Situated amid the vast New Jersey waterfront, 5 men conclude a meeting in the Longshoremen Local 374 shed. The dockworkers’ union head, Johnny Friendly, pats the protagonist, Terry Malloy on the back, cheering him on for the ‘job’ he will soon complete for his boss.
That night, Terry Malloy calls out to Joey Doyle’s apartment from the street outside. Terry claims that he has found Joey’s lost pet pigeon. From his window a few floors up, Joey yells that he is reluctant to come outside because he has to ‘watch [himself] these days.’ A fellow longshoreman, Joey has been disclosing information about Friendly’s organised crime to the Waterfront Crime Commission and is wary that Friendly may take extreme steps to silence him. However, Terry assures him that there is ‘nothing to worry about.’ The two agree to meet on the roof so Terry can return the pigeon home. As Joey disappears from the window, Terry releases the pigeon, which eagerly flutters to the roof by itself – indicating that the pigeon was never ‘lost’ to begin with. Terry strolls to the nearby ‘Johnny Friendly’s Bar’ where he meets up with Friendly’s men. Terry’s brother, Charley who is a part of the mob, asks if the plan went accordingly. Terry replies ‘yeah, it worked’. A moment later they hear Joey’s disturbing scream as he falls from the roof to the street below. Terry is shocked, as he had only thought that the mob was only going to ‘talk to Joey and get him to dummy up’ about the Waterfront Crime Commission meetings. It becomes clear that Terry was used as a decoy to draw Joey onto the roof, where Friendly’s men awaited to send Joey to his death – a severe punishment for betraying Friendly. The men head inside the bar for celebration drinks while Terry remains outside, unnerved at his role in Joey’s death.
The police arrive at the crime scene where neighbours have gathered. A woman says that Joey’s death echoes the death of her son 5 years ago. Joey’s father, who also works on the waterfront, is disappointed that his son didn’t ‘shut up’ and ‘keep quiet’ about the crimes. Although the police try to obtain information, no one will reveal what they know about the homicide. All the local people secretly know that Joey was murdered since ‘he was the only longshoreman that had the guts to talk to the crime investigators’ about Friendly’s illegal operations. They also know that ‘you don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions unless you want to wind up like [Joey].’ At Joey’s side is Father Barry, the local priest, who recites prayers while Joey’s sister Edie grieves over her brother’s untimely death and calls for justice for his murder.
Inside Johnny Friendly’s bar, men gather as Charley counts their earnings. Friendly tells Terry to count some money. However, being uneducated, Terry fails to do so and passes it over to his brother. Terry picks a fight with Big Mac, another of Friendly’s men when the latter teases him about his lack of education. Realising that Terry is acting out since he feels unsettled about Joey’s death, Friendly explains that he stands by his decision to eliminate Joey, arguing that ‘we got the fattest piers and the fattest harbour in the world’ and ‘that Doyle bum, who thinks he can squeal to the Crime Commission’ would have ruined everything. In order to ease Terry’s discomfort, Friendly offers him some money and says that Terry will be the first person to be chosen to work at the docks everyday, meaning that he will get the easiest job available. As Terry leaves, his brother yells out ‘you’ve got a real friend here, now don’t forget it.’ The rest of the men gather for their payday.
At the beginning of the film, Terry Malloy is characterised as a vulnerable character who has been placed in an difficult position by the dictating union leader, Friendly. The dramatic beating music accompanying the opening scene foreshadows an evil and intense event about to occur. While the music escalates to Joey’s unfortunate death, it also metaphorically signals the beginning of Terry’s personal journey that he will struggle through for the majority of the film.
Like many of the other stevedores, Terry’s many years on the waterfront has led him to turn a blind eye from the corruption, exploitation, and other crimes committed by the mob. The opening mise-en-scène contrasts the small Longshoremen Local 374 shed with the enormous freighters and various structures around it. The even smaller men exiting the shed ironically hold all the power on the waterfront since ‘we got the fattest piers in the fattest habour in the world.’ Though the manipulation and murder of others, Kazan immediately establishes that Friendly is the one man that is able to control not only the waterfront operations, but also the longshoremen. The black-and-white shot creates an oppressive atmosphere, highlighting the suffocation of those who work on the docks.
However, unlike the other residents of the waterfront, the murder of his friend Joey is a catalyst for Terry’s awakening to the corruption encapsulating him and all his fellow stevedores. Over time, Friendly has manipulated Terry into becoming his submissive follower, someone who is willing to obey orders and adhere to rules. He is referred to as ‘slugger’ by Friendly, which is ironic as Terry is depicted as someone who simply allows his life to go by, unlike a leader who is ‘striking hard’ as the nickname implies. When Terry lures Joey out for Friendly, he is filmed with a high-angle shot, where the camera looks down on the subject. This demonstrates his lack of power and vulnerability, and invites the audience to feel empathetic for his situation. In contrast, Friendly’s men on the rooftop who are filmed with a low-angle shot, accentuating their power over the people in the apartment or in a more holistic sense, everyone on the waterfront.
Terry’s initial hesitation outside Johnny Friendly’s bar is met with dismissals from the other men. One of Friendly’s men jokingly states that ‘somebody fell of the roof’, demonstrating that they care little about the death of another human being, and more about securing their power and position amongst the workers of the waterfront. While Terry protests, the other men chuckle at the situation, saying that ‘maybe [Joey] could sing but he couldn’t fly’. Canaries are incorporated as a symbol of those who ‘sing’ or speak out against Friendly. In Joey’s case, unfortunately he wasn’t able to ‘fly’ away and be set free, or in other words, escape from Friendly’s control. When everyone returns inside the bar, Terry is left outside, physically enduring the cold but also metaphorically enduring the environment around him – as though he is facing a battle with his conscience. The shutters on Johnny Friendly’s bar windows that Terry peeps through demonstrate that the mob have a world of their own while Terry finally begins to see them from an outsider’s point of view. His awakening consciousness to the horrors that the mob inflicts upon others is emphasised by his separation from Friendly and his crew at the end of the first scene.
On the other hand, a character that is introduced as strong-willed is Edie Doyle. Her presence is juxtaposed against the people around her since she possesses moral value in comparison to everyone else that has been tainted by Friendly. Her light blonde hair is contrasted against the dull, dark colours around her, indicating that she has not been infiltrated by the mob. It is also symbolic of her innocence and naivety, once again highlighting that it has been easy for her to maintain her good virtues, unlike the men who struggle under Friendly. As she hovers over Joey’s body, it is as though she is Joey’s ‘angel’ who has come to help him – to find out who killed her brother. Furthermore, her overwhelming goodness appears to spread to those around her. Edie’s outburst against Father Barry is the catalyst for the priest’s transition, from being an idle preacher ‘hiding in the church’ to someone who will proactively help those suffering on the waterfront.
‘Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly.’
‘I kept telling him, “Don’t say nothing. Keep quiet, you’ll live longer.”
‘I’ve been on the docks all my life boy, and there’s one thing I learned. You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions unless you want to wind up like that.’
‘Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?’
‘We got the fattest piers in the fattest habour in the world.’
‘Everything moves in and out, we take our cut.’
‘Why shouldn’t we? If we can get it, we’re entitled to it.’
‘…one lousy cheese-eater that Doyle bum, who thinks he can squeal to the crime commission.’
‘You come from Green Point, go back to Green Point. You don’t work here no more.’
‘You got a real friend here. Now don’t forget it.’