Terry Malloy (Brando) is a New Jersey dock worker whose brother is in the mob. That mob runs the Worker’s Union, and as long as you play by the rules you get the chance to work that day. Of course, playing by the rules means making sure the police and the Waterfront Crime Commission don’t ever find witnesses to the string of murders they know mob boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb) has ordered. In order to subsist, you have to simply let crime pay.
Terry was a boxer who could have fought his way out of the slums, but he took a dive on his brother’s orders so that he could win a bet. He’s also used in the murder of a popular dock worker who was thinking about flipping to the Crime Commission. When Terry falls in love with the slain worker’s sister, he’s finally jarred out of his lifetime of subservience and finds it within himself to actually stand up for what he believes is right — not just for himself, but for every other dock worker under the boot-heel of Johnny Friendly.
On the Waterfront is a story about a man coming into his own sense of morality, and what that compels him to do in the face of systemic corruption. When everyone around you has a tacit acceptance of social injustice as the way things are, it can be impossible to speak out against it. We have an earnest belief that it only takes one person to get the ball rolling, and once the process has been started momentum will take care of the rest. The death of Joey Doyle is that inciting incident, and Terry simply picks up from there to finish the job.
What’s interesting about this film to me is how the idea of standing up for social justice becomes so indelibly tied to Terry’s slow but distinct straightening towards manhood. Terry’s arc is that of the man learning to lead his own life; when he tells his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) “I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum”, the regret he’s expressing is not being tempted by his environment to be anything less than the best person he could be. Now, at long last, he’s making a different choice when faced with similar circumstances.
It takes him a while to get around to that point, and he’s coaxed every step of the way by Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint, in her first role) and Father Barry (Karl Marlden). They both know that there’s no difference in Terry’s case between personal redemption and social salvation, and it’s fascinating to watch them patiently lead him to the ideal that doing the right thing so you can be the kind of guy who does what’s right.
Brando embodies Terry with a nervous masculine energy that belongs specifically to him but feels universal. We all struggle to live up to our ideals, and the harder it is to fight against the current the sweeter the victory, no matter how small. The end of the movie feels like a triumph, even though it’s a small show of solidarity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the workers have won over the mob, but it makes an important turning point in the fight.
This is heavy stuff under a paint of 50s melodrama. The performances feel locked firmly in their time, even though the script takes a specific situation to explore universal themes. It’s strange to pull back the ‘coating’ of the movie and find yourself identifying with it so strongly. Admittedly, the dated production can make the barrier to entry too steep for some, but it’s worth doing. The discovery of such a rich movie is worth taking it on its own terms.