnny, even though he was). When Johnny's thugs shut down the meeting and beat up the dockworkers—smashing a church window in the process—Terry helps Edie escape without harm. And it's not just that he has a crush, and it's not just that he's a chivalrous sort of dude.
Terry can't escape his conscience—it torments him. He even says out loud:
TERRY: Conscience… that stuff can drive you nuts!
(Yeah: Terry doesn't exactly occlude his meaning with fancy wordplay. He's a straight-shooter.)
When Johnny arranges the death of another dockworker—Kayo Dugan, who was going to testify against him—Terry's conscience goes from aching slightly to becoming a full-on conscience migraine.
But even though Terry's just a sweet little puppy dog on the inside, he tries to project a cynical tough-guy worldview. He tells Edie:
TERRY: You wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.
He also asks her if she really "believes that drool" when she tells him about her philosophy of showing compassion towards other people. But we—and eventually Edie—know that this is just an act. Terry's really just a big softie.
Finally, after some more hounding by Barry, Terry caves. He agrees to testify against Johnny—and to tell Edie the awful truth about the role he played in her brother's death. She doesn't take it too well, and runs away from him…but that's just what you get when you play a pivotal role in the murder of your sweetie-pie's brother.
But even after this, Terry has to face his biggest challenge. He has to go against Charley, his own brother. And remember: Terry doesn't have a whole lot in the way of fam. He's an orphan, so Charley is pretty much his entire world.
Terry starts to realize what his brother's made of, however, during the same time he starts to reconnect with his own conscience. Charley doesn't express any sincere regret about Joey's death, or question Johnny's motives. He doesn't have Terry's heart of gold…and Terry's realization of this fact is what gives him the courage to step up to Big C.
And it's during this "Oh Dang, My Brother's A Scumbag" epiphany that Terry gives his most famous monologue:
TERRY: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that 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 what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.
CHARLEY: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
TERRY: 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. It was you, Charley.
And because of this stirring speech, Charley does the decent thing (for once in his life). He lets Terry escape, instead of handing him over to Johnny Not-So-Friendly. Maybe conscience does run in the family.
After letting Charley have a piece of his mind, Terry runs over to Edie's where they make up. Unfortunately, the romance of their make-up sesh is dampened a wee bit by the fact that Johnny's thugs kill Charley and hang him on a meat hook outside of Edie's place.
Yeah. That will kill the mood pretty quick.
Revenge is a Dish Best Served in Court
In a plot twist that will surprise exactly no one, Terry does not take the murder of his brother very well. He wants to react with violence and go all Rambo on Johnny and Johnny's men. He grabs a gun, and gets ready to use it.
But Father Barry slaps some sense into him: he has to defeat Johnny the legal way, by testifying against him in court and bringing him down in public. Despite his total impulse towards revenge, Terry agrees.
Testifying in court is the hard way out, and the fact that Terry decides against giving Johnny a beat-down testifies to his character. But wait: there's more character development in store for our man Terry.
After he testifies against Johnny—ending the union gang's stranglehold on the docks—he has to show up at work the next day. Even though Johnny's technically lost, he's still in control for the moment. When Terry refuses to leave the docks, Johnny and his henchman beat him into a bloody pulp. (Don't worry: Brando still looks dreamy even with a bloody nose.)
And Terry delivers a final (metaphorical) blow. He picks himself up and—in front of everyone—walks into the docks. All the workers follow him, snubbing Johnny's authority and essentially destroying his hold on the docks.
By the end of the movie, Terry's bruised and limping, but he's completely redeemed himself—even Edie's romantically involved with him again. It's a happy ending for Terry…although we'd encourage him to get some therapy after all he's been through.