Film review of “On the Waterfront”

Elia Kazan’s 1954 award winning film On the Waterfront, tells a story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) a man who puts his life on the line to stand against the corruption created by the union leader John Friendly. The film emphasizes the moral (and physical) battles that Terry must fight to bring about the destruction of the dangerous union kingpin.

The film begins with Terry working with Friendly, to prevent another worker (Joey) from testifying against Friendly in a murder case. Terry was alarmed when the other men he works with killed Joey by pushing him off a multistory building. Adding the  shock from the murder he witnessed to a fixed boxing game leading to Terry’s loss,  Terry’s trust and faith in Friendly crumbles away. Terry states in the film, “I am with me”, stating that he looks out for himself, a very similar statement to the one that was made by Casablanca’s lead character, Rich “I stick my neck out for nobody”. And much like Casablanca, the viewer observes a transformation in the characters selfish attitude, or a breaking away of the hard outer shell. Much of this attitude shift was due to Father Barry’s guidance.  As Terry struggles with self worth the father asks “how much is your soul worth if you don’t [testify against Friendly]?” This question guides Terry to stop fighting for himself and take the first step over the threshold. The fathers role in this film is to guide and aid the hero to make moral choices. But is the father really the only one that fits the criteria of Campbell’s supernatural aid? Joey’s sister, Edie, a strong willed and eager character is also seen as a moral guide, she continually convinces and guides Terry to stand up against the injustice occurring on the waterfront.

After several confrontations and challenging trials, Terry makes his way to the heart of the corruption. The final and most powerful scene of the film starts with Terry calling Friendly out of the little shack down by the docks. In this scene, Terry is again confirming his role as the hero as he steps into Campbell’s “Belly of the whale”, in which crossing the “threshold is a form of self-annihilation”(Pg77). Terry is beaten within an inch of his life. But with the strength and encouragement with both his aids (The father and Edie), Terry is raised to his feet.

The camera work utilized in the final scene, creates a connection between the viewer and the character. As beaten Terry walks past the crowd of workers, there is a shifting in lens focus as if to see through the eyes of Terry as he stumbles along the walkway. As Terry pushes through this final trial in the film, we are brought into the emotion and pain through the use of close-ups and low-angled single shots at his stumbling feet and beaten face. The clever camera angles work together to create a greater emotional response from the viewer.