Title: On the Waterfront
Release Date: 22 June, 1954
Oscar Ceremony: 30 March, 1955
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
Nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain
“You know this city’s full of hawks? That’s a fact. They hang around on the top of the big hotels. And they spot a pigeon in the park. Right down on him.” – Terry Malloy
I had often heard about this movie prior to watching it, but for some reason, I was under the impression that it was a war movie involving ships. Don’t ask why. It was a pleasant surprise to find out it wasn’t. Even better, it was so much more than what I expected.
The one and only Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a young dockworker who gets involved in the mob through his older brother Charley, who is the right-hand man of Johnny Friendly (oh, the irony of his name), the longshoremen union boss. Friendly and his men are responsible for a number of deaths, but everyone around them plays D & D (deaf and dumb) because they have witnessed firsthand what can happen to informants. Basically, there’s a whole lot of corruption going on, but everyone sort of goes along with it out of fear and habit.
One night, Terry is tricked into luring one of his fellow dockworkers, Joey Doyle, on the roof of his building, where Friendly’s men kill him. Terry simply assumed they were going to “lean on” him and pressure him into keeping quiet; he didn’t realize they were actually going to kill him. When the town, led by the waterfront priest, starts looking into the murder, Terry initially intends on keeping quiet. After all, this is his life now. However, things change when he meets Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie, and starts falling for her. In a risky battle with his conscience, Terry must decide on a course of action.
The first thing that stood out to me about On the Waterfront is that it does a great job at reeling you right in; the movie starts with Joey’s death and Marlon Brando’s distinct presence as Terry. You’re immediately sold and tempted to find out more. It doesn’t take very long to learn who everyone is and why you should care about this story. Moreover, the romantic interest is not just a sub-plot; it’s an integral part of the story and does not feel forced. Terry’s internal struggle and agony over the ethical and moral dilemma he faces is palpable. It’s true that some of the scenes have a slight tendency to feel overly cheesy, but somehow everything just works.
I’m a bit of a sucker for symbols. I don’t know whether that’s because I studied literature for so long or that’s just who I am. Either way, On the Waterfront has a very strong one; pigeons. At the start of the film, we learn that Joey Doyle keeps a pigeon coop on the roof of his building. After his death, Terry takes over. Pigeons aren’t normally majestic, powerful birds; they’re street birds and you can literally find them everywhere. However, believe it or not, they’re from the same family as doves, which are inherent symbols of peace. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for larger birds to prey on pigeons, just as you can deduce from the quote I included at the beginning of this review. I guess you could see the common, working-class population as pigeons, and the big-shot mob guys as hawks. Pigeons are the everyday man trying to get by in a world where they know a hawk can eat them up any day. Pigeons also represent Joey’s innocence. There’s a special meaning to me there since my beloved little pet bird who died about a year and a half ago was also named Joey. We come full circle.
In the end, while mob-controlled dockworker unions might not be a very relatable subject to modern audiences, On the Waterfront exhibits a sort of timelessness that still makes it very accessible today. The beauty of its shots combined with Marlon Brando’s refined subtle acting make this a remarkable motion picture that won’t be forgotten for a very long time.